Why Is Monogamy So Damn Difficult?

women-your-boyfriend-wants-752x440

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.

So difficult.

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. It shatters 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).

Fidelity then, favors “weak” men, property rights, mothers and children. Civilization wins.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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


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Advice to Young Men: Try Not to Be This Cute

Axolotl

Meet the Axolotl, a Mexican Salamander.

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[1]. 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.[2]

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.


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[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Men Going Their Own Way.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Oct. 2017. Web.

[2] Rainieri, Caelum and Andersen, Ivory. Illustrated by Raphael Montoliu. “The Nahualli Animal Oracle”. Bear and Company, New York, 2003.

 

 

Where Are the Uncles, the Elders, the Wise Men?

initiation

I try not to watch or read news. Haven’t for many years now. I don’t believe there is such a thing anymore, in the proper sense: a factual account of events. The chief currency with which our current media ecosystem traffics is simply outrage. So I decided that if I was to be outraged, or afraid, or indignant, I would do so on my own terms.

I also decided that instead of simply watching the news, I would use my talents to try to change the news.

It’s inescapable, right? The news. Always worming itself into our awareness. It finds us at the supermarket checkout counter, gas pump, or through the unwanted headline flash on our cellphones, like this one:

“TERROR IN LAS VEGAS”

As I read the article, the first thing that came to my mind, was not gun control, or our dysfunctional mental health system (both surely in urgent need of reform) but this African proverb:

“If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”

…or mow down sixty people with a hailstorm of bullets, or rape on college campuses, or be complicit in hazing deaths at frathouses.

I immediately intuited that Stephen Paddock, the Vegas mass shooter, grew up without the stable presence of a father, or positive male role models. And I was pretty sure that most of the other recent killings perpetrated by white males with no ideological motive would fit this pattern. I was right.

Some have written about this, but stop short at laying the blame for absent fathers on the dissolution of the “traditional marriage bond” and the concurrent rise of births to single mothers. Let’s do away with no-fault divorce, they clamor, and kids will have fathers again and guns will be silenced. But if young men are opting out of marriage in greater numbers than ever before, just imagine the future trendline if we make it harder and costlier for them to jump ship.

Which brings me to the Mosuo, an ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists living in a lush valley at the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. A matrilineal society without fathers, without marriage or divorce, and with no words for war, murder, or rape. I have not been able to confirm this, but I’d blindly bet that they have never experienced a mass shooting.

What’s relevant to me about the Mosuo and what happened in Vegas is not their relaxed sexual mores, but the fact that although Mosuo men have no paternal responsibilities, they have considerable responsibility as uncles to their sisters’ children. In fact, along with elderly maternal great-uncles, younger uncles are the pivotal male influence on children.

In traditional societies, initiating boys into full-fledged men through rites of passage is the purview of the men of the tribe – particularly the elders – and not just the father. I argue that fathers cannot be sole mentors to their sons because of their subjective, vested interests. Even if they could, we generally don’t listen to our parents. The best piece of advice I ever got from a man, was at age thirty, and came from my father. When I told him I was working sixteen-hour days building up my businesses, he warned:

“Unless your mind can purge itself of sixteen hours of material preoccupations (which probably even extend into your sleep) all your creative visions, or visionary creations will come to naught in the objective plane. Additionally, sooner or later, your mind will snap and you won’t be 30 going on 40, but 35 going straight into the abyss.”

He undershot his prediction by one year. I was 36 when I went straight into the abyss.

Indigenous people know that when young men don’t transform into men, catastrophe results: outwardly against the Other, or inwardly, in depression, addiction or suicide. When a youth is denied initiation, his nobility dies. – Barry Spector

Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded towards one of three troughs:

  1. For the well off: into competitive consumers.
  2. For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
  3. At the lower rung: the gangs.

None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.

The dangerous vacuum created by these incomplete initiations, calls for the positive influence of other men: uncles, great-uncles, mentors, grandfathers, godfathers, neighbors, and friends, which can make all the difference in a young boy’s life.

If you are one of them, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active and influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.

Keep in mind what Frederick Douglass once wrote:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

You might just prevent a tragedy like Vegas.

If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood, and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.


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Follow The Hero in You


Answering the Call

This is the post excerpt.

empty road

In most lives, there is a path that runs parallel to the one on which we span the time between our entry and our exit from life’s stage.

We usually sense its presence late at night, when alone, and everyone else sleeps. Or returning from work, nerve-ends frayed, and vitality sapped. We often see it through the kitchen window as we stand at the sink, dealing with another pile of soiled dishes and glasses, and wonder:

“Is this it? What am I doing with my life? How much time do I have left?

There is a Russian word that best describes this sentiment:

Toska: At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, a yearning.

Such simmering unease usually signals a call from the path of true purpose, demanding to feel the decisive steps of our most authentic and creative selves.

Most ignore the call. The signals are often fuzzy, the path looks treacherous, steep, and shrouded in uncertainty. So we choose to remain in place, wrapped inside our familiar, predictable, and safe cocoons, and thus never become butterflies. We remain, like Rilke said, “inside the dishes and in the glasses“.

Over time, like a failed telemarketer working the night shift, the Universe gives up, and stops calling.

Not in my case.

I seem to have been assigned the most indefatigable, willful, and creatively-destructive operator on staff – the new hire, the one with the quirky accent, always fresh and stoked, working the longest hours, the most grueling shifts.

When he first dialed my number, I was eighteen, sitting next to my father inside the stately, oak-paneled opulence of the Edwardian Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel having eggs Benedict for breakfast, mesmerized by the glitter of diamonds and gold, kindled by the overhead chandeliers. Too young anyway to understand his language, and no wise mentor to turn to; no Yoda, Obi-Wan, Professor Dumbledore, or Mr. Miyagi to translate the – often – ambiguous message. Preening, cock-sure, and materialistic too, so I ignored his call.

For years he persisted, progressively growing more impatient, but I kept hanging up. At thirty I began to sense what he was selling, and wanted it.

He had watched me as a young boy, reading and writing stories atop an old avocado tree, feeling my delight as the hours passed unnoticed, and wanted to return to me the gift of wonder, curiosity, and imagination I then had.

He wanted me to return to the tree.

But my hands were busy building a business empire. No time for climbing trees, reading books, gawking at sunsets, whiling away astonished by beauty, or for writing stories.

Eventually he got pissed, and six years later, kicked my sandcastle really hard. Left the empire and my identity in ruins, the feisty bugger.

With four mouths to feed, I thought I had no choice but to forever remain a grub. But I always hoped for one last chance; that he’d call again.

The final call came when I was about to turn fifty-five.

I’m going back to the tree.

sleep no more


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