Robert Bly died recently (Nov. 21, 2021) at the age of 94. Bly was one of the early leaders of the Men’s Movement. While some of what he advocated in his retreats for men was outside a biblical framework, he persuasively called men to become aware of their hearts. I vividly remember one interview with Bill Moyers on PBS when he said, “The way to a man’s heart is through his pain.”  

After that interview, I knew a major focus of my ministry would be directed to the broken hearts of men. “It never occurred,” wrote Bly, “to think that men had feelings, or could be easily hurt… You never notice that in any of the commercials that are on television or radio. Men are regarded as something useful and ridiculous. There is a tremendous amount of belittling of men that has been going on for a long time in our culture.”

I felt Bly was speaking right to my heart as I was working through father wounds and father hunger: “With no male mode of feeling, some sons give up, collapse and become numb, for they received only the temperament of their father and not his blessing and energy.”  

Bly’s book, “Iron John” had a deep impact on me. I was able to locate much of my pain through his story telling.  One way in particular spoke to my family of origin: My mother was the dominant figure in my youth. My dad was distant. As an intuitive “feeler” by personality, I learned from Bly my natural tendency was to absorb the emotional environment in my home. 

“The child,” observed Bly, “in a messed-up family may feel a ghastly tension between the addicted parent and the clean parent, between the cold of the angry father and the heat of the loving mother, or between the cold of the furious mother and the heat of the sorrowing father.”

Bly spoke directly to my confused heart: “In such a situation it’s relatively easy to give up iron work and take up copper work. A child can easily become a professional bridge. The child can become a conductor made of that good conducting metal, copper.”

For the first time in my life, I realized that I had allowed myself to be the conductor of all the dysfunctional emotions in my home. I learned to visualize the copper wiring in my body, absorbing and storing emotions that I needed to release through confession and forgiveness. I slowly began to give up “chairmanship of the universe” knowing that I could not “fix” the emotional needs of people in my own strength. I will be forever grateful for this singular insight from Iron John.

Some of the readers of this blog are probably too young to remember the influence of Bly on the early men’s movement. In my opinion, a comment by Bly in the beginning of his book is even more telling today in light of so much focus on “toxic masculinity.” He wrote: “The grief in men has been increasing steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the grief has reached a depth now that cannot be ignored.”

I am very thankful for the courage Robert Bly had to speak out on behalf of men during the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. He faced much hostility and ridicule. “The best effect we’ve had is on young men who are becoming fathers who are determined not to be the remote fathers that their own fathers were.”  I was one of those fathers. Thank you, Robert Bly. I owe you a debt of gratitude.