tom hanks

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.