This is a #74 of my weeklty Golden Healing newsletter. It generally focuses on some aspect of healing or ways to feel good. If you want to subscribe, go to the right sidebar signup and enter your first name and email.
Have you ever said to yourself “I can feel it in my gut”? If so, you are ahead of your time. Scientists are now finding that there is an important pathway between the stomach and the brain and it has to do with our stomach bacteria. Even more importantly, they now know that this connection is related to our stress, our anxiety, and our depression.
It seems that our gut bio material doesn’t start to grow until shortly after we are born. Scientists have done experiments on mice at this stage and have introduced stressors to the young mice, mostly separating them from mom for periods of time. This stress was shown to alter the bio material in their gut! There seems to be a relationship between stress, anxiety and depression and our stomach flora. Sure enough, the mice who experienced this stress had their stomach bio matter altered due to the stress and this alteration stayed with them throughout life. Bummer. Then the interesting part. Scientists took a group of these stressed mice and gave them probiotics during the periods of separation from mom and guess what? These mice did not have the alterations in their stomach bio stuff and their bacteria. The probiotics seemed to avert the negative impact of the stress. Wow.
We know that probiotics can help us and that this help may well impact our stress, anxiety, and depression. Much more research needs to be done but in the meantime it seems clear that if we want to feel good we might be wise to be sure our stomachs have the probiotics to make that happen.
There are many sources of probiotics. Some are expensive pills, but other good sources are simply related to the food we eat. Two possibilities include yogurt and sauerkraut. Be careful though since some forms of yogurt and sauerkraut carry considerably less of the good probiotics depending on a number of things including processing, pasteurization and storage.
One way to be sure that your food has ample probiotics is to make it yourself. Sauerkraut is very, very, simple to make and can be done in small quantities that avoid having to throw out an oversupply. Here’s a link to exactly how to make a small amount of sauerkraut at home. Give it a shot!
Have fun and Feel good!
I have long held that compassion and choice are two issues that play a part in nearly every men’s issue. But why? What do compassion and choice have to do with male suicide or male victims of domestic violence or just about any other men’s issue? Quite a bit actually. Let’s take a look at why compassion and choice are limited for men and then see how compassion and choice are essential ingredients to the issues.
The origins of the lack of compassion and
choice for men is gynocentrism. When you start to understand gynocentrism you will start to better understand the plight of men and boys. Gynocentrism at its most basic, is the mandate that women and children be kept safe and provided for at the expense of men. In other words, men are designated to insure the safety and provisions for women and children on an individual level, the family level, community level and on a macro level. This is not a totally bad thing. It has been what has created and maintained many cultures for millennia. As Stefan Molyneux says, “Eggs are scarce and sperm is plentiful.” This means we have needed to sacrifice our sperm in order to insure the safety of our eggs. Without women the culture dies a quick death. Women must be protected. Gynocentrism protects those who carry the eggs and does this at the expense of its men. This has been a very important element to our cultural success but it does come at a price.
One consequence of protecting the women is that the men will need to at times face danger. The women need to be kept safe and the men will protect the boundary and sometimes die in that process. Our human history of gynocentrism is longer and deeper than most assume. We think of the hunter gatherers as serene and bucolic but that was sometimes far from the truth and gynocentrism predominated. Research shows that some South American hunter gatherer groups faced huge numbers of deaths of their men protecting the women and children1. One group averaged the death of nearly 60% of its males in protecting the women from inter tribal attacks that were among other things, designed to steal the other group’s women! (the average for the groups studied was near 30% male deaths as a result of raids, ambush or larger scale conflicts) He who had the most women wins and these groups made a huge sacrifice of their males to insure they kept their women and children safe.
In its most obvious we can see how gynocentrism plays out when we note that men automatically and without question are the ones facing danger in our culture. Our war dead are nearly 100% male. Our deaths in dangerous occupations are 93% men. Our trashmen and sewage workers are nearly all male. The dirtiest and most dangerous jobs are jobs for men. No one questions this. It just seems right. This is the hidden power of gynocentrism. No one questions and no one notices. Hell, if women actually got equality to the above it would be a huge step down for them.
But gynocentrism runs much deeper than simply being about protecting the borders and doing the dangerous work. It has its tendrils into just about everything, silently and without fanfare. What happens when a woman has a flat tire? How many people have seen the help she will usually garner from men? Now think about what happens if a man has a flat tire. Does he get a similar treatment? Probably not. This is gynocentrism. When there are problems we jump to help women but expect the men to handle it themselves even in today’s atmosphere of “equality”.
What happens when a woman is upset and falls into a sea of tears? Pretty much the same thing as the flat tire. People hover to offer support and see what might be wrong and what they can do. But what happens when men fall into a similar sea? People ignore him and avoid him. It is almost as if a woman’s pain is a call to action while a man’s pain is taboo. Compassion offered to men is a fraction of the compassion offered to women.
There are a number of youtube videos that employ actors to portray men beating women in public. The women are shown to get immediate support and help from male onlookers who see the violence. They quickly jump to her aid not knowing it is an arranged scene. These same videos then reverse the roles and show the women beating men in a similar manner and no one lifts a finger, in fact, they laugh. This is gynocentrism. We expect to help the women and expect the men to help themselves. Note also that we allow women to be dependent but do not allow the same for men.
On an even simpler level think of a man and a woman at work who need to move some boxes from one location to another. Some are heavy, some are light. Who will be moving the heavy ones? It is a foregone conclusion that the man will most often move the largest boxes and will protect her from having to do hard labor. This is gynocentrism.
And then there is the question of attractiveness. When a woman is attractive she gets special perks simply due to her appearance. No man can come close to having a similar response. This is gynocentrism. The eggs are protected and the attractive eggs get very special treatment.
Think of that attractive woman being tied to the railroad tracks. What does that do to the hearts and minds of most people? Most of us have an inborn reaction that says DO SOMETHING to help her. But what about a man tied to the tracks? Is your reaction the same or different? Yes, you likely want to see him helped but is it the same gut wrenching sensation? The plots of many movies and novels are fueled by this gynocentric scenario. We all want the woman tied to the tracks safely released even if it means the death of numerous men in the process. A woman’s needs are a call to action while a man’s needs are often just ignored. He needs to save her!
Just think for a minute what would happen to a man in the military who started complaining that we needed to have more female war deaths in order to make things equal for everyone. How would he be received? All hell would break loose at this questioning of the gynocentric norm and disregard for the safety of women. We see something similar when the opposite happens and men voice their desires for equal opportunities for services for men in things like domestic violence. Those who stand up for the needs of men in our gynocentric culture are seen as misogynistic, that is, they are routinely accused of hating women simply for pointing out the needs of men. Can you see how the fuel for this is gynocentrism?
Another example of extreme gynocentrism is boot camp in the army. What is done? The recruit is taught that he is nothing. He is now not an individual, he is a part of a fighting group. His personal identity is deleted and he is taught to fight for the group, for a cause. He no longer exists. There is no compassion for his personal feelings and needs. Those are a distant second. He also has zero choice. He does what he is told. That is the extreme gynocentric model that plays out to one degree or another in our everyday life.
Do we care about the feelings of the woman tied to the tracks? Oh yes. Do we care about the feelings of the hero who rescues her? No. We care about his actions. His emotions are not important unless his feelings are about HER. Do we care about the emotions of the boot camp recruit? Nope. We care about his actions and what he does. His feelings need to be kept to himself. In the same way, under the gynocentric default we tend to care about the emotions of women but will be averse to the emotions of men. Our interest moves more towards his actions. Think about the last time you saw a woman cry in public. What was your reaction? Most of us want to help, want to offer support. We are drawn to her neediness. Now think about a man crying under the same circumstances you saw the woman. Are you as open to his tears as the woman? Most of us say no, we are not. We are repulsed by his neediness. The man is not expected to be needy, he is expected to have agency. If he is seen as needy he is judged harshly. This is gynocentrism.
These sorts of advantages for women have been going on for many years. In the 19th century men would strive to do the best job of keeping women safe and provided for. Just read their diaries and the diaries of their wives. These men put women on a pedestal. They thought of them as angelic and would try their best to not have them sully themselves with the grime of daily life outside the home. They worked hard to have them stay away from “dirty”things like the workplace or money. They did this because they saw women as worthy of protection (gynocentrism) and were happy to take on the extra burden in order to keep her safe. Then along comes feminism which makes the incredibly noxious and inaccurate claim that women were not held in high esteem at all, they were being oppressed. They took the protections that women had benefited from for centuries and spun them into being oppression. In my opinion this is the biggest lie of the 20th century and it has left a wake of chaos and vitriol. Women now actually believe themselves to be victims and that they have been shortchanged and oppressed. These are the same women who didn’t have to go to war, didn’t have to do the dirty work of building or maintaining the culture, were held in high esteem and basically worshiped (as American as Mom and Apple Pie) now see this as oppression. Houdini could not have done a more impressive magic trick.
So what do you think happened? It could be easily predicted that gynocentrsim would insure that when women appear to be in danger or need that men will jump and meet those needs as best they can. That’s the way both men and women are programmed. And that is just what happened. The feminists claimed to be tied to the tracks and rode, and continue to ride the gynocentric wave of men keeping women safe. Their unfounded claims that women were oppressed and held back have been taken seriously by well meaning highly gynocentric males, including male legislators. These claims of women being tied to the tracks and needing government intervention were welcomed by our gynocentric legislators who wanted to bend over backwards to help women. Over the years women have been given more and more while simultaneously continuing to enjoy the same gynocentric advantages they have been getting for hundreds of years. Our legislators have backed themselves into a corner and are now afraid to say no. They know that they have been hijacked but don’t have the courage to say no to saving a damsel in distress. Saying no would insure a loss in the next election.
This was the beginning of what I like to call Gynocentrism 2.0. The cultural imperative of caring for women continues and is now amplified by false claims of women having been oppressed. Simultaneously Gynocentrism 2.0 showed not only increased focus on the needs and desires of women, it also made a dramatic switch. Men in gynocentrism 1.0 were held in high esteem when they followed through with their role. They were both respected and admired and this was fuel for the masculine. Both sexes were held in high esteem. Now that fuel for men has run out as the admiration and respect has been gaudily replaced with disdain and blame. Incredibly, now men are seen as the problem and held accountable for social problems as if they were the cause. It is all the men’s fault. Much is said about men not doing very well these days but very few people note this important shift. When you don’t put fuel in the engine it ain’t goin too far.
In Gynocentrism 2.0 entire bureaucracies are built to serve women and cater to their difficulties but there are rarely any such bureaucracies built for men. The women are left with a choice of whether to seek help at a government funded facility (payed for with mostly male tax dollars) built for them while the men are left with no choices.
One of the best examples of this is the issue of domestic violence where we have known for decades that men are a sizable portion (likely nearing 50%) of the victims of domestic violence but all of the laws and services are built for women. We spend nearly a billion dollars a year for the Violence Against WOMEN Act (VAWA) that marginalizes the 50% of male victims. Recent research exposed the sad fact that when men who are the victims of domestic violence go to these government funded services for help they are treated very poorly. Often when the men are victims of domestic violence and they turn to the government funded services they are told that they are not victims of domestic violence, they are accused of being the perpetrators! They then send him to treatment for perpetrators! Researchers are calling this “third party abuse”, when the government bureaucracy as a third party, participates in the continued abuse of a victim. This is gynocentrism 2.0 which leaves no compassion for men and far fewer choices in seeking help.
I was involved in lobbying for male victims of domestic violence during the reauthorization of the VAWA in both 2005 and 2012. Our group was well received by then Senator Biden. He and his staff listened to our data and stories about male victims in several meetings at his Senate office. He assured us we would be a part of the hearings. When the hearing came not one of our group was allowed to speak. I couldn’t believe it. Biden was totally aware of the problem of male victims and intentionally sabotaged our efforts to find support for men. It was then that I realized how deeply our system is biased and non-functional. Gynocentrism 2.0.
It’s important to point out that our government has been pushing a gynocentric agenda for some time. In the 1960’s President Johnson set in motion the “War on Poverty” which proceeded to demand the removal of black fathers from their families in order for mom to get welfare. Now our family courts are doing something similar as they remove fathers from the home through no fault on the fathers part. The woman’s needs come first, father’s a distant second.
My state of Maryland created a Commission for Men’s Health a number of years ago. I was fortunate to serve as the vice chair of that commission and wrote three of the four reports that were to be sent to the governor. The reports I wrote were what I call “male friendly.” That is, they voiced and considered the needs of men without bowing to the prevailing political correctness. The chairman of the commission wrote the other report which was a bit more what the Health Department, our host agency, was anticipating. All four reports were unanimously approved by the full commission. When the commission’s work was done and it came time to file the reports to the governor and a host of other Maryland politicians and get them into the Maryland State Library the Health Department only filed the report that was written by the Chairman. They were confronted with this and said, “ooops, we will file it now.” But they didn’t. It took a year to track down the files and finally get them into the Maryland system. The full story of this event will be told in a chapter in Janice Fiamengo’s upcoming book. It couldn’t be more clear that when the needs of men were given voice, the status quo balked. It seems that our mid level bureaucrcrats are filled with gynocentrism 2.0.
I think you can see now how women’s complaints and our legislators zealous rush to help them have turned things topsy turvy. Rape shield laws have been written to protect the rape victims and this is a good thing. But those same laws failed to protect the accused man. His name can be released to the media prior to any conviction. Her name is permanently protected while his name is plastered all over the media and he has his life ruined simply due to an accusation which may or may not be proven false . Gynocentrism 2.0.
Another example is the issue of suicide where males are 80% of all completed suicides. (Chart above: rates are per 100,000 population from CDC WISQARS system.) Incredibly this 80% fact is rarely mentioned in the media leaving most people unaware that the biggest risk factor in suicide is being male. It is not surprising that females get the majority of attention around suicide both clinically and in research. This even though men are the vast majority of those needing help. In 2009 the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) did some research on suicide. I was shocked to see it was a study on girls! I wrote to then NASW Director Elizabeth Clark and asked why the research focused on girls when it was men and boys who were the vast majority of suicides. She wrote me back and said that the funder for the research had specified to only study girls. Just imagine for a moment someone who funded research for Sickle Cell Disease but stipulated the research had to be on whites. Can you imagine the outrage? Blacks are 60-80% of those with Sickle Cell disease and to study only whites would be seen as totally racist but somehow studying only girls and suicide is okay. That is gynocentrism.
Our gynocentric legislators have outlawed any form of genital mutilation of females but have failed to do the same for our baby boys. Boys routinely undergo a surgical removal of part of their penis without anesthesia. Of course the baby boys scream during and after this mutilation. Some nurses say they have seen baby boys scream for days after. Many are thinking today that this trauma creates PTSD for those males who have been circumcised and presently about four out of every 5 males in the United States has suffered this mutilation. Research is showing that psychological impact of circumcision on boys is similar to the psychological impact for girls who have undergone genital mutilation. This procedure is damaging our boys while most people think it is a simple little snip. Wrong. We care about our little girls but fail in mustering enough compassion for boys to shelter them from such barbaric treatment and we give them no choice. Gynocentrism.
In healthcare we have seen our legislators create seven national commissions for women’s health but none for men. We have official government web sites for womenshealth.gov and girlshealth.gov but just look at what happens when you go to menshealth.gov or boyshealth.gov. Nothing. You find a 404 page not found error. It does not exist. Get the picture? focusWhen anyone starts looking critically at our world it becomes clear that gynocentrism is at its core. We constantly hear criticism of men not going to the doctor, etc, but look at the lack of concern for men’s health. Yes, we have seven commissions for women’s health, but none for men. The one bill to create a national men’s health commission has been languishing in congress for over 20 years, with too few sponsors and a general lack of interest. You see this same lack of interest in not even creating a web site for men or boys. Women in need get the help, and men just need to take care of themselves while simultaneously being blamed for their plight. And no one is even aware this is going on. Gynocentrism.
Warren Farrell put together a group of clinicians, academics, researchers, authors and other experts on men and boys who wrote a proposal for a White House Council on Boys and Men. I was happy to be included as one of those who put the proposal together. President Obama had created a council for women and girls as soon as he got into office. Now he was being asked to do the same for boys and men. One of our group members, a man named Willie Isles was an executive with the Boy Scouts and had a meeting scheduled with the President. The plan was for Willie to have two Boy Scouts introduce the idea of the White House Council on Boys and Men to the President. Just before that meeting was to take place the discussion of a council for boys and men was struck from the agenda. It was forbidden to even be discussed. Gynocentrism anyone?
There is an anti-male bias in mental health research. One study on teen relationship violence found that boys and girls are suffering from this problem at similar rate. But once the research is translated into news articles it only focuses on the hardships the girls face. Worse yet, once the study is translated by legislators into an action plan to help the teen violence problem the only ones offered assistance are the girls while the boys are blamed. Yes, boys are abused but they simply don’t get compassion. Gynocentrism
In one study about childhood rape the researchers found that boys were more often the victims of actual childhood rapes than the girls. Then in writing up their research failed to specifically include this information about boys as victims of rape. Furthermore, when they went to the media they also failed to mention the fact that they have found that boys were raped more often than girls. Gynocentrism.
Title IX — Has been a great help to girls and athletics but has dismantled over 1000 men’s college teams. We focus on helping women but ignore the pain of men.
We have all heard of the racial sentencing bias where blacks tend to get stiffer sentences than whites for the same crime. But the research is telling us that there is a bias that is six times as large as the racial bias that sentences men to longer sentences than women. Yet, we hear nothing of this in the media and no one seems to care. Clearly the judges have less compassion for men and offer them far less choice.
I have seen a number of men in therapy who came to me when their wives wanted an abortion and they (the men) wanted to keep the child. The men were powerless to do anything. Can you see how these men had no choice in the matter? His wife said, “My body, my choice” and he said “My child, your choice, I have none.” He had no choice and if he had said something I feel sure he would have heard some variation of big boys don’t cry. Know what I mean? Can you see how no one really cares or offers them compassion for their plight? Compassion and Choice.
Look at men’s clubs and men’s spaces that have been traditional places for men to gather. Gone. They have been opened to women and not replaced with anything that would give men a safe place to simply gather with other men. Men gathering became the enemy with the accusation of secret deals that would keep women out of business dealings. At the same time all women’s clubs have soared. Women only gyms, women only parking places, women only subway cars, women only everything….but no comparable opportunities for men. There are even groups that keep track of all of the groups for women. One is The National Association of Commissions for Women which keeps track of the literally hundreds of commissions for women. That is gynocentrism 2.0 on steroids.
Instead of thinking of choice for men, the majority of our gynocentric culture are thinking instead the word “should.” Men should do this, men should do that and if they don’t, they are not really men. Most men are caught in this drama that researchers are calling “precarious manhood” where men are forced to prove their worth repeatedly in order to be called men. Women do not face a similar situation.
Professions are not immune to Gynocentrism. The profession of social work is a prime example. This group is focused on women and ignores the needs and the hardships of men. Their educational system offers classes on just about every possible client to work with including women, gays, handicapped, children but fails to teach their charges even the first thing about men and boys. This even though men and boys make up a good portion of the clientele they will be working with.
Our focus thus far has been on gynocentrism on the macro level. It is very easy to see the gynocentric imbalance in so many spheres. The point here is not that the services that have been created were not a good thing, or were undeserved. Many of the services offered have been very helpful to women and girls. The point here is that it has been a very one sided ride with nearly all the services going to women and girls, and the men and boys basically ignored. Men and boys have simply not gotten compassion and choice. Gynocentrism 2.0.
But let’s take a quick look at the impact of gynocentrism on a micro level. We have seen so far that the public has very little interest in men’s emotions. While that is surely true on a macro level it is also the case on the micro. What is the tired and hackneyed message that the some women offer her man? Oh, they say “You are not dealing with your feelings.” I hope you can see now that this sort of shaming is really an excuse to NOT deal with his emotions. Much has been written by gynocentric types about men’s not emoting in public, or men not emoting like women, while maintaining the underlying assumption that there must be something wrong with them. But almost nothing has been written about the brick wall men face when they do emote. When men have emotions people disappear. No one wants to hear it.
What I have seen repeatedly is that men have very different ways to process emotions. Ways that are invisible to most. They have likely developed these different ways due to the prevalence of gynocentrism and are happy with their paths to work with their own emotions and gladly take care of things on their own without fanfare and “help.” The saddest part of this is that most women simply do not see his different ways and assume he is “doing it wrong” since it isn’t like what she does.
Gynocentrism creates a cultural default both on a micro and macro level where women’s distress is a call to action and a man’s distress is seen at best as a distraction and at worst a taboo. This leaves men being offered considerably less compassion and fewer choices. In the past 50 years the original gynocentric defaults have morphed into gynocentrism 2.0 which has seen a huge increase in both the lop-sided services favoring women and the disdain and blame focused on men.
Very few people are conscious of this habitual default, they simply assume it is just the way the world works.
Becoming more and more aware of gynocentrism makes it easier to see why men are 80% of the completed suicides but are basically ignored. It makes sense now that men are nearly 50% of the victims of domestic violence but are routinely disregarded. It makes sense now why boys genital mutilation is the fourth most popular surgical procedure in the U.S. even though it is unnecessary and highly damaging. The world is geared to have compassion for women’s needs but not as much for the needs of men. We could go on and on about each of the many men’s issues and see how the lack of compassion and choice plays a part in their dilemma.
The unconscious nature of gynocentrism may be its most ruinous aspect. People are simply unaware of the great differences in the way men and women are treated. It is in some ways reminiscent of the racism I remember in the mid 20th century. People were simply unaware of their treatment of blacks. There were surely outright bigots at the time but the majority of people were basically asleep to the impact of their attitudes and behaviors and went along with the status quo that treated blacks and whites in significantly different ways. The general public was duped by a media that portrayed blacks as inferior and an educational system and even academic research that did the same. With gynocentrism 2.0 we are seeing something very similar but instead of the blacks it is now our men. Today’s gynocentrism is made up primarily of people who are basically unaware of the impact of their behaviors and are simply going along with the gynocentric status quo.
It’s time to wake up.
Knowing these things and taking the red pill* makes it important for us to start offering men and boys greater compassion and choice.
And let’s not forget. Men Are Good!
*Having taken the “Red Pill” is the popular phrase used to denote someone who can see the gynocentrism clearly.
This is chapter nine of Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing. In the late 1980’s I was confused about men’s ways of healing and bumped into the anthropological research on cross cultural grief. It was this research that clearly showed the tendency of indigenous people to give men activities following a loss. The more I studied the more I saw that men relied on action as a mode of healing. It was easy to admire the grief rituals these folks offered to both men and women. See what you think.
Indigenous people around the world have highly developed rituals and mechanisms in place in their cultures to aid the resolution of grief. These rituals are an important part of life for these people. Their cultures are fertile ground for grief to be nourished. In many ways we are the primitives, because we have very few mechanisms in our culture that function in a similar way. By studying the way indigenous people grieve we can begin to get some idea about the state of grief in our own culture and our inadequate rituals. Using the analogy of a business or a sports team that is not doing well compared to the competition, we can examine a successful party and learn from their achievement. We will probably not adopt a specific grief ritual from another culture, but we will be able to see how these cultures have incorporated grief into their daily lives and how they have developed different rituals for men and women.
These cultures have implemented action-oriented rituals that allow both men and women tasks that connect them with their grief. In our own culture we have no such thing. We are left to our own devices to heal our grief, many times without the support of a caring community. Given this void of ritual, men and women are put into a precarious state. Often, women are able overcome this void by using their skills of relating and their natural tendency towards verbally sharing their grief with others, but men, usually with strengths of a different nature, are at more of a disadvantage. Without culturally-endorsed rituals men are left with nothing to do following a death. It has been my clinical observation that men in our culture grieve through task, that is, they find activities that allow them to access and heal their grief. Through studying the cross-cultural literature we can begin to get a glimpse of the possible root of a man’s tendency in our own culture to connect his grief with action.
The least we can expect is to stimulate our own thinking about different ways to express grief. Our own weakness in dealing with grief can be strengthened by observing the strength of the tribal culture’s ritual that is so effective in helping their communities come to terms with their loss. With that said, let’s look at what can be learned from grief around the world.
One of the first things we notice is the difference between the social structure of indigenous people and our own way of life. Tribal cultures live in communities of intimately interconnected people who are closely affected in some way by the death of any member. They live in close proximity, rely on each other for the necessities of life, and usually have a common history and world view. There is a bond between them that is amplified by the feeling of “us” and “we” that develops when a group of people share such interdependence. The people of these cultures have ritual structures in place that are designed to support those in grief. There is usually a strong expectation and a sense of responsibility that the community will lend its support to those in pain. There is a sense that each death is a loss of the community, not a loss that is isolated.
We can contrast this with our own situation, where there is a certain invisibility in our interdependence. We live together in neighborhoods but not necessarily communities. Many times the neighbors who live three doors down the street have little attachment to or connection with our family. We shop in different places and work in different settings. When a member of a tribe dies, it is a person who was connected in many ways to the community. When a member of a neighborhood in North America dies, too often it is merely someone who lived down the street.
The interdependence of the tribal cultures can be better compared in some ways to the family unit in the United States. Families are interdependent in a similar kind of way, with each member having prescribed roles and duties and interacting on a daily basis. In many ways our families have become our communities. But without the embrace of a larger community we are left with fewer places to receive support for our grief. Our primary means of support frequently is limited to the members of our family. A table with many legs is not affected by one leg being sawed off, but a table with three or four legs is crippled by a similar loss. This is one of the reasons for the emergence of grief counseling in our culture.
Another difference we notice is that the world view of the indigenous people in some way brings meaning to grief. Many times grief is seen as food for the soul of the dead person. The Minianka tribe in Africa see the tears of grief as being nourishment to the newborn soul of the person being grieved. Without the tears the soul could not move beyond the land of the living. In this way the mourners see their grief as a benefit to the person who has died. The variations of this theme are many, but they all incorporate the idea that grief is a necessary process and without it there is some sort of trouble. It is easy to see the contrast to our own culture where people tend to feel that their grief has no purpose or meaning, or worse yet, that it is a selfish act.
Marking the Griever
There are many common themes in the grief rituals among indigenous people. One of these is the tendency to mark the griever. All sorts of mechanisms are used, but one that is found in many cultures is hair. For many tribal people hair is a symbol of life. It marks the passage of time and is therefore connected with life and death. Many times the grievers either cut off their hair or allow their hair and (in the case of the men) beard to grow in response to a death. This is done as a symbolic act and as a part of a ritual process prescribed by the community, but it also functions as a way to mark the mourners. All the people of the community are aware that a certain haircut means a person is grieving. There are many variations on this theme, including special cuts where only a part of the hair is cut or all hair is sheared. The hair can be cut with all sorts of instruments, such as sharpened seashells, or it may be burned off. Sometimes the cut hair is saved as a memorial, to become part of a necklace or be used in a ritual. The important message of the special hair cut is that this is a person in pain, a person who is grieving, and the treatment he receives is altered due to his status as a griever.
Other ways of marking the griever include covering oneself with ashes or oil or certain colors of paint. In one African tribe there is a complex system of designating the colors of grief paint to alert the community to the type of loss that has been suffered. For instance, a man whose father died would wear a certain color of paint in a certain place on the body. If it had been his mother who died, the paint would have been a different color and painted in a different design. This simple system not only alerts the community to the fact that this man is grieving, it also clearly marks the type of loss that has occurred.
Bark is used in some cultures both as a way to mark the griever and as a symbol of grief. The Karanga people of Africa wear bark to mark themselves as grieving. Women wear a bark necklace, and men wear a woven bark chain around the head. The bark serves also as a symbol of loss, indicating that an individual has been stripped away from the community as bark has been stripped from the tree.
The story of Jaque, also related in a previous chapter, is another example of bark used as a symbol of loss. When his brother died suddenly, Jaque was torn by sadness and anger. Following ancient custom, he went into the forest, selected a tree and, after uttering a prayer, stripped away a piece of the bark. Now the tree, like Jaque, had lost something whose loss caused deep pain. Many times over the following months he returned to visit the tree. As the seasons passed, the wound in the tree healed. So did the wound in Jaque’s heart. With the tree as a visible reflection of his loss, Jaque was reminded that he, too, was healing. Jaque is a Native American, a Cree.
In this example, the bark of the tree was used as a symbol of the pain that the man was experiencing. As the bark is a covering of the tree, it is almost as if the man had his own covering sliced away in a similar manner. A part of him was taken—not his core, which still exists—but something that was a part of him all the same. The tree stood as a symbol for his loss; it was wounded in a similar way. Each time he visited that site the tree could remind him of his own wound and, as he watched the tree heal, of his own healing.
These are some of the ways native people have used to mark the griever. Marking gives the griever a public role to play and, in essence, permission to publicly and privately grieve. We can contrast this with the invisibility of grief in our culture. One of the last markings to be discarded in our culture was the black arm band. We now have no overt way to differentiate the people in our community who are grieving from those who are not. The men and women who are grieving can feel this invisibility and the accompanying lack of permission to grieve. Indigenous cultures prescribe specific behaviors and roles for the bereaved, the grief “norm” as it were. This can be contrasted with our own situation where there is confusion over where and when to express grief, or how much grief and of what duration is normal. This lack of “norm” leaves everyone guessing. The people I have worked with have all had the same question, “Is what I’m going through normal?” We are left untethered with a great deal of pain but no box to put it in.
When Does Grief End?
In some tribal communities, it is the responsibility of the community to clearly state when the time of official grief has ended. An example might be that a grieving man was marked by being forbidden to eat a certain type of food. When the community members feel it is the right time, they will offer the particular food to the grieving man as a symbol that he is now ready to re-enter the community as a non- grieving person. There are examples other than food—a certain way of dressing or different behavior—but the essence is the same: the community clearly marks the boundaries of grief for the griever. This contrasts with our own culture where there is great confusion about when and how much grief is appropriate. We live in a near vacuum of social indicators about the time needed to grieve. The most prevalent guideline we have is that many people don’t think you should be grieving at all.
Separating Men and Women in Grief
Another form of marking the griever is the separation of men and women in the grief rituals. By separating the grievers these cultures are honoring the differences in grieving between men and women and setting up different containers for healing. An example is the Bara people of southern Madagascar who designate two huts when a death occurs. One hut is the Tranadahy, which means “male house;” the other is the Trano Be Ranomaso, which means the “house of many tears.” During the period of time after the death these huts are used for congregating and receiving condolences. The men’s hut is the center of activity regarding the death. The men plan and initiate the rituals, receive condolences from the male guests, and take responsibility for the body. The women’s hut is more the center of emotional expression, with the women keening, wailing, and crying as they receive condolences from the female guests. These people literally have different places for men and women to be following a death. In this way, men and women are among their own sex and are in a position to be healed by their same-sex community members. It also honors the difference in grieving styles between men and women by allowing the opportunity for each to be near those who grieve as they do.
Tribal people have found a box in which to put grief. That box is ritual. The ritual that is used is both a container for the effects of grief and a norm that shows people the way to grieve. It can be any number of activities. For women the ritual many times is related to sharing their pain with each other, crying or keening. Men, on the other hand, usually have a ritual that includes some sort of action—singing sacred songs, drumming, dancing, tree wounding, etc. When Rosenblatt examined grief in 87 different cultures, he did not find a single culture in which men expressed tears more than women. In nine of the cultures studied the men didn’t cry at all, and in most of the cases studied the men cried less than the women.24 This points to a significant difference among men and women: men don’t use tears as much as women when dealing with their grief. This finding is not limited to western cultures, as many of the cultures Rosenblatt studied were tribal people who still maintained their grief rituals from their cultural heritage. From this we can see that even in cultures where there is an adequate container for grief the men tend to use tears less often than women. This finding seems to verify the research, regarding a man’s decreased levels of prolactin and the increased difficulty for men to access their tears.
What we find when we examine the cross-cultural literature is that men many times have active rituals that help them move into their grief. There is a tribe in Africa where the men literally face the women who are crying and keening in order to get into the mood of grief. They use this activity of watching the women to bring forth their own sense of loss. Even these tribal men with the luxury of intricate and beautiful grief rituals acknowledge that it is not an easy task for them to move into their feeling state. By their actions of facing the women they do something that puts them closer to their own grief.
Another active ritual used around the world is that of drumming. The men of the Yoruba in Africa use drumming as an active means to deal with their grief.25 They have a variety of rhythms for different parts of the funeral service; a rhythm for washing the body, a rhythm for lowering the body into the grave, etc. After the death of a chief the men start playing a specific monotonous grief rhythm over and over. This rhythm is played continuously for three days. The men of the tribe are responsible for keeping the rhythm going and do not allow it to stop. They drum day and night, sleeping in shifts and then drumming for long periods. It is through this ritual, and many others, that the men have something to do after the death, and this activity helps them engage feelings of grief. The rhythm signals to the tribe that a state of mourning exists and is a constant reminder of the loss to the community.
Externalization of Pain
Another aspect of active ritual is the externalization of pain. This is accomplished in a great variety of ways, from lacerating the body, scratching oneself until the blood flows, knocking out a tooth, or even cutting off a finger. Anthropologists tell us the reasons for these mutilations are related to a number of factors encompassed in their world view, including rendering the ghost of the deceased harmless, convincing the soul of the dead of the sincerity of the grief, establishing a corporal union between the living and the dead, strengthening the departed, as an offering, or purification. A few anthropologists have seen the core of these actions: they are outward acts that express inner states. By wounding the body in some way, the inner pain has an outer parallel. This is similar to Jaque who wounded a tree as a symbol; it is just that these people are wounding themselves. As their wounds heal, they will have an outer symbol for the healing of their inner wounds. They will also have physical scars to remind them for some time of the loss that occurred. One Australian tribe has a name for grief that literally translated means “bad guts.” That is probably the best description of grief I have ever heard. The mutilations cut away at the “bad guts” and let them flow. There is a ritual among the Aborigines where the blood that is dripping from the mutilated griever is allowed to drip onto the corpse, apparently in an effort to merge the living and the dead and to strengthen the dead person. I am certainly not suggesting that we adopt these rituals as a means to facilitate our own grief. However, they are honest and effective means that these people have found to externalize their pain and “bad guts.”
Let’s turn now to looking in more detail at the way a particular tribal culture deals with grief. We can examine closely the grief rituals and the mechanisms that the men use in dealing with their grief.
Our first example is an Aborigine people of Australia, the Yolngu.26 The men of this tribe begin to work with their grief before a death occurs. As a person becomes seriously ill, the men respond by singing sacred songs. Groups of men gather around the bedside of the ailing person and sing the sacred songs of the tribe. This is not a “let’s sing a song and go” routine. The men will sing continuously as the person lies ill. The purpose of the songs is to comfort the dying person, to keep him alert, to insure that the person will die in the right “Manikay” (sacred song cycle), to alert the ancestors that this person is coming to them, and to insure that his soul will be oriented towards its “home” after death. As the men do this, the women of the tribe are responsible for the care of the sick person and feeding the men who are singing. If there is consensus that the person is dying, the women will also cry or keen along with the songs. This crying or keening by the women is called “ngathi.” Both the crying and keening and the songs by the men are accompanied by traditional Aborigine instruments, the clapsticks and the didgeridoo. Sometimes the ailing person recovers, and if this happens the singers disperse and life goes on. If death occurs, quiet covers the camp, uncharacteristic of the usual hustle and bustle.
At the ritual announcement of the death, which is made by a man, the women of the tribe keen and wail and throw themselves to the ground. At times they will strike themselves with sharp objects. It is expected that the men of the community will restrain the women from seriously injuring themselves. The men step forward and pull the weapons from the women’s hands and throw them out of reach. The women usually respond to this by ceasing their attempts at self-injury. This action of protecting the women is seen as a sign of protection for the grievers, and a show of community support for those who are most affected by the death. It is an action that men can take that is both protecting their loved ones and an indication of their own grief.
The men of the tribe will also keen at times, particularly if the dead person was a close relative, but the more common emotional expression of the men is venting anger by dancing. It is said that the men will dance in an “energetic and violent” manner that signifies hostility. According to Rosenblatt, this expression of hostility directed outward is a common masculine activity following a death. Many times a man’s anger will open the door into his other feelings of grief.27
Tribal Ritual in the 20th Century
The Yolngu people are in many ways between two worlds. Although they have maintained many of their rituals, they also live in the midst of twentieth century technology. If a member of their tribe has died in the nearby hospital, the body is retrieved in ritual fashion. The community goes to the hospital and obtains the body, then forms a “slow, emotional, and ritualized” procession back to their camp. The body, moved with accompanying dancing and singing, is taken to a shelter where it will lie until burial. It is said that even the cars take part in the ritual, slowing, stopping, starting, and reversing as they mimic the movements of the dancers.
The coffin of the dead person is painted with sacred symbols by the initiated men of the Yolngu. These symbols are secret and are not allowed to be viewed by women and children. The purpose of the sacred symbols is to mediate between the soul of the dead person and the ancestors who will help this newly born soul along his way. Prior to the use of coffins, the Yolngu men would paint the body of the deceased with red ochre and then paint on the sacred symbols.
Singing the Grief
Throughout the days of the ceremonies grief is openly expressed, many times through song. These songs communicate many things: a wish for the return of the dead person, memories of the events in the life of the one who died, and the hope of a safe passageway for the soul to the ancestors. The men often will be singing day and night, and will sleep in shifts as the songs continue. The singing of songs by the men is an important part of the funeral service. They are accompanied by the dancing of the women who enact the stories that the songs are depicting.
The grief that is felt and expressed at the funeral ceremonies can continue for some time. It is said that late at night after the day is done and the tasks of the community are completed, you can sometimes hear the keening of a solitary mourner. The sound is heard throughout the quiet of the community and is accepted as a reminder of the pain and grief that the mourner still feels.
The men are responsible for the ritual activities of their community, and in many ways become like stage managers or directors, making the ritual preparations, rehearsing the songs, and making sure the process runs smoothly. The Yolngu men are active in working with their grief, with very specific activities assigned to them. These activities of singing, dancing, and directing the rituals give the men a framework in which their feelings can emerge and be honored and acknowledged. The women are also busy in keening, crying, dancing, caring for the children, and feeding the men. The men and women of this tribe have very specific roles to play, and both support each other through the difficult period of grief.
The Dagura People
We now turn to another example of indigenous grief rituals, that of the Dagura people of Africa.28 When a death occurs the women of the village begin to grieve. Their grief is somewhat muted, however, until the men have ritually announced the death. This announcement cannot occur until the men have created a “sacred space” for the grief of the village to emerge, and no man is allowed to show signs of grief until after this ritual space has been created. This is done by invoking the aid of the spirits through a private ritual performed only by the men. The invoking of the spirits is partly designed to elicit enough grief from the mourners to allow the dead person to move into the world of the ancestors. The Dagura believe that the soul’s journey into the next world is dependent in some ways upon the grief expressed by the mourners. Without adequate grief, the soul is thought to be stuck on this plane of existence and unable to leave the world. They have thus connected their grief with a purpose, that being the birth of the soul of the newly dead. The creation of ritual space, a safe container for the expression of grief, is seen as essential to the birthing of the spirit of the person who died. A part of this creation of sacred space involves throwing ashes around the house of the deceased and the ritual preparation of an actual physical space for the grief ritual. The announcement states that there has been a death, the ritual space is ready, and it is now time to grieve.
The Dagura Grief Ritual
The grief ritual itself is complex and beautiful. The grieving space is divided into different sections. The body of the dead person is dressed ceremonially and seated on a stool in the section called the “shrine.” Two women elders are seated next to the body and are charged with the duty to collect the grief that is being expressed and to “load it on” to the dead person to help him or her in the journey toward the ancestors. The shrine is colorfully decorated and contains some of the important possessions of the dead person. There is a boundary around the shrine which symbolically marks the separation between the living and the dead, and outside of the two women tending to the body, no one is allowed to enter the shrine, for to do so would mean entering the realm of the dead.
Between the shrine and the mourners is an empty space that represents chaos. Within this space people are allowed to express any form of grief they want, as long as it is related to their feelings about the death. Crying, dancing, or any expression of emotion is accepted and expected to take place within this space. There are people who are designated as “containers.” These people are often relatives who have come from afar. Their job is to insure the safety of the space for the grievers, making sure that no harm comes to those who are actively grieving. The Dagura believe in releasing grief with all its intensity, but they have also developed a system in which the intensity does not exceed the capacity of the mourners. It is like a system of checks and balances. The containers follow the grievers as they mourn and if they stray out of the ritual space, will gently tap them on the shoulder to remind them to come back into the contained space.
On one side of the shrine are the men of the village and on the other side are the women. Each group consists of mourners and containers. The mourners are further divided by the “kotuosob,” a small piece of rope tied around the wrist of the griever. The rope designates a person who was particularly close to the deceased, perhaps a family member. This marking alerts all the participants that someone who is wearing the “kotuosob” is what they call a “center of the heat” person, that is, a person who is more likely to be in danger of “grieving himself to death.” The Dagura see grief as food for the psyche, necessary to maintain a healthy psychological balance. But they also see its danger—too much grief and a person will “lose their center” and, they believe, can grieve to death. Thus the Dagura designate specific containers to follow closely behind the tagged person and do exactly as they do, including dancing, jumping to the beat of the drum, or pounding the ground. Sometimes when a tagged griever is experiencing a great deal of grief, a group of containers and mourners will form a line behind him or her with each person in the line doing the same action as the primary griever. It is understood that this transmits the feeling of the primary griever into all of those down the line. This type of process is viewed as a form of silent and physical support to the person who is grieving. It is important to point out that among the Dagura the healing of grief is gender specific. That is, no woman will approach a man in trying to help him with his grief, and no man would do the same for a woman. They believe that it takes a man to help release and heal the grief of another man, and a woman to reflect the grief of a woman.
Music plays an integral part of the ritual. The ceremony is accompanied by xylophones and drums and two singers. The xylophones are divided into male and female. The male xylophone follows the mood of the singers and the female xylophone accompanies the male xylophone with a redundant set of notes. The singers are charged with the responsibility of singing (chanting) the life of the dead person. They sing the joy and sorrow of the family history and the events which led up to the death. This spontaneous singing is done in order to emphasize and direct the grief of the community.
Everyone in the community is expected to take part in this ritual. It is held as a solemn responsibility. Anyone who happens to be near the village during the ritual is expected to participate. It is as if death stops life for a while, all other activities coming to a halt. In the words of one singer, “We are trapped in a world in which we are not in control because of the mighty power of death.”
In the Yolngu and Dagura cultures, and in others around the world, grief is vented at the funeral in a very intensive fashion. The rituals of both last about three full days. During that time grief is given all the attention of the community, and it flows and flows. It should also be noted that in both cultures the support for a person’s grief does not stop after the funeral. Most indigenous people have post- funeral rituals that provide further opportunity to express grief. Rituals are practiced throughout the year, often marking important dates such as the one-year anniversary of the death. The community expects the grief to continue for some time, and in both the Yolngu and Dagura cultures grief can be released after the funeral and at the next funeral, if need be. This can be compared with our own culture where there is usually very little expression of grief during the funeral services, and few, if any, culturally-endorsed occasions for expressing grief thereafter.
Both the Yolngu and Dagura examples begin to give us an idea of how our culture lacks sufficient contained space to process the emotions that follow a death. Both have woven grief into the fabric of their lives and into their world view. Both cultures have linked a person’s grief with the purpose of aiding the soul in its journey. These cultures are very explicit in providing markers of who are the grievers and actions and roles to be played. We have very little of this. Both give men specific things to do following a death, activities that help them in connecting to their grief. Among the Yolngu, men have the responsibility of singing, and with the Dagura, men are responsible for the ritual and the healing of other men.
Imagine just for a moment that the people of the Dagura and the Yolngu suddenly lost their active grief rituals. What would happen to their men and women? What would the men of the Yolngu do without their songs? In some ways this is a parallel of what is happening in our culture. We have much to learn from indigenous people about the resolution of grief. We can use this knowledge to find creative mechanisms that are right for us.