As I write this, a powerful snow storm is pummeling the Northeast. A “Bomb Cyclone” by the name of Grayson, more fitting a pretentious British aristocrat than a winter hurricane.
In its wake, ‘Lord Grayson’ brings what looks like fast-falling white rain with wind gusts blowing snow from the eave of the porch in curling dust sheets and sheer clouds of sifted flour, covering with fresh powder all the tracks left on the back lawn by the residents of the surrounding wilderness – deer, rabbit, raccoon. If only it were that easy to erase man’s careless footprints…our mistakes.
This time, for once, I am hoping the Weatherman gets it right: that we do lose power and that the roads become unnavigable. I get a thrill when Mother Nature pinches our ears, reminding us who’s in charge and setting us right. She did it with record fury last year, and, I suspect, has greater calamities in store for us under her apron. Fed-up of being abused, she is turning on a dime from ‘Great Nurturer’ to ‘Great Devourer’.
Larger flakes fall. Stepping out feels like walking into a giant snowglobe. I carry a heavy load of firewood into the house just in case; a roaring fire already crackling inside the fireplace; my third cup of coffee by my laptop. I’m settling in, or hunkering down, to write this to you.
The world, for a day, might stop. No cars, emails, phone calls, blaring screens…no noise. If the snowfall tapers before dusk, I will enter the forest and nurture myself from its sepulchral stillness, suckle from its dreamlike quietude. Another thing to add to the endangered list: Silence, now mostly found only inside cathedrals or wood paneled libraries, in the ocean deep, or far in the fathomless universe…a blessed hush, capable of soothing our anxieties like a steaming bowl of your grandmother’s special soup.
Anxiety…I suffer from it, but it doesn’t assail me with a sudden, frantic, hyperventilating force. It’s more like an ever-present, throbbing toothache. What causes it? I wonder, as I read Theo’s introduction to Chapter 8 that begins right after he turned-down his last opportunity for employment:
“I feel like Wile E. Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it? More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.“
Theo’s renewed sense of aliveness tells me that there is a good kind of anxiety, one described by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “the dizzying effect of freedom”. Theo is leaving the familiar world to enter one of endless possibilities; a kind of existential paradox of choice. Hence the anxiety.
“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety,” wrote Rollo May in ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’, adding that “creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”
But then, there is a different type of anxiety: an obsession with an uncertain future. A “wakeful anguish”, as poet John Keats called it.
I am prone to making dire predictions, with a worse track record than 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus. Countless ones can be found within the 1500 pages of my journal that never came to pass, except for “I’m getting old”, which is not much of a prediction, is it? I couldn’t get a job palm reading at a country fair, much less be accepted into the world of gypsies.
What’s going to happen?, or more accurately, What’s going to happen to me? is anxiety’s quiet whisper, wrote Lisa Miller in her article ‘Listening to Xanax’.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or ‘Benzos’, like Xanax, have more than tripled in the last 20 years to 94 million. They are the “greatest things since Post Toasties” said Stephen Stahl, chairman of the Neuroscience Education Institute in Carlsbad, California.
We have entered the Age of Anxiety.
‘Benzos’ suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear – an evolutionary adaptation. If our hunter-gatherer forebears would’ve taken Xanax before heading to work, we wouldn’t be here. Just imagine this scenario: “Hey! Let’s pet that cute Saber-Toothed Tiger.” “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!” Get the drift?
But we no longer face just simple-fanged threats, ones over which we have a clear choice to fight or flight. Today, we are besieged by situational anxiety from multiple threats that are everywhere and nowhere at once; many global in scale and seemingly abstract, e.g., the growing intensity and destructiveness of weather events, mass-extinctions, coral bleaching, icebergs calving, trucks ramming pedestrians on sidewalks, or cyberwarfare. While another form of denial, I cannot help but feel paralyzed and often guilty of choosing to no longer read the dire reports.
What to do, besides popping a chill-pill; a “I don’t give a damn pill”; a “Special Kiss from Mommy” as Miller called Xanax?
Ironically, anxiety researchers are beginning to circle back to a practice that is 2500 years old: “Mindfulness”; now a $1.1 Billion industry in the U.S. (Buddha should have patented that one). In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to what’s occurring in the present moment.
In his 1950’s book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, said the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience which exists only in the brain.
“The primary consciousness, the basic mind, which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future.” – Watts.
It’s unlikely that the primary brains of the shivering animals outside are looking ahead at, and planning for tomorrow’s predicted sunshine.
Think about it. The future is just another story we humans tell ourselves, one that emerged, I guess, when we became conscious of the passage of time and our mortality; when we realized that things change.
“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating, and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.” – Watts
But there is a contradiction, Watts warned, in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Running away from fear is fear. Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain.”
The only way out, it seems, is not out at all, but in, much like the practice of judo: you master a force by giving into it.
It is still snowing after more than five hours, and as I look out the window, I can feel the strain of the rigid branches of the pines from the weight of the accumulating drifts. If it gets any colder, and the wind intensifies, they might snap. In contrast, I imagine the supple willow by the nearby river; it’s springy boughs gently yielding, giving in to the force, dropping the snow, and bouncing back again. Like a dance.
How to become a Willow?
To understand joy or fear, Watts suggests, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it (mindfulness). So long as you are calling it names and saying: “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Understanding them requires a single and undivided mind.
“If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Matthew 6:22
The second thing to do is stop living in the abstraction we call the future. I know it’s hard, but I’ve discovered it helps thinking about it this way:
We don’t only read the last chapter of a book. We don’t attend a concert just to hear the finale. We don’t eat (although I sometimes do) with our mind focused on dessert. And we better not be making love only to achieve orgasm or while comparing it with previous sexual encounters.
“There are two ways of understanding and experience: compare it with memories of other experiences and so to name it and define it, or, be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future.” – Watts
When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity, wrote contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.
But what about those larger dangers; those existential threats that have humankind in their crosshairs? Is there an alternative to being frozen by fear or numbed by helplessness?
Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of the old man by the shore that watches a young boy saving starfish by hurling them, one by one, back into the ocean. With cynical and apathetic detachment, the old man approaches the boy who is preparing to launch another starfish, and scoffs at his futile endeavor, pointing at the thousands that still lie on the sand.
“I’ve done this walk every day for ten years, and it’s always the same,” the old man says. “There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”
The boy replies: “Well, I just made a difference for that one”, and continues with his work.
While we may not be able to solve all the problems that afflict humankind or our planet, we can – and must – resist detachment, lending our words, our voice, our hands and hearts, to a cause that resonates deeply within us: our chosen Starfish.
The town’s Weatherman joins me in the hall of the world’s most inept prognosticators. Grayson’s hissy fit is almost over. We did not lose power, and the snowplows kept the roads open. Yet, I am serene. I began writing this piece early this morning and have not felt the passing of the last seven hours. Not once, did I think of the future, but remained immersed in the present, telling you this story.
A fluffy white cushion, twelve inches deep, lies on the ground. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, so I am heading outside, to fall into its soft embrace.
Since I began this series, at least forty men, in entertainment, media, and politics, have faced allegations ranging from inappropriate behavior to forced sexual misconduct to rape. The list continues to grow and has caused the downfall of many powerful “men”. It has sparked an entire movement (#metoo), and led Time Magazine to name ‘The Silence Breakers’ as 2017’s Person of the Year.
It’s encouraging to hear young people such as comedian Sarah Silverman say we need to understand what’s behind all this, or watch actor Justin Baldoni give a poignant TED talk on why he’s done trying to be “man enough”.
Both are choosing the hard and long road of empathy, rather than the easy one of judgment and condemnation.
While my exploration of this issue has revolved around Millennial Men, it is not a stretch to imagine that they could well be on the road of being the Harry Weinsteins, Al Frankens, Roy Moores, or Matt Lauers of the near future.
In my mind, they all share one thing in common: they are uninitiated men, or more precisely, wrongly initiated into what it means to be a man.
Former NFL defensive lineman and coach, Joe Ehrmann, had this to say in the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’:
“My earliest memory is my father bringing me down to my mother’s basement, putting up his hands and teaching me how to throw jabs and punches. It was there that he gave me those words: “Be a Man”. Stop with the tears. Stop with the emotions. If you are going to be a man in this world you have to learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances. I left the room in tears, feeling I wasn’t man enough. Football became a tremendous place to hide. You can hide inside the helmet. You can hide behind the roar of the crowd. You get to project this façade, this persona of what it means to be a man in this culture. I thought if I could manifest this hyper-masculinity, somehow, it would validate who I was. Certainly, my father would respect me; see how powerful…how strong I was. Then he’d give me the love and attention that I desperately wanted. I ask every man to think about what age they were, what was the context, when somebody told you to Be a Man. That’s one of the most destructive phrases in this culture, I believe.”
This issue not only impacts gender relations, but spills over into our politics and the sustainability of our future on this planet. It is why I am investing so much time on it. If my words – my voice – can be heard by more and more men (women too), and through them, I manage to prevent but one instance of sexual assault, I will have done my share.
In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve listened to several young men explain why they often objectify women. We’ve talked about the holes in their psyches, and explored ways in which they can begin to heal. We’ve listened to their fears of rejection, intimacy and vulnerability. They have shared their sadness stemming from a sense of being split from their right-brained essence.
We’ll now deal with Ethan’s answer to why he sometimes objectifies women through pornography. We can as well substitute the word ‘objectify’, with harass, exploit, or rape.
ETHAN: “When I use porn semi-frequently, I do so whenever I am disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
This has everything to do with two very famous erections.
Meet Priapus, the John Holmes of ancient mythology
The God of Lust and Fertility, Priapus was the son of Aphrodite, which means that every hard-on is mothered by love and beauty. So far, so good.
Until Hera came along.
Hera is the queen and mistress of heaven. Brought up in a domesticated and orderly household, she is also the goddess of marriage and the family. Suspecting her philandering husband, Zeus, of being Priapus’ father, Hera deceptively offered to help Aphrodite’s delivery of Priapus. With just one touch of her finger on Aphrodite’s belly, Hera caused Priapus’s ‘deformity’ and unshapeliness. Horrified, his mother rejected her son, and banished him to a mountainside on Earth.
What does the myth point to?
We’re back to that eons-old, tug-of-war I talked about in my post on why monogamy is so damn difficult: between our desires and conventions.
As Goddess of Marriage, Hera likes only one kind of erection: the procreating kind within the bounds of conjugal love. To her, Priapus is living testimony of philandering. Therefore, indirectly, she made sexual imagination ugly and shameful, and banished it to the mountainside – our modern day Red Light District, Pornhub, Las Vegas, etc. In his lecture, ‘Pink Madness’, James Hillman said that the Hera archetype is what causes us to see Priapus as deformed and distorted.
Then came this guy, St. Augustine.
I wonder why he doesn’t look as happy as Priapus.
When he was sixteen, back in 370 C.E., he went with his father to a public bath, and there, had an involuntary boner. He called it inquieta adulescentia, or restless young manhood.
Imagining himself a soon-to-be grandfather, Dad was pleased.
Mom, a pious Christian, and the Hera in this story, wasn’t.
“She made a considerable bustle,” Augustine wrote in his ‘Confessions’, “to ensure that you, my God, were my father rather than him.”
A year later, when Augustine was sent to study to Carthage, his father died. Commenting on Sarah Ruden’s translation of ‘Confessions’, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The New Yorker:
“If the grieving widow also felt some relief at his death—given that he was a dangerous influence on her beloved son—any hopes she might have had that Augustine would embark at once on the path of chastity were quickly dashed.”
“I came to Carthage,” Augustine wrote, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” (Sounds like Vegas)
Within a year or two of what appears to have been a period of feverish promiscuity, Augustine settled down with his mistress.
But his mother was still not satisfied. When Augustine was getting ready to leave Carthage to take a teaching position in Milan, his mother, Augustine writes, “was hanging onto me coercively, trying to either stop my journey or come along with me on it.” Lying, he told her that he was only seeing off a friend, and persuaded her to spend the night at a shrine near the harbor. “I got away, and got away with it.” A few years later, his mother sailed from North Africa to join him, and once settled in his household, sought to change her son’s life by getting rid of his mistress and finding him a suitable Catholic girl for him to marry.
In little more than a year’s time, Augustine had converted to the Catholic faith.
Then something really weird happened…
In the Roman port of Ostia, a few days before setting sail for Africa, Augustine and his mother were standing by a window that looked out onto an enclosed garden, and talking intimately. Their conversation, serene and joyful, led them to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, no matter how great, could ever match the happiness of the saints. And then, Augustine recounts, “stretching upward with a more fiery emotion,” he and his mother experienced something remarkable: they felt themselves climbing higher and higher, through all the degrees of matter and through the heavenly spheres and, higher still, to the region of their own souls and up toward the eternity that lies beyond time itself. (Here comes the creepy part) “While we were speaking and panting for it, with a thrust that required all the heart’s strength, we brushed against it slightly.” It is difficult to convey in translation the power of the account, Greenblatt writes, and of what it meant for the thirty-two-year-old son and the fifty-five-year-old mother to reach this climax together. Then it was over: “Suspiravimus,” Augustine writes. “We sighed, and returned to the sound of our speech.”
Fast forward forty years or so, and Augustine still can’t get over his inquieta adulescentia, or unruly adolescent boner:
“But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”
And this ardor, Greenblatt adds, to which Augustine gives the technical name “concupiscence,” was not simply a natural endowment or a divine blessing; it was a touch of evil. What a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. “But the action is not performed without evil.” True, sexual intercourse—as Augustine knew from long experience with his mistress and others—is the greatest bodily pleasure. But the surpassing intensity of pleasure is precisely its dangerous allure, its sweet poison: “Surely, any friend of wisdom and holy joys . . . would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust.”
(Surely, if you say so).
Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal (or hard-on) was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum = original sin.
This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy.
Augustine went on to shape Christian theology for both Roman Catholics and Protestants,and to bequeath to all of us the conviction that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species. There has probably been no more important Western thinker in the past fifteen hundred years. [Greenblatt].
“The insistence to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under a tide of swirling sexual frustrations, libido-killing boredom, dysfunction, confusion, and shame.” – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá: ‘Sex at Dawn’
Our insistence on opposing spirit and mind to both nature and sexuality, makes us become split (disconnected, in Ethan’s terms), and at war with ourselves and our instinctual appetites. Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed, gave Eros poison to drink.
Pornography is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. According to Pornhub, in 2016, the human race consumed enough hours of porn to last 5,246 centuries! Porn, says James Hillman, is the return of the repressed.
“Our sexual tastes are much more psychologically deep, even tender and sensitive than is currently imagined. Crucially – in all cases of addiction, it’s never that we are simply greedy or lusty or depraved. The real reason is always more poignant and more worthy of sympathy: we get addicted because we’re sad.” – Alan de Botton
Sad, because, like Priapus, we have been exiled from our natural sensuality, so we now look for it through fantasy.
The problem is that the fantasy starts becoming more lifelike than the real, and we end up, as Alan Watts cautioned, “bestowing more metaphysical and aesthetic value to what is lifelike to what is life”.
Reality begins to disappoint us. (e.g. the movie ‘Her’)
In 2016, an all-new term shot into the top searches on Pornhub: ‘Overwatch’, in reference to the popular video game released earlier that year, known for its fast action and overtly sexualized characters. It appears that the trend is moving more toward fantasy than reality. ‘Generic’ porn is being replaced with fantasy specific, or scenario specific scenes.
Losing our Senses
My friend Theo, who I’m currently helping navigate across his own love and existential tumult, wrote this to me as he entered the wilderness after many days sitting in front of his computer:
“Ninety percent of our human story as hunter-gatherers, forgotten. We’ve retained all the fears of the Savannah, but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we now can’t find our way without a GPS. The world’s shrill cacophony roaring in our ears makes it impossible to listen to silence. The bark’s rugosity, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff, the silk of a leaf…unfamiliar. Our sense of smell and taste blunted by exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality. We now rely on labels to tell us what will nourish us. Our sight, bleared by glaring and flickering blue light, misses the forest’s secret clues and diminishes its rich depth…diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred daily by a lightning storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear – soon losing their effect, requiring more potent doses to keep us hooked – have made it impossible for us to know what exactly it is we are to do with ourselves in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored. Like a violin, discarded in the dusty attic of our past – strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bout – we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. In that state of alienation, rather than attuning ourselves to her symphony and harnessing her power, we now are bent on her domination and destruction.”
Exacerbating our state of exile, our increasingly virtual world is pushing us deeper into Plato’s Cave.
In the allegory, Plato likens people to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets – the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are only the shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. The prisoners mistake appearance for reality. They think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real; they know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
In its truest sense, Alan Watts suggested, American culture is the most ‘immaterialist’.
In his blog for ‘The Stone’, Richard Kearney asks if today’s virtual dater and mater is not more like an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who can see everything at a distance, but is touched by nothing. “Are we perhaps entering an age of excarnation,” Kearney asks, “where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image.”
Pornography, he adds, is paradoxically a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh – one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.
In his book ‘De Anima’ Aristotle pronounced that touch is the most intelligent sense, because it is the most sensitive. As such, it is the most universal of the senses. In this pronouncement, he not only was challenging his own previous conceptions, but the dominant prejudice of the Platonic doctrine of his time, which held that sight was the highest sense. Aristotle did not win. The Platonists prevailed, and the Western universe – our universe – became a system governed by the ‘soul’s eye’. Western philosophy (our ideas) thus sprang from a dualism between the intellectual senses, crowned by sight, and the lower animal senses, stigmatized by touch [Kearney].
We’re back to the battle between spirit/mind vs flesh/nature; Psyche vs Eros; between the ideas of the Myce and the Minos I talked about in Part II.
Enter the weeping, pre-Platonist philosopher, Heraclitus.
This guy is best known for his aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice. But his more important doctrine, in my mind, is his commitment to the unity of opposites, whereby no entity, or person, can occupy a single state at a single time. While Heraclitus did not coin it, the concept of ‘enantiodromia’ has been attributed to him.
Enantiodromia (Ancient Greek: enantios – opposite, and dromos – running course), basically means that the superabundance of any force, inevitably produces its opposite. It is similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme, is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite. (For an example of this dynamic, between the interplay of male and female energies, read the excerpt of Elizabeth Zioga’s blog, included in Part II).
In analytical psychology, enantiodromia means that something that is repressed (a man’s natural sensuality, or instinctual appetites, for example), shapeshifts in the unconscious into something powerful and threatening. To wit: St. Augustine’s natural erection turning into the touch of evil.
Carl Jung had this to say about it:
“Enantiodromia. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time, an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”
How do we heal this split caused by Hera and St. Augustine?
Enantiodromia also refers to the process whereby one seeks out and embraces an opposing quality, internalizing it in a way that results in individual wholeness. This process is the crux of Jung’s notion, called the “path of individuation”. One must incorporate an opposing archetype (or essence) into their psyche to reach a state of internal completion.
“Mental or physical symptoms appear when we have forgotten something essential. They arise from the underworld – or the body – where they have been exiled by the mind. We convert neurosis (stress, depression, anxiety, or obsessive behavior) into authentic suffering, through active participation or soul-making. Illness indicates the need to establish a relationship with a particular deity” says Barry Spector, in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’.
Enter Hedone, Goddess of Sensual Pleasure, Enjoyment, and Delight.
Hedone was the daughter of Psyche (spirit or soul) and Eros (god of love and sexual attraction).
Sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight, are therefore, the products of the union and healthy balance between spirituality and sexuality, between mind and body.
Hedone is the deity with whom you, Ethan, must establish a relationship.
Full humanity, Richard Kearney says, requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to “feel what wretches feel” — or, one might also add, what artists, cooks, musicians and lovers feel. We need to find our way in a tactile world again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth. To close the distance, so that Eros is more about proximity than proxy. So that soul becomes flesh, where it belongs. Such a move, I submit, would radically alter our “sense” of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly, is to be able to say, “I have been touched”.
The Road Back to our Hearts and Bodies
If you’ve been paying attention, Ethan, you’ll know right away that I am not going to suggest that we return to the sexual liberation of the 1960’s; to an unbalanced plunge into carnal pleasures. Enantiodromia, remember?
Though I am suggesting that we all flip St. Augustine the bird once and for all.
Meet Apollo, representative of logos, mind, reason, and intellect.
I know…not as impressive as Priapus’, but that’s not the point.
The point, as Alan de Botton said, is that the statue of Apollo gives greater prestige to a very important ideal. It pictures someone very successful, very admirable and competent – who is also highly sensuous. This ideal was meant to be in people’s minds as they grew up, as they judged themselves and others. The Greeks were presenting Apollo as someone who could combine being sexual with being clever and accomplished.
So, how do we find our way back to our natural sensuality?
I asked Theo this question and this was his prescription:
1. Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed, as the female poet Kapka Kassabova said, the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting, or having sex.
“Never give a sword to a man than cannot dance.”
Just take a look at our current political mess, and you’ll understand what Confucius meant by that.
Or, if you prefer the French, here’s playwright Moliere:
“There is nothing so necessary to man as the dance. Without dancing a man can do nothing. All the disasters of men, all the fatal misfortunes of which history is full, the blunders of politicians…all this comes from not knowing how to dance.”
2. Read poetry every single day. Start with this selection. Then move on to Rumi, or Neruda, or Mirabai. Heck! Even the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’.
3. Learn to cook, and when you do, use your hands to mix, blend, and knead, as if you were caressing a woman’s or man’s body. As often as you can, cook by an open fire.
4. Play music and sculpt.
5. Go out often into the wild, but go alone, and without your electronic appendages. See everything…smell everything…touch everything.
6. Give yourself permission to be who you are. Authenticity is a powerful aphrodisiac. Switch your existence from a mode of ‘having’ to one of ‘being’, and do not squander all your erotic and sensual energies in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power. In Chapter 6 of my journey, I recount a personal, blissful experience of this kind.
7. Have the courage to be vulnerable. One of the reasons why eroticism is dead in our world, as Alan Watts suggested, is because of our culturally-ingrained discomfort with vulnerability which we try to overcome by perfect self-control which is tantamount to a state of total paralysis. Control is a degree of inhibition, and a system, or person, that is perfectly inhibited, is completely frozen.
8. Fall in love with your body, no matter the shape it’s in. Fall in love with your lover’s body, and in its presence, assume it’s virgin territory, and you, a daring, sensual explorer. Discover it with your five senses, every time, for the first time. You’ll always find a new, adorable freckle.
9. Before lovemaking, do as Napoleon did, who once wrote to his wife, saying: “I’ll be home in three days. Don’t bathe.” Our natural scent is intoxicating.
10. And, finally, when you and your partner meet, in love, recite this to each other:
 In his essay, ‘Big Red Son’ written in the late 90’s by David Foster Wallace, he added this footnote to his coverage of the Annual Adult Video Awards:
“Dark’s and Black’s movies are vile. They are meant to be. And the truth is that in-your-face-vileness is part of the schizoid direction porn’s been moving in all decade. For available, more acceptable, more lucrative, more chic – it has become also more “extreme”. In nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the psychological abuse of women. In certain respects, this extremism may simply be porn’s tracing Hollywood entertainment’s own arc. It’s hardly news that TV and legit film have also gotten more violent and explicit and raw in the last decade.”
 Enantiodromia. (2017, August 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:52, December 10, 2017.
Two weeks ago, in Part I of this series, we imagined ourselves by an open fire, listening to Joe, Nick, Tyrone, Mike, and Alex, explain why they often objectify women.
They said they did to bond with other men, to avoid rejection, intimacy and vulnerability, to fill the holes in their psyches, and as a way to reject or deny their innermost feelings.
We will now listen to Charlie answer the same question.
CHARLIE: “I’m stuck in the belief that the feminine essence is outside of myself. I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.”
Before we attempt to understand and tackle these two issues, this is key:
Humans are hardwired to worry. One of the main functions of our primal brain is to protect us from threats to our survival, so our thoughts naturally go there first. In their book, ‘Words Can Change Your Brain’, Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, wrote that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress. Positive words can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action. Using the right words can transform our reality.”
Therefore, Charlie, let’s rephrase your answers to properly frame the narrative:
Instead of saying [I’m stuck in the belief] use [I’m stuck with the belief]. Rather than [I’m alienated] try [I’ve been alienated].
You’ll notice that by changing just one word, you have turned yourself from victim, to potential hero, and the motivational centers of your brain have now externalized a ‘Dragon’ with which we can all battle.
Feeling something ‘out there’ that was once inside us, or feeling alienated, signals loss. And when we lose something (think car keys), it is always best to retrace our steps.
WHO was it that stuck men with the belief that the female essence is outside them? And WHEN and HOW were men exiled from their state of wholeness?
It appears the initial blame falls on climate change, the horse, and a volcano eruption.
The Origin of Our Stories
Ancient Greece was the cradle of Western Civilization. It is from where most of us get our ideas…our stories. And it was on the island of Crete where the first European civilization, the Minoans, emerged around 3000 years ago.
A bit earlier, in the Eurasian steppes, a nomadic, cattle-herding culture was on the move. Its expansion coincided with the taming of the horse, and climatic changes that made the steppes cooler and drier. A large group of these Indo-Europeans settled in the acropolis site of Mycenae, two hundred miles from Crete.
These two groups, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, had very different ways of looking at the world, so a clash was inevitable.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoan society was especially prosperous, peaceful, and happy. The prominence of women in palace frescoes and the numerous figurines of goddesses found on Cretan sites, have even prompted speculation that Minoan society continued to be a female-dominated culture of the kind that has sometimes been postulated as the indigenous society of prehistoric Europe.
Hunter-gatherers first showed up in this area near the southeastern Greek seacoast about twenty thousand years before the present. Over the next twelve thousand years, the sea level gradually rose, and large game animals were no longer available, so hunter-gatherer populations came to depend increasingly on plants for their survival, and the problem became to develop a reliable supply. Whatever the ways through which knowledge of agriculture spread, Neolithic women had probably played the major role in inventing the technology and the tools needed to practice it, such as digging sticks and grinding stones. After all, women in hunter-gatherer societies had developed the greatest knowledge of plants because they were the principal gatherers of this food. In the earliest history of farming, women did most of the agricultural labor, while men continued to hunt.
Meanwhile, over at Mycenae…
Inspired by the Greek poet Homer’s tale of the Trojan War, during the 1870’s archaeologists uncovered the Bronze Age site of Mycenae in the Peloponnese. The discovery of treasure-filled graves pointed to a warrior culture organized in independent settlements ruled by powerful commanders, who enriched themselves by conducting raiding expeditions near and far, as well as by dominating local farmers.
Of Myce and Minos
What were the main differences between Mycenaeans (‘Myce’) and Minoans (‘Minos’)?
They spoke different languages.
Minos were by far more artistic.
The Myce made burnt offerings to the gods; the Minos did not.
Palaces in Myce were heavily fortified. Minoan were not.
Weapons were prevalent in Myce, hardly any on Mino.
Mino society granted women higher status (although it was not a matriarchy as some suggest). Myce, by contrast, were patriarchal.
Goddesses played a greater role in Minoa as evidenced by the large number of female figurines. In contrast, the Indo-Europeans that settled in Mycenae, had brought with them their most powerful deity: Dyḗus Pḥatḗr, literally Sky Father (Zeus in Greek mythology).
Then, a massive volcano eruption and tsunami, one that may have inspired the myth of Atlantis, spelled the end of the Minoan Civilization.
The Myce and their stories took over.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
One common myth found in nearly all Indo-European mythologies is a battle ending with a hero or god (masculine) slaying a serpent or dragon (feminine).
The stories woven from these beings, as gods, goddesses, semi-mortals, heroes, and demons, constitute the myths and religious stories of humankind. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, postulated that myths about such archetypal entities constitute the ‘dreams’ of cultures, and that the stories and archetypes originate in the dreams and fantasies of individuals.
Of all the Greek myths, the one that is most relevant to Charlie’s dilemma, is the Myth of Athena, Perseus, and Medusa.
If any Greek goddess conforms to the classical anima – or archetype for the feminine side of man present in the male unconscious – it is Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare.
Athena was born of the Sky Father’s (Zeus) head. As such, she is the anima of the high god, who is born directly from the male psyche without having to go through the intermediary and polluting experience of birth from a female body. She is spared the indignities of dependency, and emerges into myth as an adult: powerful, wise, and masculine. She protects all heroes without undermining their masculine power through sexual attraction. She is most certainly a male fantasy – no sidelong glance from her feminine eyes can drag a man into the murky, uncontrolled depths of his unconscious libido. Rather she protects men when at their most threatened – in battle.
However cerebral, Athena is deeply disturbed by Medusa, a beautiful mortal woman with lovely hair, who is seduced in Athena’s temple by Poseidon, Athena’s rival. Outraged, Athena curses Medusa, turning her beautiful hair into snakes. Thus, she turns Medusa into an underworld figure, and thereafter, should a man glance at Medusa, he turns to stone. Not satisfied with turning beautiful Medusa into a feared and ugly monster, Athena then sends Perseus to behead this Gorgon and bring back her head. To avoid looking at Medusa, Perseus sights her in Athena’s polished bronze shield, using it as a mirror.
Athena is consciousness (the mind, thought); Medusa is the unconscious (instinct, feeling, body). ‘Medusa’ means female wisdom, and traditionally, female wisdom means the wisdom of the body, instincts, emotions: the anima’s chaotic urge to life, and wisdom of a hidden purpose which seems to reflect a superior knowledge of life’s laws.
In teasing out multiple meanings of the Athena vs. Medusa myth, Medusa seems to be a maiden, demonized by the intellect’s rejection of feminine beauty and sexuality, and persecuted by the conscious intellect, with its a-sexual, non-instinctive ideals – the Apollonian, as opposed to the Dionysian principle. In the ancient world, Apollo represented the pagan logos, Dionysus the instincts.
Athena, therefore, is a female version of the Apollo principle – logos, mind, reason, intellect. These are the qualities of the sky, divorced from the world of instinct and non-rational human nature – without soul, hence Athena’s struggle with and ambivalent relationship to her own anima, Medusa.
There you have it Charlie, the answer to your predicament:
Q: Who made you believe the female essence is outside you?
A: The Myce.
Q: How and when were you exiled from your state of wholeness?
A: By changing the story, about 3000 years ago.
The Path Back to Wholeness
The most relevant part of the Athena/Medusa story is not the ascendancy of the masculine (Myce) over the feminine principle (Mino), but the symbolism of Athena’s shield.
Using Athena’s bronze shield as a mirror turns Medusa into a mirror image of Athena – the looking glass image, or the opposite. The configuration of Athena with Medusa’s head on her shield suggests the combination, or reconciliation of the conscious with the unconscious, of intellect (or ego), with the feeling, intuitive, instinctive, hidden aspect of the psyche – of male essence with female essence.
Athena is the ultra-conscious, intellectual, rational sky goddess; her unconscious counterpart is the snaky-haired, sexually-charged goddess of the underworld – Athena’s thwarted, wounded anima, or soul.
If we accept that the sky gods of the nomadic Indo-European herders (the ‘Myce’), usurped and subjugated the pre-Indo European agricultural deities of Greece which were predominantly female (the ‘Minos’), then we might see Medusa as an agricultural goddess of fertility, and Athena’s appropriation of her head as an attempt to integrate and liberate her own unconscious, pre-patriarchal femininity. Athena, identified with her patriarchal, Indo-European father, tries to recapture what Zeus (the masculine principle) in her has denied and destroyed.
Athena was looking for the same thing Charlie is.
Before we look for the path back to wholeness, I believe it is important that we realize the consequences of failing to do so. As Jesus warned in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector said that with the rise of patriarchy (the Myce worldview) our creative imagination polarized into the paranoid imagination and the predatory imagination. The first is based on irrational fear, the second on an insatiable drive for control. Both express a narcissism that objectifies and negates other perspectives.
British philosopher Alan Watts suggested that one of the most important tasks facing Westerners as individuals and Western culture as a whole, is to overcome the dualistic view that spirit (the Sky, Athena, Apollo, reason, ego) is opposed to matter (the Earth, Medusa, Dionysus, intuition, feeling, body). These ideas, Watts said, concern the interrelations of (a) nature and gender, (b) men and women, and (c) sexuality and spirituality.
Watts directly addressed Charlie’s sense of alienation from the larger truth of his completeness as a human being:
“Man’s feeling that he is an isolated being in an alien environment is a basic illusion that leads to other illusions. The West, victim of this illusion, looks down on all things associated with nature, including all things feminine. This, has moral consequences in terms of how we treat or mistreat that which we mistakenly consider to be apart from us.”
The ecological price we are paying for this split is self-evident.
The problem is not men’s alone. As more and more women enter the workforce, and compete in the arena of corporate capitalism, they find that they must surrender – or become separated from – their natural feminine essence, and embody more masculine energy.
In her insightful blog, ‘The Dance of the Masculine & Feminine: How to Harmonize the Polarity of our Relationships’, Elizabeth Ziogas writes:
“Every human being is comprised of both masculine and feminine energies, although we have one dominant energy that is more our true essence. [However], many women have developed masculine shells in order to build their careers, generate income and manage their families and households. A relationship functions like its own organism: It will strive to create balance and homeostasis to ensure its survival. If one partner is embodying their masculine essence, the other partner will subconsciously begin to embody feminine energy to create polarity, attraction, ease, and balance within the relationship. Like batteries, a relationship needs both a positive (masculine) and negative (feminine) pole to generate electricity and create attraction. So when we, as women, are embodying more masculine energy, we will notice our men begin to embody more feminine energy and vice versa. As we choose to express our femininity fully, our partners will naturally exhibit more masculinity to maintain the polarity of the relationship. Our nurturing and empowering feminine presence will actually inspire our men to rise into their true masculine essence; catalyze the evolution of their purpose and leadership.”
Watts emphasized the ways in which, in the Daoist yin–yang model, masculine and feminine gender traits are two poles of the same reality. Seen this way, they can be integrated in a harmonious and balanced relationship. To say that opposites are polar is to say much more than that they are far apart; it is to say that they are related and joined—that they are the terms, ends, or extremities of a single whole. Polar opposites are therefore inseparable opposites.
Here, I want to remind Charlie of the term he used in the second part of his answer: “I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.” You did not say “completeness as a man”.
When old narratives no longer make sense, we need to re-awaken our creative imagination to write new stories, or remember forgotten ones.
“Soul-making”, Spector says, “involves re-dreaming and re-framing our lives as healing fictions. Facts can’t change, but we can change their meaning through artful telling, so that we live not from our wounds, but with them. Cultures with living myths encourage infinite expressions of creativity. In a world that devalues the spiritual, many forget how to think mythologically and are drawn to its toxic mimic, addiction. By ritually enacting our myths, we may be able to keep ourselves from acting them out literally.”
In your case, Charlie, objectifying women is a literal acting-out of the Athena/Medusa myth. You are sending your Perseus, or your male archetype of the slaying hero, to cut-off Medusa’s head, instead of ritually and symbolically re-integrating her female wisdom and skills you feel you have lost. You are having your Myce overpower your Mino, thereby perpetuating an old, destructive story.
A Modern-Day Argument for Integration
Let’s go back about twelve thousand years to the time when climatic changes in Neolithic Greece were seriously impacting the availability of large game animals to hunt, and calling forth the gathering, ‘Earth’ wisdom of women. This scenario – in which drastic changes in the environment call for adaptation and new survival skills – is very much like the one we are experiencing today. In its 2016 report, ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills’, the World Economic Forum warned:
“Many of the major drivers of transformation currently affecting global industries are expected to have a significant impact on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from heightened labor productivity to widening skills gaps.”
There are overarching shifts poised to change the nature of work itself over the next decade,” says Devin Fidler, research director at Institute for the Future. “They include a demand for new skills and strategies that could help people thrive in future work environments. It’s going to take a long time for robots to be good at soft skills, like social and emotional intelligence, and cross-cultural competency, which are hugely valuable in a world where you or I could go and be working with somebody in the Philippines within an hour. Virtual collaboration itself is really useful in that environment as well.
Social and Emotional Intelligence, Cross-cultural competency, Collaboration: all preponderantly feminine, or right-brained skills.
Therefore, Charlie, if my psycho-spiritual argument for balance doesn’t convince you, consider that the only way you’ll survive in the 21st Century, will be to recover and activate the right-brained power and wisdom you think you have lost.
I could leave it here, effortlessly accepting this dismissive (even if sometimes deserved) verdict by the extremes of Feminism; a movement whose once rightful outrage has been co-opted by a brittle ideology thundered by a new tribe of shrill Amazons who seem bent on nothing less than the extermination of the male gender.
“One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfaction of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.”
I choose to understand, no matter how hard, messy, and time-consuming.
Which reminds me…if you’re impatiently looking around this article to figure out how many minutes this post will take to read, or furtively looking at the tyrant clock (there, at the bottom-right of your screen) let me save you precious time, politely escort you out the door, and point you towards the many ‘How-to’s’ and ‘Listicles’ out there; the ones that keep promising – in 1-2-3 easy steps – to make you instantly wiser, happier, sexier, brawnier, or brainier.
I don’t do ‘instant’ anything, be it coffee, oatmeal, sex, or wisdom.
To understand (from Old English understandan: “to stand in the midst of”), we must listen. But prior, we must have the boldness and humility to unburden ourselves from our presuppositions and prejudices.
We also need time: ‘Heart-full’ time.
I’m standing by an open fire, somewhere deep in a jungle, in the midst of a group of young men we call ‘Millennials’, between the ages of 20-35.
I ask them: Why Do Men Objectify Women?”
Sit by my side now, and listen carefully to what they have to say. These are, by the way, the voices of real individuals whom I’ve listened to in cyberspace. Only their names are made-up:
JOE: “Men bond around it.”
NICK: “I’m avoiding something…an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an “easy” road out of the potential of rejections.”
TYRONE: “It keeps me safe from [the] treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability.”
MIKE: “Because I feel a hole in me and I want to fill that hole.”
ALEX: “It happens almost always when I have stuff to feel, deep down, that I simply don’t want to feel. If I am feeling some sort of unrest, I will seek to get something from ‘Her’: to ‘suck her beauty’ in some way, and that will somehow feed me/nourish me.”
CHARLIE: “I’m stuck in the belief that the feminine essence is outside of myself. I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.”
ETHAN: “When I used porn semi-frequently, I was doing so whenever I was disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
ADAM: “To avoid the terror of annihilation…of being reabsorbed back into the feminine.”
HENRY: “For guys who have very little ability to self-reflect, or limited self-awareness, [we] live seeing the entire world as object.”
ARTURO: “The women I typically objectify are the hardest ones for me to understand completely. The thing I notice, is how easily such a mysterious woman can [match] the ideal partner that I subconsciously created as a child.”
Now look deeply into their eyes, and dare to call them ‘Pigs’.
They are disoriented, that’s all, which is something I touched on in an earlier blog post.
1. Men objectify women to bond with other men.
2. They do it to avoid rejection, intimacy, and vulnerability.
3. To fill psychic holes.
4. As a way to reject, or deny, their innermost feelings.
5. It often occurs when they are disconnected from their sensuous selves.
6. Or because they’re afraid of being absorbed by – and are out of touch with – the feminine.
7. Because they lack self-awareness.
8. And because the objectified female reflects an imprinted, mysterious archetype in their beings.
How true, what Sam Keen said:
“The greatest underdeveloped nation in the world lies within the psyches of men.”
Grab your machete, strap on your headlamp, and follow me. We’ll attempt to slash our way through the jungle thicket of these young men’s muddle and darkest yearnings.
For the record, let me state that my last name is not followed by acronyms, such as MD., PhD, PsyaD, PsyD. Like most of you, I’m simply an ordinary human being – confused, contradictory, conflicted, flawed, failed, sometimes, I’ve been told, lovable – who just happens to have the time, curiosity, and inclination to grapple with what I consider some of the most fundamental questions that define us as human beings.
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of the universe.” – Rebecca West
I’m striving to read the riddle.
I’m also doing this for a friend, called Theo. He’s troubled, and has asked me to help him grapple with his own love and existential tumult.
One last thing before we head-in: I take issue with the insistence of defining Masculinity solely in terms of how men should relate to women. Not only is it condescending, but doesn’t advance anyone’s cause. It’s as narrow-minded as men defining Femininity on the shallow ground of physical attractiveness or sexual allure.
JOE: “Men bond around it.”
Our human genus led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence during ninety-nine percent of the time we’ve been on Earth. Such life, I imagine, offered men the needed space to let-off steam, prove their worth and mettle, and refine their cooperation and communication skills. Plenty of Bromance in the Wild.
All that has changed.
Spaces for men to bond with each other (I’ll simplify here for the sake of time) seem now limited to either (a) huddling around a screen to vicariously live out their fantasies through sports, or through reality shows in which tough guys get to do the ‘wild’ things men yearn, but most can no longer do themselves, (b) crowding around a beer keg, or (c) joining a gang, or the armed forces. Not particularly conducive to sincere, expressive, and meaningful conversations, nor to establish deep connections between men. What ends up happening is that they become emotional stutterers, as Sam Keen wrote in ‘Fire in the Belly’, using sexual or [violent] language to express their desire for communion.
“Friendship among men is the most modest and rugged of the modes of love,” Keen added. “Many American men, afraid of close friendships with other men, will become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy. But every single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy.”
I don’t yet have a clear solution for more meaningful ways for men to bond, other than calling for more communal life and less individualism – more male drum circles, fire pits, wilderness retreats, and, most critically, to call for the return of our Wise Old Men, who can teach Joe how to truly bond with his mates, not by objectifying women, but by ‘subjectifying’ himself.
NICK: “I’m avoiding something…an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an ‘easy’ roadout of the potential of rejections.”
I came of age during a time when, at parties, boys stood pressed against one wall of the dance floor, while girls sat – primly on the opposite side – yawning and checking their nails, completely ignoring our jitters. There were no ‘loose girls’ crossing that seemingly endless floor to ask any of us out to dance (or grind). Most often, we struck-out. Boy, it hurt. I was stung by every painful and embarrassing rejection, but now realize how fortunate I was. Because, if I really wanted to get the girl, I had to keep crossing that scary floor, keep getting rejected, gaining more and more courage with every attempt, perfecting my courtship skills until I finally got it right. Which I did.
Here’s the thing Nick: The ‘easy road’ is really a path to degradation – the degradation of your nobility as a man. Yes, intimacy takes work (of the good kind, mind you), and courage, and commitment, but consider their opposites: sloth, cowardice, and indecisiveness = not attractive.
TYRONE: “It keeps me safe from [the] treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability.”
From both Nick’s and Tyrone’s ‘easy vs treacherous road’ comments, it appears to me we’ve done a grave disservice to Millennials by insisting on paving for them a safe and frictionless road to the land of plenty and perpetual happiness; a road on which we protectively run by their sides (with sunscreen, trophies, and water of course) drip-feeding them constant recognition and reaffirmation of their personality and worth.
Memorize this, Tyrone.
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” – Martha Graham
And what of ‘Vulnerability’?
To be invulnerable requires that we create a ‘safe’ distance between ourselves and the world, so it can’t touch us. But wouldn’t this so-called, safe distance, just exacerbate the disconnect Ethan blames for his occasional forays into pornography?
I agree with Todd May, philosophy professor at Clemson University, who suspects that most of us want to feel caught up in the world. “We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.”
No pain, no gain, I guess is what he’s saying, and, what Zat Rana means by:
“The risk of vulnerability is balanced by the reward of ecstasy.”
MIKE: “Because I feel a hole in me and I want to fill that hole.”
We all have them Mike, to one degree or another. I should know; my psyche looks like a block of Swiss Cheese. In fact, I’ve discovered that even those whose last names trail acronyms like tin cans dragged by a newlywed car, are as pockmarked as the Moon. So chill, you’re not alone. But rather than allowing this recognition to cause you despair, you should learn to accept it as the gift of humility and understanding.
A good man does not have empathy, Keen argued. He is emphatic. “Since he has given up the illusion that he is self-contained, he naturally flows out to others. The result of coming to know yourself – to know the wounds of shame and guilt, the disappointments of love, the unfulfilled dreams – is that you recognize the same in others.”
The question Mike, is whether you recognize the holes in your psyche.
Have you taken the time to confront your shadows?
“Emotions that have not been properly avowed have a pernicious habit of wreaking havoc across our personalities.” – Alan de Botton, creator of the Book of Life
Botton goes on to say that emotions that remain disavowed and uninterpreted, manifest themselves as powerful, directionless anxiety. “Under their sway, we may feel a compulsive need to remain busy, fear spending any time on our own, or cling to activities that ensure we don’t meet what scares us head on.”
And if you do recognize the holes within you, what are you filling them with: Pornography? Easy-sex? Opioids? Alcohol? Compulsive eating or exercise? Video games? Objectification of women?
These are not of the same material, or essence, that was first dug out, causing the holes in the first place.
Mike, if one of your holes was perhaps caused by your absent father, who maybe never told you what kind of problems he wrestled with as a young man, what he felt, what it meant to him to be a man, leaving it up to you to figure it all out by yourself, that hole, my friend, cannot be filled with any material other than ‘father-stuff’. What do I mean? That you either return to your Father’s Castle to wrestle that guidance from him, or seek a surrogate – a Mentor, Hero, Author, Philosopher – any Man you admire and respect, and spend soulful time with him, scraping the right stuff off his experience and wisdom to fill that hole.
I agree that a big part of the problem today, as Robert Bly suggested, is that we have stripped the poetry away from our suffering, and replaced it with clinical names like anxiety, depression, stress, burnout. Casting our suffering in such sterilized, cold light might make pharmaceutical companies rich, but it leaves us numb and helpless, which might explain why they do it.
I much rather consider my suffering as a great battlefield, full of the material and symbols of mythology, and be like St. George – noble, valiant, fierce – as I too, battle my Demons and Dragons. That – not Prozac or Xanax – lights a fire in my belly, or under my butt, if you prefer.
Avoidance or Denial
ALEX: “[Objectification] happens almost always when I have stuff to feel, deep down, that I simply don’t want to feel. If I am feeling some sort of unrest, I will seek to get something from ‘Her’: to ‘suck her beauty’ in some way, and that will somehow feed me/nourish me.”
I’ll repeat Keen’s earlier words (here paraphrased): “Men who are afraid of close friendships with other men will predictably become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy. But, every single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need, will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy.”
Anthropophagy and Vampirism are not sexy either.
Here’s the rub Alex. Your unrest will still be there the morning after you’ve devoured Her beautiful flesh and sucked her blood. The Dragon will keep flaming deep inside you, until you clothe yourself in armor, trade your joystick for a sword, mount your steed, and, either tame it, or vanquish it.
Repressing, or denying our grief, not only is fruitless, but blunts our capacity to experience joy. We might look tough on the outside, but remain empty within.
Let’s rest and camp here. We’ll continue slashing our way through the thicket in two weeks’ time, when we’ll enter even deeper into the jungle.
In Chapter 4 of Theo’s journey, an opportunity presents itself for a one-night stand. He’s at a beachside bar in Mexico – the music pulses, a warm breeze flows, tequila shots and bared flesh abound. Theo is engulfed by an intoxicating cloud of ‘Opium’ worn by an alluring late twenties noirette sitting next to him. She’s celebrating her upcoming wedding with wild abandon in tropical paradise. Theo’s girlfriend is three-thousand miles away. No one would find out.
Or as G.K. Chesterton pronounced:
“The idea of monogamy hasn’t so much been tried and found wanting, as found difficult and left untried.”
Earth is about 4.5 Billion years old. Sex only emerged 1.2 Billion years ago. If we divide Earth’s current age into twenty-four hours, it was not until six hours before midnight that we stumbled upon sex. No wonder we are still mystified by it. It is of recent “invention”.
To our confusion, let’s add that monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate. Primates aside, only about three percent of mammals, and one-in-ten thousand invertebrate species can be considered monogamous. Birds are different: ninety percent are monogamous, or so scientists affirmed, until confronted with new, contradictory research results. Okay, whatever, we’re not birds anyway, last I checked. We are, as the authors of ‘Sex at Dawn’ suggest, the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors.
To put it somewhat more elegantly: We are courtship and desire machines.
Nothing wrong with this, unless we insist on ignoring or repressing it, and so continue witnessing the failure of one-in-two marriages, or the tragic toll on young boys exacted by the mandate of clerical celibacy for those married to the Church.
Sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures
Do men cheat more than women?
Not anymore, according to a recent study by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, and confirmed by the National Opinion Research Center. They’re just more discreet and discriminating.
I am convinced that a woman’s libido is as potent, if not more so than men’s. The only difference is that theirs is more like the appetite of a gourmand: they don’t yearn to eat just to stop the hunger, but look instead for unique satisfactions presented in imaginative ways. By this, guys, I do not mean twisting yourself into a pretzel while attempting to impress your wives or girlfriends with the sexual positions you half-memorized from that worn copy of the Kama Sutra. That will only strain your back. She longs not for your acrobatics, but your inventiveness.
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source.” – Anaïs Nin
Let’s be honest: sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures; it is evolution’s most ingenious hat trick. You wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t.
Here, I make no distinction between a full-fledged affair, and, say, a seemingly harmless, yet sexually-charged text-message exchange. Both hurt.
In Matthew 5:28, Jesus proclaimed that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already committed adultery with her in his heart, and yet, he once challenged those that were about to stone an adulterous woman, by saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all dropped their stones and walked away. So before anyone hurls stones at my inbox, be sure you’re free from all transgression.
If, on the other hand, you are as culpable as the rest of us, drop your stone, and let’s try to figure this out together.
The Origins of Monogamy
“When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security. Itshatters the grand ambition of love,” writes author and psychotherapist, Esther Perel.
“Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it,” she continues. “In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so, that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it. So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced?”
We’re back to the eons-old conflict between our desires and conventions; between Nature and Civilization.
Monogamy is a boon for Omega males. “It is a great democratizing institution,” evolutionary biologist David Barash asserts, “enabling men to have a wife and a chance at a family, the great majority of whom would otherwise be left out. The hypothesis thus goes that Western society (in particular) inculcated monogamy as a trade-off, whereby powerful men essentially agreed to forego polygyny – in which a man has more than one wife – in return for a degree of social peace and harmony. Monogamy is part of our egalitarian ethos.”
The Tenth Commandment does not say “Thou shall not covet another woman.” It is specifically concerned with protecting the rights of one’s neighbor, by keeping gallivanting men away from other men’s wives.” (Barash & Lipton).
In ‘The Myth of Monogamy’, authors Barash and Lipton propose that even if monogamy isn’t necessary for civilization, it is clear that public adherence to monogamous ideals is necessary for success and survival in current Western civilization.
But it still doesn’t fully explain why we cheat (in the broadest sense), nor how, or if, to stop.
So What’s Really Behind Cheating?
In his book, ‘Love in the Western World’, Denis de Rougemont challenges: “If the breakdown of marriage has been simply due to the attractiveness of the forbidden, it still remains to be seen why we hanker for unhappiness, and what notion of love this hankering must hint at.”
“Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves, or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.” (Perel).
Infidelity is not about sex. At least not so for humans. It is more about longing and loss.
In his journey, Theo begins to realize what women long for:
“To be listened to, not simply heard; to be held in the gaze of desire. Not just looked at, or checked out, but seen, as with the halting and eager attention of a blind man. They don’t want our “rent”, as the poet Jane Cooper wrote, but the radiance of our attention. Not a roof, but a field of stars.”
It is the longing of any woman to not have her sensuality become invisible under the stack of dishes or mounds of dirty laundry.
For men, especially after our twenties, I believe it is more about loss – the loss of our magnetic power of seduction. We’ll do almost anything to confirm we still have it, and many will go as far as wrecking their/other marriages or relationships – even their lives – in the process.
But are men losing it as they age, or are they squandering it? Might we not simply be expending all our erotic energy, our Eros, which at root means to love and desire ardently, in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power, having little left when we return home from work?
“Our erotic imagination is an exuberant expression of our aliveness” – Esther Perel
But if we feel dead inside – dull, inauthentic, and devoid of purpose – what passion can we possibly bring to our relationships?
What Turns You On?
For her research, Perel traveled across different countries and cultures, asking one question:
“When do you find yourself most drawn to your partner?”
Across cultures, religions, and genders, there was a striking commonality in the answers:
I am most drawn to my partner when she/he is away, when we are apart, when we reunite, basically, when I get back in touch with my ability to imagine myself with my partner. When my imagination comes back in the picture, and can root that imagination in absence and longing.
When he or she is in his element. When she is doing something she is passionate about. When I see him hold court. When she is radiant and confident.
When I look at my partner from a safe distance – not too close or far – that she/he once again becomes somewhat mysterious, somewhat elusive. Between this space – between me and the other – lies the erotic élan (the vital force or impulse of life). Marcel Proust said that the mystery is not about traveling to new places but looking with new eyes. In this distance, there is no neediness. There is no caretaking in desire. Neediness is a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.
When I am surprised, when we laugh together, when there is novelty, but not novelty in the sense of new positions, or places, but in the new aspects of yourself that you bring out, because sex is not something you do but a place to which you go. It is a space you enter.
Note how there’s no mention of “hot body”, “big-rack”, or “six-pack”.
Lovemaking begins long before consummation. It is sensuous, not just physical, and its sublimity is reached only between two vibrant selves; two lovers meeting in the fullness of their being.
Inviting the Shadow Lover
In ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, Freud said that civilization is built on the repression of the instincts. Barash and Lipton suggest that perhaps, we should adjust our ideals of monogamy to accord with human inclinations. That instead of taking monogamy as the norm, and thus being “shocked” by adultery, we should see infidelity as the baseline condition, whereupon we might be free to examine monogamy, dispassionately, for the rarity that it is.
How do we examine it?
In ‘Mating in Captivity’, Perel challenges us to “Invite the Shadow”. Some couples, she reports, choose not to ignore the lure of the forbidden, they subvert its power by inviting it in. They have chosen to acknowledge the possibility of the third: the recognition that our partner has his or her own sexuality, replete with fantasies and desires that are not necessarily about us. When we validate one another’s freedom within the relationship, we’re less inclined to search for it elsewhere.
I think what she is suggesting, is that we have the courage to share our deepest longings and fears of loss with our partners, before a transgression takes place.
Just Say No
Since Monogamy is not natural, it is not easy, the ‘Myth of Monogamy’ concludes.
“But perhaps it is precisely when – and because – the flesh is weak, that the spirit ought to rise to the occasion.
The crowning glory of Homo Sapiens is its huge brain. This remarkable organ gives us the ability to reflect on our inclinations and decide to act contrary to them [as hard as I know it is].
There may be no way to affirm one’s humanity as effectively as by saying ‘no’.
By establishing a durable, long-term relationship with someone who not only cares, but also shares an expanding history, who understands our strengths, weaknesses, joys, and despairs, the successful monogamist assures himself and herself a companion for life, long after the children (if any) have grown, when work is no longer an option, when even sex may be mostly a memory.”
What’s the alternative? To jump from one bed to another; one lover to the next, sating our body’s hunger, perhaps, but starving our souls.
Leave that to the animals.
“Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by human imagination.” – Octavio Paz
For a while, I have been searching for the most fitting totemic animal for the group of young men swelling the ranks of a movement, loosely referred to as Men Going their Own Way (MGTOW).
The MGTOW is a pseudonymous online community supported by websites and social media presences cautioning men against romantic relationships with women, especially marriage. The community is part of what is more broadly termed the Manosphere, a place, author Stephen Marche describes as one where mostly feral boys wander the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.
How appropriate to have found MGTOW’s totemic animal in a Mexican swamp.
The Axolotl is a salamander exhibiting the phenomenon known as neoteny, or retention of juvenile features in the adult animal. Ordinarily, amphibians undergo metamorphosis from egg to larva, and finally to adult form. The Axolotl remains in its larval form throughout its life. It never grows up. It is the Peter Pan of amphibians.
I’m fascinated with Nahualli, which is Aztec for “shadow soul” or “animal double”.
If you had been born a Mexica during the time of the Aztec empire, a priest would have attended you on the fourth day of your life. The purpose was for the priest to see, bind, and announce your relationship with your animal double – your Nahualli. It was perhaps, the most important ritual in the life of a Mexica. Traditionally, the Nahualli taught the youth its secrets, skills, and abilities. The bravest and most skilled of the young warriors, for instance, were members of the elite Jaguar and Eagle groups. The Jaguar Knights were the Aztec version of the Japanese ninja – shadow warriors who used stealth and the cover of darkness to hunt and overcome their enemies, much like their namesake, the jaguar. The Eagle Knights operated in daylight hours, attacking with swiftness and sheer ferocity, swooping-in to overwhelm and overcome their enemies, as the eagle conquers its prey.
Let me first declare my biases. I have two daughters, and two sisters. As for the former, no young man will ever meet all my expectations. I recognize this as simply irrational and arrogant…a “father-thing”. For the latter, no man has ever met theirs, or even, I’d venture, their own. I’m talking here about the basics: respect, care, attention, commitment.
I am also ambivalent about traditional marriage, having failed on my first – and “last” try. Like the writer Jack London, I much prefer a “Mate-Woman” than a “Mother-Woman” by my side.
Finally, I resonate with, and share the core tenets of the MGTOW: Self-ownership, Sovereignty, and Self-Definition of what it is to be a man. But from reading many of the comments posted on the movement’s forum, it appears most are missing the point. MGTOW’s principles and ideals are now deafened by the angry burps of thousands of Axolotls.
I know relationships are messy, and fraught with risk. They often crack us open, exposing our vulnerabilities, and require that we constantly bring forth our better selves. And I get it. Sex is now cheap and plentiful, and yes, there is bias against men in family courts…extreme feminism is a major turnoff. Safer then to spend your free time in onanistic bouts between the latest installment of ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Tetris’. Or right-swiping Bethany’s photo, who is more than willing to hook-up with you at no cost, and no strings attached.
But here’s the rub. I believe there is a hidden cost, and it comes in the form of your diminished, or deformed nobility as a man (In the Aztec language, the Axolotl is connected to the God of Deformations).
Let me illustrate this cost by paraphrasing an allegory I once heard on a recorded lecture by the evolutionary cosmologist, Brian Swimme:
Imagine a wide, open prairie. A red-tailed hawk circles above, scanning the field in search for his next meal. Natural selection has developed incredible speed in the hawk, and its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. A truly magnificent, noble creature! He spots a mouse. Easy lunch, one would think. But the genius of natural selection has caused mice to be extremely agile and elusive. An exciting chase is set to begin.
Now, let’s say we control the levers of nature, and decide to perform our own natural selection experiment by slowing down the mouse a bit and changing its color from camouflage gray-brown, to neon yellow. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and keen eyesight will concurrently diminish. Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly overhead, but simply give chase to the mouse on solid ground.
What will happen if we continue this experiment for the “benefit” of the hawk; if we slow the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl?
At the end, the once-majestic hawk would probably lose its wings and feathers, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his gaping beak. Of course, the unintended consequences of our experiment, is that the hawk, in its enfeebled state, would itself become easy prey.
What’s the point, and what does it have to do with you, burping Axolotls?
You see, by effortlessly getting what he wants, the hawk enters a path of degradation, where all its beauty and nobility is rendered superfluous. The hawk’s truest desire is for the mouse to live. Deeply embedded in ‘Hawk’ is the desire for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse’.
Deeply embedded in ‘Woman’ is the desire for your nobility, expressed by your courtship, seductive cunning, romantic ingenuity, erotic imagination, and your gallantry. Whether you realize it or not, deeply embedded in You, is the desire for women’s elusiveness.
Axolotls might be cute, but Hawks are fierce and noble. Let that be your totemic animal instead, and go find yourself a Mate-Woman, just like Suleiman the Magnificent found in Roxelane, despite the many willing ‘Bethanys’ in his harem.