Entertainers, politicians, media moguls, priests. The list of men convicted of or charged with abuse of power — sexually, physically, emotionally — is deep and shocking. As the courts, and court of public opinion, bring these grim stories to light so we might move forward wisely and compassionately, it’s helpful also to look back, to consider an essential puzzle piece not talked about enough: Raising boys. How do we guide our sons to become good men, which most are or strive to be? Golden Valley-based Michael Obsatz, professor emeritus from Macalester College, author, workshop leader, mentor and filmmaker, has made healthy manhood his mission. He shares his thoughts on boys to men.
Q: The list of men charged with sexual misconduct, harassment or retaliation against women is so long it’s wearying. What is going on?
A: There’s something called “empire consciousness,” which is based on work by Michael Beckwith, a spiritual leader who wrote “LifeVisioning,” about different levels of consciousness. Empire consciousness is when a person thinks only about domination, power, control. It’s “Get your way,” and people at the bottom don’t matter. It results in racism, heterosexism, ableism and sexism, and is the lowest state of consciousness. In our culture, empire consciousness has gone wild. The guys who rise up to harass women get away with it because they have power, and people are afraid of them. It’s very real.
Q: In contrast, what’s the highest state of consciousness?
A: It’s “oneness consciousness.” This is when men share power, when everyone matters, when they move beyond entitlement to compassion, sharing, abundance.
Q: How do boys get stuck in empire consciousness?
A: They’re raised without a moral compass. When you’re 2, you think the world revolves around you. The purpose of growing up is to learn that is not true. These boys were never taught the benefits of empathy and compassion. They missed the lessons in integrity, the idea that you can have urges, but you don’t act on those urges because it will not serve you or others. We also live in a culture that objectifies and sexualizes women.
Q: Can women suffer from empire consciousness?
A: Yes. Women in high places sometimes bully others. Some popular girls in middle school bully other girls. Whenever there is a power differential, empire consciousness comes into play.
Q: How do people snap out of that?
A: A man who wants to really understand what’s going on has to look deep inside himself and understand what wounding he suffered as a boy. The slogan that comes to mind is, “Hurt people hurt people.” He likely received conditional love. He needs to not only deal with his feelings, but move past them, which is a very hard thing to do. I created a list of 10 skills that every man should work on (mentorsmatter.us). The first one is unhooking from your biological family’s definition of who you should be.
Q: What do parents do to raise children who avoid such deep wounds?
A: Men who know who they are and respect others tend to have parents who loved them unconditionally but guided their moral and spiritual development. Their parents believed in helping others; set clear limits and boundaries; and taught them self-discipline, respect, and a healthy work ethic.
Q: Who comes to you, and why?
A: I mentor men from age 17 to 70. They come to me because they’re at a turning point. They’re working on recovery from an addiction, or they just want someone who will be supportive, listen, care about them.
Q: Your work draws somewhat from a scary place in your own boyhood.
A: I was bullied repeatedly by a gang of boys from age 5 to 12. I was hit, shamed, ridiculed, harassed, kicked, spat at; my clothes and books were stolen from me. I was the only Jewish kid in my school for a while in an anti-Semitic town. When I went for help, the teachers said, “Be a man. Stand up for yourself.” This had a big influence on my life. It made me aware of how cruel people can be and, also, that systems don’t necessarily protect us.
Q: When men say, “But I’m not an abuser or bully, I’m not like that,” do you let them off the hook?
A: I say, “That’s good, but what is your role in educating others?” Every man needs to teach respecting women and girls, whether he’s a teacher, coach or father.
Q: You’re a champion of men’s groups and mentoring. Why?
A: I don’t understand why men have to “prove” their manhood, but they do. When you ask a man about himself, the first thing he says is something about his occupation. These cultural pressures cause many men to become depressed, addicted, violent and isolated. Men’s groups, and mentoring, encourage boys and men to be vulnerable in safe places. Men in touch with their feelings, and who have good, close men friends, make better fathers.
Q: You’re a spiritual man. Where do you stand on forgiveness?
A: Many people make bad choices. They need to be held accountable for them; there must be consequences. But some bad behavior is worse than other bad behavior. If someone is willing to change, and can admit his/her mistakes, then I believe they should be given a second chance. We all have hurt others. Forgiveness comes with a commitment to change.