I feel I have to say something about Ed Balls, but not directly about his politics or his dancing. What I want to share is about masculine psychology. I think what Ed Balls has done in recent weeks speaks directly to the perennial question of what it is to be a man. More precisely he has illustrated what depth psychology means by ‘the lover archetype’ — not about being Casanova, but rather the mature male’s challenge in the modern world of suits and screens to remain sensual, and be at ease in our bodies.
I first heard about Ed Balls in an economics tutorial at Keble College, Oxford in 1996. Ed is ten years older than me, but for a young PPE student from a comprehensive school in Aberdeen, feeling both blessed and bewildered to suddenly have high expectations thrust upon him, Ed — a former graduate of the same college — was tacitly presented as the man to watch and emulate. For instance, my economics tutor Tim Jenkinson told us he was advising The Chancellor Gordon Brown and would soon have a safe labour seat. My Politics tutor Larry Seidentop spoke with pride about the letter of recommendation he wrote for Ed on his way to Harvard. We were also aware of the famous one-liner from Michael Heseltine about Ed Balls writing an infamously jargon-heavy speech about “Neoclassical endogenous growth theory” that Gordon Brown used, featuring the punchline: “It wasn’t Brown’s, it was Balls.”
I didn’t feel any particular envy around this time, and in the ensuing years I have had very mixed feelings about Ed’s politics and economics. He also seemed a little too forceful at times. Still, we all have these moments of projective identification — ‘you too could be like that’ or ‘you could have been like that’. I say this now because while his academic and political career was impressive, it’s only over the last few weeks that I have really felt something like admiration for him.
I don’t actually watch Strictly Come Dancing in the way millions of others do. All that over-the-top glitz and performative glamour, all that ‘look-at-me’ sensationalism makes me want to look the other way. I can see why extroverts are drawn to it, and why it’s entertaining at a sensual level. After all, as dancing pioneer Ted Shawn sagely put it “dance is the only art form in which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.” Dancing can be simple fun, and sometimes extraordinarily liberating, but when you combine dance with reality TV, what emerges is close to an introvert’s idea of hell.
And yet, recently those living in the UK have hardly been able to avoid it. Without really trying I have stumbled on many stories and clips and have noticed some of Ed Balls’s moves. I was particularly struck by this short video of Ed Balls showing Nick Robinson how to dance on the otherwise cerebral Today Programme:
What I see in that video is somebody who is freer because he is no longer burdened by the expectation to be a certain way. I also see somebody having fun, somebody who has helped remind people like himself — cerebral and driven, that fun is always there to be had.
I don’t doubt Ed has done an approximate political cost-benefit analysis of his foray into dancing, and I am sure his Strictly appearances have helped sell his recent memoir. Nonetheless, what I admire is his resolve and leadership in showing what it looks like to be at ease with all aspects of oneself.
I am not sure there is a ‘crisis of masculinity’ as such. Yet we do live in a culture where being male is often associated with agonistic choices — you are either a politician or a dancer, you are either a ‘house husband’ or a bread winner, you are either an intellectual or you are playful, you are either sensitive or strong. Pathways to masculine integration are not illuminated. And for men who still feel like boys — and don’t we all sometimes? — it is not even always clear what it means to ‘grow up’.
What I want suggest, I suppose, is that by dancing publicly and passionately in the way he has, Ed Balls has shown not a childish regression to simpler pleasures, but something closer to a form of maturation. It seems to me he has put aside the need to impress in a particular way (intellect, power) and now trusts his own judgment about who and what he is supposed to be. He has taken a step towards wholeness.
This notion became clear to me from reading the celebrated text King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. This is one of the main reference books and talking points for the now global movement called ‘The Mankind Project’.
The King (order, strategy, generosity) Warrior(ideals, determination, service) and Magician (insight, knowledge, wisdom) archetypes are equally fascinating, as is the challenge of growing into them and integrating them, but for now let’s focus a little more about the lover archetype that came to mind while watching Ed Balls:
“The Lover is the archetype of play and of “display”, or healthy embodiment, of being in the world of sensuous pleasure and in one’s own body without shame. Thus, the Lover is deeply sensual — sensually aware and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendour. The Lover is related and connected to them all, drawn into them through his sensitivity. His sensitivity leads him to feel compassionately and empathetically united with them. For the man accessing the Lover, all things are bound to each other in mysterious ways.”
- From p121, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette
“For the man accessing the Lover, all things are bound to each other in mysterious ways.” That’s why it’s inspiring to watch an economist and politician allow himself to be ‘something else’ in front of millions, because dancing is part of that mysterious whole and in some ways exemplifies it. We all know that our given social identities are somewhat accidental, we all sense that when Ed does the Cha-cha he is not really being somebody else, but just allowing a neglected aspect of himself to breathe, a part that he was not culturally permitted to share until he ceased to be a politician.
At the time of writing I don’t know how this year’s competition will end, but I have been inspired by this particular effort. As mid-life crises go, this one has been relatively good to watch.
Ed Balls’s efforts in the context of the Lover archetype have also brought new meaning to the lines of Lee Anne Womack’s celebrated song:
“When you get the choice to sit it out, or dance. I hope you dance.”