Is Womens’ Soul Work Different Than Mens’?

May 2, 2021

Is Womens’ Soul Work Different Than Mens’?

May 29, 2023

Do women feel included in narratives about soul work when the loudest voices are from men? MEA alum Douglas Tsoi and Wisdom Well subscriber Jennifer Villeneuve are friends and colleagues at Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education focused on kids' well-being and lifelong engagement with learning.

They recently had a conversation about Chip's post on Arthur Brooks' retirement reflections in the Atlantic in 2019.

Douglas: This conversation started when Jennifer reminded me that most of the "soul work" literature is written by men, even the ones I love: Carl Jung, Richard Rohr, Stephen Cope, David Brooks. I started wondering whether “men-as-default” narratives were universal and if they erased other perspectives.

Jennifer: I remember - we were on one of our “walk-and-talk” phone calls, a lovely way to dive into soulful topics. My reaction was two fold: the journey of intentional discovery at different life stages is different for women, and these authors rarely acknowledge how they center their experiences as men and assume they are more universal. As we talk about midlife, this is particularly important because many women have navigated in and out the public sphere due to family responsibilities, and the ‘second half’ narratives often assume a necessary retreat from traditional work routines. They also, like the central message in Brooks’ article, assume everyone is driven by the same notions of “success” being about professional accomplishment. Personally, now at 55 with my children mostly launched, I love that I’m out in the world doing purpose-driven work and feel more energy looking outward than ever. I do, however, notice more men in this age range seem to be retreating inward to discover their next chapters.

Douglas: I think Robert Bly agrees: “A man has an effect on ‘the world’ mainly through institutions. So we could say that in the second half of life a man should sever his link with institutions. I think the problem is more complicated for women, but I don’t understand it. Conceivably for women the change might involve accepting more responsibility for affecting the world.”

Sara Avant Stover wrote in “The Book of SHE: Your Heroine's Journey into the Heart of Feminine Power:” “In reality, our lives as women cannot be represented by a straight line. Rather, our journeys take us through a series of circular initiations. Each crisis that lowers us into the dark underworld calls us to listen to and trust ourselves in ever-deepening ways. We have been led to believe that partnering with our darkness will make us crazy, but the truth is that only denying our darkness can do that.”

Letting go of the single narrative that a “good life” is a long rising ascent followed by a gentle voluntary descent allows for more individuality, diversity, and freedom in our life journeys.

Jennifer: I agree that our paths are not linear, and composing our lives involves all sorts of those ‘circular initiations’. I think about soul work as a process of discovery: who am I and why am I here? It connects to my bigger driving question of ‘how might I contribute in the world?’ I’ve explored this throughout the stages of my life, as I know you have too. So perhaps at the core, this isn’t that different by gender identity, but women are just not considered in the dominant narratives (and frankly they are dangerously narrow for men who have defined themselves as their accomplishments for much too long).

I remember studying Carol Gilligan in college and her theories that the stages of moral development are different for girls and boys. This was in direct contrast to her mentor, Lawrence Kohlberg, who had only studied boys yet reported the stages as adolescent development for all. In fact, what was fascinating, and perhaps relevant for our midlife conversation, is that what she discovered about the two developmental pathways was that the masculine voice focuses on independence (“separation”) and responsibility for oneself, whereas the feminine voice emphasizes interdependence (“connection”) and responsibility to others. We may go through the same stages, but in a different order and purpose. Does this resonate with you, Douglas, thinking about independence and interdependence at midlife?

Douglas: When you talk about independence/interdependence and Kohlberg/Gilligan, what occurs to me is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth is essentially a first-half-of-life ego development fantasy: the singular hero overcoming obstacles by himself and triumphantly bringing back treasure to his community (note the gender of the monomyth). In real life, we NEVER are doing anything alone; we’re constantly held in a web of interconnectedness. By framing our hero story as solo, we erase the fact that we’re constantly held in the support of the community during the journey and whatever rewards we find are the community’s as well.

Jennifer: Exactly! That framing erases, or radically mutes, the community piece. I am much more interested in the story of how the wife of the 80 year old in Brooks’ article has navigated her life. I strongly suspect it hasn't been linear nor would she, or the women I know, frame it as being worthy in relation to her partners’ accomplishments.

I recognize the box many men feel they are in, and, how at midlife, they are eager to discover personal meaning separate from what they “do.” I have compassion for how that impacts one’s ability to express the spectrum of emotions, and how many men advance in age and mourn the decline of their accomplishments like the men in Brooks’ article.

For women, I think these constraints involve being narrowly defined, and valued, by our biology and what it represents: puberty (sexy), childbearing (useful) and menopause (done). Or, the journey is described in relation to our partners and their contributions to the world. I’m encouraged by more feminine voices offering perspectives of midlife and how women are much more than that. Darcey Steinke’s “Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life” was pure medicine for me. Anything by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen too. I also loved Diane Cardwell’s book “Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life” that I discovered through this blog and Chip’s video interview with Diane. So perhaps searching broader for our soul work influences and sharing them is my answer.

Jennifer Curry Villeneuve, PhD is an ‘Impact Illuminator’ who seeks to highlight the connection between intentional effort and positive effects through her work as a researcher, coach, lifelong learner, writer and friend. Douglas Tsoi, JD, works with Jennifer at Challenge Success and is a social entrepreneur. His latest venture is The Appreciation Effect, a website that allows people to see themselves as they truly are, through the eyes of the people who love them most.

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