Lessons about Masculinity from Bali

On a trip to Bali last winter with my partner, Jill, I expected to find luxuriant green valleys and pristine beaches. True, it is an exceptionally beautiful place. But what I—as a therapist whose career has focused on men and masculinity—discovered was far more gratifying: I met a man of great gentleness and easy intimacy who quickly became one of the most significant teachers of my life.

We landed in Jimburan, and Wayan, who was to be our guide for the next ten days, met us at the airport, bowing to welcome us. Neither Jill nor I had harbored much anxiety about our time in this far away place—twelve thousand miles and twenty-two flying hours away from our home in Michigan—but whatever small qualms we’d had evaporated and we felt absolutely safe in his company.

As Wayan spoke of Bali and its culture, we soon realized that the Hindu religion pervaded everything here. While we drove through the country to Ubad, a city full of many forms of marvelous art, Wayan told us about the offerings that Hindus make daily to the gods and the regular ritual dances. We visited temples and small villages, attended native ceremonies, and spoke with dozens of Balinese people, and we discovered a culture of kindness, sweetness, and generosity. Never did we hear words of anger or statements of disparagement.

A stark contrast

My career as a therapist who works with American men has frequently been disturbing: they react furiously to small slights and carry rage around that makes their blood boil. Some get into altercations with little provocation; they hang on to resentments that rule their thinking. There are, of course, many men here in our country whose psyches are not wayward and whose hearts are not closeted, but most struggle with demons and act out their struggles on others. It’s accepted as “just the ways guys are.”

The Hindu religion seemed to me a bit goofy: they put umbrellas on statues of the gods to shield them from the sun and rain, and black and white checkered fabrics on the laps of representations of gods to remind them that there’s both good and evil in the world. But Hinduism clearly bestowed a sense of calm and respect in Wayan’s every word, and creates a commitment to community in every person we met.

Hope and affirmation

For me, the men of Bali confirmed what I have always believed; that aggression, hyper-competition, cage fights, and cruelty are not inherent in men; they’re learned behaviors. There are cultures of truly soft and kind men: that was Wayan’s great teaching for me. The model he offered gave me hope and an affirmation that Randy Flood and I are on the right track with mascupathy.

During the weeks after our trip, and now into the present, Jill and I find ourselves more energetic, conciliatory, forgiving of others and of ourselves. I still struggle with my own demons, but now hear a consistent voice of calm and accommodation that calls up my best self.

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