boyhood

Embarrassed

When I was a practicing psychotherapist I saw a number of men of all ages who suffered from a common wound: embarrassment of being a man. Perhaps put another way they experienced the shame of finding themselves raised as male in this current world. As the Latin American poet Pablo Neruda said: 

It so happens that I am sick of my feet and my nails/ and my hair and my shadow./ It so happens I am sick of being man.

From my privileged position of confidant I heard other men's stories and discovered the profound pain that many endured. Men told me of abuse or neglect from father's, whom they considered to be larger than life examples of stereotypical manhood.  The loss of elders and the rather ubiquitous transience of shifting male role models, the loss of passion and purpose, and the sense of utter disconnection to male community were common themes. They would say, "I get along better with women than men," typifying their experience of feeling profound ambivalence concerning their basic ability to even interact with their own gender. And honestly it made sense. Hearing them, I understood their sadness. I still do.

In many ways I relate. My grandfather was my hero--standing 6'6", a WW2 hero decorated with the purple heart for saving another man's life while wounded, he was a cattle rancher and a horse trainer. The man noodled catfish and bronco busted!  But, I rarely saw him. Not unlike my father, who also occupied an absentee role. Not that I didn't idolize him--I did. He was a powerful orator and preacher, as well as a brilliant teacher. I loved hearing him cast spells with words...but when I came home from church he would slide into a kind of moroseness, withdrawn and isolated. No, instead of being raised by my heroes, who's attention I craved, I was left to the devices of my mother and sister mainly. They loved on me and pampered me, protecting me from bullies or doing the dishes. I was their companion and little helper. The world I grew up in was more haram than throne room. And for many years I felt I was better for it.  Actually I began to identify myself as a brand of "feminist-man" capable of getting women for who they were and being their shoulder to cry on. In many ways when I saw men--particularly from older generations--I just felt bad for them. They struck me as brutes and savages; dinosaurs whose time had passed. Looking back on it, I suspect my judgement of other "manly men" was a sort of judgement on parts of myself I wished to sublimate or do away with all together.

The Loss of Ground

When talking to men, it seems as though our embarrassment is caused by several different sources. There is the loss of "archetypal ground" so to speak, the disconnection from the body, the detachment from tribe and community for men, and grief over the father wound. As I've mentioned earlier, this last one, is felt keenly. Boys feel such an instinctual need to be touched by their father, to be heard and hold his gaze, that when this doesn't happen the sense of grief builds unbearably. One male in his early adulthood told me of a hunting trip he and his dad took. This was set up as a rare and exciting opportunity to join into his dad's world. He remembered his sister and mother waving goodbye as they drove away in their little pickup. For the first two hours silence reigned. He didn't know what to say to the man, and apparently the older male was equally clueless. Suddenly his dad brought the car to a screeching halt and pronounced, "this just isn't working!!!" and turned around towards home. My friend recalls feeling as though he had done something wrong. As they drove he began to whimper quietly, tears eventually cascading on his cheeks. He replayed their silence, attempting to imagine a way out of it. But, he remembers, the words were stuck in his throat. He mumbled an apology, but didn't know what he was saying he was sorry for. The remourse was ignored. And they stoically arrived back at their house. Over the years he wrestled with this question and the consequence of self-blame. He routinely asked "what is wrong with me? why did my father not speak to me? why could he not bear my presence?"  This grief, he stated, was the dominant issue of his life. 

Interestingly my shadow side influenced this distain for the Masculine. The parts of me that were distant, detached, pretentious, seductive or sexual, aggressive, or overly assertive were--I thought--mannish. I preferred the elements of my persona that I assumed were more feminine: connected, emotive, caring, relational, not-interested in sex. It's funny how associated stereo-types go into those notions. However, in truth, these are generalizations that multitudes of people make. And they're not altogether wrong. Usually we make stereo-types out of truths that replay themselves consistently. We feel that they can be counted on. In my own childhood--as in the lives of many other men, and current culture at large--to be a man by those stereo-types was negatively reinforced and to be a woman or feminine, according to those same generalizations, was positively reinforced. It was frankly embarrassing that I had these shadows of masculinity.

SOCIETY ISN'T BUYING IT

It's no wonder that I, and many others of my generation and younger found ourselves rejecting our sense of the masculine. Even if we did not find corresponding demons in ourselves, the cultural assault on men has been overwhelming. In a randomized study of over a thousand television commercials it was found that 100% of the portrayals of men were negative. Husbands were pictured as unable to do the laundry or adequately clean the house, men were shown as barbarians or criminal, males who were friends of each other were noted as stupid or inept. On down the line there were ZERO positive references. What was once a rich tapestry of male depictions has been reduced to gross simplifications of what it means to be a man. As Guy Garcia put it in his book The Decline of Men, " If men were a brand, their value would be dropping because society is not buying what they're selling."He goes on to suggest that this rapid de-centering of manhood was even advisable: "What better way to welcome to resplendent return of the goddess than the symbolic immolation of the male?" And there is no doubt that this kind of self-combustion is occurring.

The images we're seeing of men, daily--hourly--by the minute--are of overly hostile, vilified, or inept caricatures. Names like TRUMP, WEINER, WEINSTEIN, BUSH and DICK are easy to remember and stick to the gender as a whole. They create a kind of market-image that is transposed onto every other card carrying member who don't openly distance themselves from Testosterone. However, even more disturbing are the beta-bro's who simply drop out of the man-game. As sociologists have been telling us for years boys are overwhelmingly choosing video games, frat parties, and hook ups. Instead of opting for the traditional routes towards responsibility, occupation, and family, men are staying juvenile longer--well into their thirties. It's an interesting reversal culturally in which young women are encouraged to take on the world headfirst, and ARE DOING SO, while the boys-to-men are choosing porn, parties, and video-games.  It's little wonder why, in response to this phenomenon, ex-first lady Michelle Obama criticized this in saying that while we raise girls to be tough and strong we've overprotected boys and created an entitlement culture. 

As Ms. Obama notes though, the same cannot be said for women. If anything women have fought an up-hill battle across the last century and have won every square inch they now occupy--which is far more considerable than mass media might let on. In the infamous piece for The Atlantic Hanna Rosin wrote that for earned Bachelor's degrees are 2/3 in favor of women. And in all but 2 of the 15 projected "future industries of growth" they were dominated by females. It's a strange phenomenon compared with both the record of history, and the rhetoric as it exists today. In Kay Hymowitz's piece Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys she observes that “young women are reaching their twenties with more achievements, more education, more property, and, arguably, more ambition than their male counterparts.” Her conclusion ultimately comes in the form of question "where do boys fit into a girl powered world?"  And of course this conclusion isn't to say that there's been a total reversal here. Women still earn, on average, less than men in many professions. Women still experience the results of systemic oppression, and continue to be outraged at the injustices of power abuse and wrongful societal rules. But for a son of liberal parents, or even growing up savvy to the dictates of culture today, its hard not to feel the shift and be effected by it. 

When these two extremes, what David Deida called "The macho jerk or the new age wimp," are what you're given, when your own internal shadows are what you project outward, when you're reinforced for distancing from what you perceive as the dinosaur of The Male, why wouldn't you be embarrassed to be a man?

WHAT'S THE BENEFIT

At some point I began to realize that the shadow parts of me--the so-called undesirable elements--are also worthy of love and respect too. In fact the Divine Feminine, the goddess, is only worthy when balanced by a Sacred Masculine. If the feminine qualities can rightly be historically perceived as empathetic, relational, and emotive then the masculine virtues of aggression, assertiveness, and action can also have appropriate function. While society routinely finds itself threatened by these qualities, its important to remember that when overlayed with the virtues of Strength, Courage, Honor and Mastery, as well as tempered with Wisdom, these qualities have saved countless lives, enriching and enabling generations of individuals.

The masculine has always been associated with competition and aggression. it seem as though the male tendency to fight is universal. We witness it in the horse world where one stallion fights over reproductive rights, in the wild where stags skirmish for food. Anthropologist's note that it would be unlikely for humans, as a branch of the great ape family tree, to have ever been peacable. Our ancestral condition as males would have been to fight to protect the tribe, to hunt over a wide area, to acquisition safe nesting zones, to defend things of value and to overcome obstacle. Of course aggression was hardly a male monopoly--females also demonstrate the same capacity. However what distinguishes male aggression is that even in ritualized versions of it, there is a passionate enjoyment which seems to possess men. Even with young children, boys demonstrate an instinctual thrill around rough housing and violent play. 

All of this points to the reality that while there is little place today for such intensity, male aggression has served an evolutionary and primordial purpose, so much so that it is ingrained from birth--even provoking feelings of fun. This feature was rewarded not only with delight, but also with a slough of adaptive functions in relationship to other arenas of life, such as increased resiliency. As Sebastian Junger points out in his ground breaking book Tribe,  cultures where there is less aggression also have higher rates of PTSD and depression.  Is it possible that a society that decreases its aggressive tendencies might also experience heightened mental health distress? And if this is so, does it point to the idea that by de-emphasizing the masculine contribution, we do so at our own peril?

It seems apparent that in relationship to not only aggression, but the other dormant male virtues, we suffer when disconnected from them. Masculinity, in its essence has something to offer us, that is more necessary than ever. What I needed to do, I realized, was not deny these parts of myself, or shield myself and others from them, but refine them give them real life.  

HOW TO RECONNECT

Some times I sit at the Fire nights with my tribe of men, or get the opportunity to meet with others lone-wolfing it. I end up hearing this sadness in them. And they're nuanced enough to know throwing out the whole enchilada isn't the right answer. Most of us are trying to figure out how to show up more in our daily lives as father's, husbands, business owners and friends. We want to integrate not only the aspects of the modern man—emotionally sensitive, empathetic and connected, but also our more primal and ancestral truths. Again, Sebastian Junger points out: “

human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered "intrinsic" to human happiness and far outweigh "extrinsic" values such as beauty, money and status.

And this strikes me as true. We need to feel a mastery over self and environment, need to feel as though we genuinely matter and don’t have to hide our truest sense of self, and need Tribe. Mastery. Authenticity. Tribe. In other words, if men are going to start to feel content in themselves they need to find places where they can experience both their core instincts and push against their edges. Men desperately need to shed themselves of the shame that comes from being a “man” in this culture, and begin to practice a new degree of intentional openness, both accepting and challenging themselves.  

If we intend to grow in our capacity for aggression, and therefore resilience, we must allow ourselves the opportunity to experience this coursing through our veins again. In part this is why the book Fight Club was so popular. Its author Chuck Palahniuk said, "There are so few books that offered a valid path for manhood--I wanted to do it."  Being physical, competitive, and intense is such a new reality for men who have come of age today, that the most we know of it is the middle school conflict we engaged with early on, or the movies we have seen. Both demonstrate little in terms of motivating us to either want to, or know how to, engage with each other on a playing field of physical competition. But try wrestling another man. Even in a friendly way. Or pull out the boxing gloves. Be friends. Be friendly. But also, let your muscles wrench against his. Why? Because to touch and be touched are a part of manhood, as well as this--it opens you up to a new way of being you have been shut off from. Or rather--it reconnects you with the wound that has been scarred over. The loss of contact with Father, and the detachment from boys in earlier years, creates shame. When you grind into a fellow male, competing for mastery in that moment, you allow yourself to encounter that place once more. At first it smarts a little--but soon begins to heal over. 

The same can be said for activeness or assertiveness. I used to teach workshops to women who had experienced domestic abuse. We spent days, even weeks, on the topic of assertiveness. It has been so conditioned out of them, that they were terrified to state what they wanted, or take action. I usually posed the question--which is more important to you, situationally: to build the relationship, or to have self-respect? For many, keeping the relationship was more important. They were  willing to sacrifice their own sense of self in order to maintain the connection. But the same can be said of men who are  relationship starved. Because empathy, relationality, and sensitivity have been so emphasized to many men in this current epoch, they find themselves not knowing how to, appropriately, state what they want. It takes practice. Recently, a close friend and collaborator here at Evolving Wild, told me that he wasn't going to fulfill a project I had asked him to do. It was lower on his priority list. Interestingly, my response was that I found myself THRILLED. He showed self-respect in that moment. I knew that was hard for him. He was drawing a line in the sand, and being his own man. I understood he was practicing reclaiming his own sense of assertiveness. 

In order to effectively heal the embarrassment around being a man, we must learn to be apart of a pack, a gang, a Tribe. It is the most natural form of healing that could possibly occur. You don't need to sit around and "explore your woundedness" to do so. Even for men to get together as men is a kind of summoning up of the deepest wounds we each experience. It brings to light our vulnerability and our hiddenness.

The greatest instruction that I could give a man on this journey is simply this: Risk. Attempt. Try on. Allow yourself the opportunity to be seen, or to get it wrong. Look like a jack ass. Deconstruct. Build. Be with other men on the same journey. 

 

 

 

 

 

Big

TALE AS OLD AS TIME

One of my favorite movies growing up was "Big" staring Tom Hanks. If you haven't seen it you probably weren't around in the 1980's. It tells the unlikely story of a boy who wanted to stop being treated like a child. He was tired of being picked on and was frustrated at the lack of responsibility he was entrusted with. In a miraculous turn he is magically transformed into an adult version of himself over night. That's right--he wakes up one morning and is...well, BIG. Walking around in the body of an adult has its wonderful privileges. He can choose to participate in life however he wishes to. Nobody is telling him what to do, what direction to go, or where to place his energy. He is his own man.  

Or is he?

As the movie progresses the main character realizes that in the absence of external direction he has little internal compass or fortitude. Without anyone pulling his strings he finds himself at the whim of larger invisible controllers--the tax man, corporate advertisers, and the unending appeal of toys. He has to get a job, but doesn't actually know how to work hard and so he skates by on charm and potential. He finds a woman who is attracted to him and cares for him but treats her irresponsibly and more like a sexual extension of his mom. Even in friendships he fails--treating them narcissistically, and unkindly.

See the reality is he grew big, but he didn't really grow up. In order to succeed in life he would need to learn lessons as yet undiscovered. And (spoiler alert) the movie ends somewhat tragically. He realizes he doesn't have what it takes to be a man--he goes back to being a boy.

This morning I sat with a group of men, and as we each spoke about our own journey of masculinity we reflected the reality of this story. There is the sense of having put on the external trappings of manhood: a job or career, a spouse, children, hobbies, but without the accompanying sense of identity.  We lack the internal character or "tactile virtues" as Jack Donavon, author of the "The Way of Men" calls them: strength, courage, mastery, and honor. 

Often, the men I know, say they have turned to endless fantastical hobbies to pacify the distinct sense of lack brewing beer, fixing cars, collecting (almost anything--rare movies, china, comics, books, legos, booze, etc...), masturbating to porn, fucking women...etc... In short without a guiding center we find ourselves desperately searching for what it might mean to simply get through the next moment well. No sense of purpose. No sense of unique mission...

WORSHIPPING THE GODDESS

Interestingly in an attempt to find a greater connection to a larger sense of self men often find ourselves worshipping at "the altar of the goddess." This sacred cultural motif comes in many forms. As a boy it may look like being "mommy's good little helper" or her "little man." We receive direct reinforcement for being her shoulder to cry on, her person to count on, her arm to hold. A unique relationship forms which psychologists refer to as "covert incest." As fucked up as this sounds, a shockingly high percentage of men reflect on their childhood experiences this way. Absentee father's create a void in which boys are invited to fill and are rewarded with affection and approval for doing so. We learned early on that our unique role in life could be serving the goddess, so to speak.

Having been taught the lessons that empathy has a payoff, we now extend this into our relationships both individually and societally. Many men become the "great white knight--" a rescuer. In my own life, I became a therapist. What better way to continue being my mom's confident? I recall one early counseling supervisor telling me that I was a natural. The awkward truth was it was natural to me, because I had been doing it my whole life. Other men I know slide into roles such as police officers, pastors, teachers, advisors, care givers or additional helping professions for similar reasons. We have heard the message loud and clear: to succeed "as a man" we must be a helper. But professions aside for a moment, it's simply an attitude: I exist to serve. Serve who? Serve my woman, serve my friends, serve the victim, serve my children, serve society...etc.... Do you see the co-dependency here? In this case selflessness is actually self-LESS-ness-- a mascaraed for having an undefined sense of self. The "Great White Knight" proudly wears his armor of being a rescuer to avoid the disquieting fact that he feels empty underneath.

THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS

The shadow side of worshipping the goddess is hedonism or gluttony. It is well known that the deity of debauchery in Ancient Greece, Bacchus, was identified with the fertility cults of the great Mother. Fucking our way through women and the world, we kneel down in front of the great vagina and become her devotee. Intense, isn't it? But, you know exactly what I mean. It's not just teenage boys sitting up all night clicking through endless windows of porn. For instance the fastest growing population being treated for erectile disfunction is actually men in their 30's. Doctors have been mystified as to the cause of this, in part because it has historically been men far older than this who manifest these symptoms.  Many wonder if this is due to the high frequency of porn use--opening multiple screens on the computer, or smart phone, cycling through images faster and faster in order to get off. The real thing just doesn't hold our attention as well.

Sexual addiction is, among other things, a disorder of intimacy--an inability to maintain a solid attachment due to a kind of numbness. Think of it like leprosy. A person with this disease ceases to have sensation. Increasingly disconnected from the world of direct experience, they desperately ramp up their encounters. going to greater and greater extremes simply to feel. My own journey bears this out. The less connected I felt to my sense of self, or any sense at all, I struggled to find energy anywhere. Every source of validation in my life would become a place I imagined might free me from the numbness. I desperately wanted to feel again. Drunken on intimacy I ceased to feel it and so I required it all the more. 

But sex isn't the only thing that captures our affections in place of the Sacred Masculine. In the Greek myths Bacchus didn't just promote orgies, he also was dispensing "strong drink" right and left. One author talks about the unique connection of wine to "the feminine." David Deida comments, "When we are tipsy or drunk, we tend to feel loose, our inhibitions drop. We feel more fluid and languid. We are in touch with the feminine principle." In part our obsession with alcohol as men speaks of a kind of displaced attraction to the goddess. We long to feel and touch--to lose control. Men numb to the cold realities of the world by warming our hands at the fires of narcotics. The pleasure principle is in play.

Interestingly civilization has always known of this connection. In one of our most ancient written story, "The Epic of Gilgamesh", from Sumerian culture over 6,000 years ago, we read of a wild man named Enkidu. He is said to have been raised by animals and is ignorant of human society. Enkidu embodies the natural and wild world, untouched by civilized ways--he is the antithesis of cultured, urban, and feminine. He represents the Masculine energies. As the story goes a woman named Shamhat (which means luscious one) is used to tempt Enkidu from his wild nature. She says, "Come Enkidu, drink the wine, feel it's effect upon you and then take me--becoming a man like the others." Unfortunately for Enkidu he does so. He drinks the wine, he eats the bread, and then...they fuck. For seven days. This act of cosmic creation must have been powerful. Because at the end of all this fuckery his old friends--the beasts and the birds--no longer recognize him. He is a stranger to them. Seperated from his natural tribe, Shamhat, becomes a surrogate mother to him and teaches him "how to be a man as other men are," through drinking, eating, dressing well, and having sex. His transformation is now complete. 

Turns out this isn't a recent problem then.

Worshipping the goddess--whether it be as mommy's little helper, the great white knight, or the pleasure seeker, is an easy trap to fall into. It is a replacement strategy for actual growth as a man. But it leaves us feeling just as empty, just as lost.

SEARCHING FOR INTEGRATION

If this vision of the world seems a bit lop sided and heavy handed, I get it. For many women and countless men I know their world hardly seems defined by "The Goddess" and more the obscene and rage-filled Patriarchy. Recently a large newspaper ran an op-ed piece called "Can We Hate Men?" with the profound conclusion--"Yes."  A book that was published not all that long ago was titled "Demon Males" and noted that in all the Great Ape societies males were "aggressive, violent, and divisive." In short, the other side to the story I've been telling in this article is actually that the last six-thousand years of Civilization are littered with abuse, neglect, and the traumatic--thanks to males in large part. If I've characterized the Divine Feminine as a bit of a blood thirsty bitch, the flip side is that there are no shortages of vindictive and destructive Father gods. 

One of the reasons why men today are so lost is, quite frankly, that up till recently our only option was to become a "macho-jerk" or nothing at all. The neanderthalic patriarch of the 1950's where "father knows best" is not only no longer needed--it probably never was. There was a power imbalance. It held so much ego. Men did not have to work on themselves, grow, or develop. They could simply be grouchy, sluggish, abusive or perverted--and it was ok.  But it shouldn't have been. The macho-jerk was little better than an animal. 

The Boomer's knew that. In the Vietnam War era they began to push away from the patriarchal archetype towards something new and "softer."  By integrating the Feminine, the goddess, into their psyche's men discovered the qualities of emotional expression, networking, and intimate connection. Several new generations of men allowed themselves to become allies and champions of the oppressed and identified as warriors of a different ilk. It was necessary, and powerful.If many women today wonder if men should be hated it is because we have earned such distain.

Yet of course, most people understand that there is a middle ground between goddess worshipping and goddess destroying; between male hating and patriarchy. There must be something in between. In my own household I relate as a son to my mother, a brother to my sister, a husband to my wife and a father to my daughter. I am profoundly connected to the Feminine, and it does me no good to simply go from altar to altar trying to destroy them.

How do we, as men, learn to develop the masculine virtues independent of the Feminine, but honoring of it?  

 Going Home

Too often the answer is exactly as the movie frames its own ending--tired of playing at being a man we go back to boyhood. This is reflected in many of the things listed above. Although mostly it has to do with simply falling backwards--ceasing to try any longer. Having attempted, risked, and lost big, it's easy for a man to go back home and hide, hoping he will the lessons he must, eventually.

I actually respect this perspective a lot. In some ways I feel closely connected to this. Maybe its the path that many need to take. A retreat is necessary in order to advance again. We must go back to the source, dip our buckets in the water, if we hope to fight the fire. We must go home and learn the lessons we always were meant to know. But if we are to go home--then we are not meant to stay there. Not exactly.  If growing up is what must be done, then let it be. If the valley of the shadow of the death must be walked through, then let's keep on walking.

In other words the great need is to develop, to grow, and finally--at last--become the men we always were meant to be. Men who embody the unique masculine contribution to our species of aggression, assertion, and action. We must intentionally integrate strength, courage, honor and mastery. And, ultimately this is accomplished in the company of other men doing that same work. 

If you find yourself longing for a shift such as this, the advise I can give you is connect with others. Don't just make a wish to get BIG. Don't just be an imposter--a Pinocchio who only looks like a real boy, but who is actually having his strings pulled for him. No--find another man, or a group of men--learn to be authentic, to imagine new worlds, and to actively risk. 

Let's take the journey together.