Like hailstones on flowers, we keep pelting our boys with scorn for the mere fact of being boys.
Assailing them at every turn, mass media thunders dispiriting messages like, “The End of Men,” “The Demise of Guys,” “Are Men Necessary?”
Not yet capable of nuance or understanding context, the opprobrium poured on men with undiscriminating malevolence must sound to their fragile minds like a factual, congenital defect of their gender. Guilty before proven innocent.
It’s the same guilt one is made to feel when walking into a Catholic church and met by the limp and lacerated body of Christ nailed to the cross. “Because of my fault, because of my fault, because of my great fault,” worshippers chant as they tap their guilt-ridden heart with their fist.
A year ago, the American Psychological Association put out its first-ever ‘Guidelines for Practice with Boys and Men.’ “From the first sentences,” laments Dr. Michael Gurian, “the APA did what so many other organizations do: fall back on the soft science of ‘masculinity is the cause of men’s problems’ and ‘removing masculinity is the solution.’”
No wonder most men refuse therapy and are committing suicide in increasing numbers.
I suppose the scorn lashed against men is a form of payback for us having once blamed women for all the ills of the world… Lilith, Eve, Pandora, Demeter… I get it.
But I’m an adult. I can take the punches without losing my balance. Boys cannot.
So pummeled, the wings of their spirit are prematurely clipped, discouraging them to soar and actualize their innate masculine nobility. Then we wonder why they are failing to launch, lag behind at school, seek respect by joining online hate groups, or vent their confusion through mass shootings.
“As profiles of school shooters have shown us,’ adds Michael Gurian, “the most dangerous male is not one who is strong, aggressive, and successful; the most dangerous male is one who is depressed, unable to partner or raise children successfully, unable to earn a living, unable to care for his children. The most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless.”
When an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, women will be perpetually stuck with boys. And without strong men, women will never attain a centered and profound sense of themselves as women. — Camille Paglia
The inference, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is toxic, ergo masculinity is toxic, is as idiotic as saying: “Cleopatra was a cunning harlots, ergo all women are harlots.”
For every Weinstein, there are hundreds of men, like Aaron Feis, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves, who sacrificed their lives shielding the innocent from harm. Toxic you say?
For every Trump, I give you a Jefferson, a Washington and a Lincoln.
For every Hitler, I give you a Churchill and a Roosevelt.
Keep raising the toxic flag and shaming boys for being boys and you will awaken the beast. Our world has paid a heavy price at the hands of humiliated boys who sought retribution and power through bloodletting.
If you must vent, go ahead. There is a valid reason for your rightful anger. Just put away your shotgun and bring out your high-precision rifle. Boys don’t need to suffer the impact of your broad-stroked vitriol striking the guilty and innocent alike. Exceptions do not prove a rule. A radical Muslim, for instance, does not represent the entirety of the Islamic faith.
The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men. – Christina Hoff Sommers.
Boys need to know they are needed and wanted. That the world needs their fierce, warrior energy as much as it needs women’s intuition, empathy, and nurturing power.
“Boys are such great kids,” writes Katey McPherson in ‘Why Teens Fail: What to Fix,’ “because of who they are — so direct, so compassionate, so full of energy and wonder, if we can just see it and love it. To nurture it, though, especially as one of four sisters and a mother of four girls, I had to commit consciously to seeing male nature as a strong part of this world that needs my help to be and remain strong.”
If we, as a culture, insist on rejecting their unique gifts, we will perpetuate the parable of Cain and Abel. Brothers will keep slaying brothers and our boys will be condemned to a life of wandering — adrift and disoriented.
Male character traits such as strength, stoicism, rightful anger, and transformative power are vital forces for good if they are rightly understood and channeled.
Masculinity is not the enemy. The enemy is distorted, crafty, and malevolent language.
Men have been driving this world for the past two hundred thousand years and from what I can see through the rearview mirror the picture ain’t pretty so I say it’s time women take the wheel.
Notice I did not say, “Throw us out of the car and make us eat your dust.” After all, you’ll need us to change a flat tire now and then.
I know you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. I just think women’s hands should not be soiled by axle grease. They are meant to nurture and heal. Let us do the dirty work and heavy lifting, not because we think you’re weak, but because we care.
There’s a bully blocking your agenda? Tell us where he lives, we’ll take him out!
For the greater part of the human story, we were equals. You gathered, we hunted. This lasted for about 99% of the time modern humans have been on this planet. It wasn’t until ten thousand years ago when we began to settle and till the land that we disrupted the harmony with our macho bullshit. We came up with the notion of property and extended that notion to your bodies and personhood.
Afraid of your power, we began to blame you for the ills of the world and invented skygods after our own image to punish you.
Envious of your fecundity and your intuitive powers, we banished all female goddesses and filled the pantheon with male divinities and stoic male heroes. Reason became the supreme virtue, while the feeling body and emotions were declared vile and capricious.
Bewildered by your overpowering sensuality that continues to spin us like a top, we repressed it, veiled it to remove it from sight, and now seek its return in the dark and lonely theater of our minds projected through the perverted lens of pornography. Pathetic!
In our blinding arrogance, we considered your intellect inferior to ours and denied you the right to vote, robbing the world from your voice and wisdom at enormous cost.
We turned you from subjects to objects, which made it easier for us to exploit, enslave, and denigrate you.
Really sorry about all this too.
The record speaks for itself. Our seeming incapacity to develop emotional intelligence, and deal with our anger, has cost the lives of 150 million to over one billion people in warfare. Our self-imposed exile from our feeling bodies and emotions — hence from nature itself — has ushered in the sixth mass extinction and now has Earth on the brink.
The list of our blunders is exhaustive.
Recently, one of your female colleagues, a brave 16 year-old climate activist, speaking on behalf of the planet, was mocked and ridiculed by the most powerful man on Earth. Toxic, indeed.
But we’re all not like that. The rotten apples have not spoiled the entire barrel. It’s just that the bullies, loudmouths, windbags, braggarts and scumbags get most of the air time. They are the locusts of the world.
For now, it appears the locusts are winning, but listen carefully, and you’ll hear a growing buzzing of bees.
The New Zealand parliament, for example, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but still majority male, recently approved a landmark zero-carbon law.
2019 ended with a glimmer of hope when the Dutch Supreme Court (majority male) granted a landmark climate victory that could change the world.
And the decade ended with men and women joined in protest around the world.
“What lay underneath all this disillusionment,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, “was a readiness to question foundations that had been portrayed as fixed, inevitable, unquestionable — whether that foundation was gender norms, heterosexuality, patriarchy, white supremacy, the age of fossil fuels or capitalism.”
The tide is turning.
So while your anger and disillusionment with men is rightful and warranted, this is not the time to further the divide. You will be perpetually stuck with boys, warns Camille Paglia, so long as you continue denigrating masculinity and manhood.
I’m asking you to give us some time to figure out our shit.
Your steady and deserved return back to equality has caught us unprepared. It will take us a while to fashion an evolved conception of manhood. Bear in mind that the male software was written by nature during hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history. The traits in men that women often find exasperating were fashioned out on the African savannah, and, in many ways, have served their purpose.
In ‘The Hero in You,’ my book for boys, I explain the virtues and glitches of these traits:
Excerpt from Chapter 2
For example, we men don’t talk much. There’s a good reason for that. Imagine you’re out on the savannah with your hunting buddies and one of them just won’t shut up. You would never catch anything, and you, your buddies, and all the members of your clan would starve to death. Our ancestors survived and passed-on those instructions to the next generation of hunters: “Speak little, hunt more.”
Our male brains are wired to transmit our emotions more quickly to our physical bodies. As a result, we are more impulsive. We act quickly to solve immediate problems. It would have been a bad idea for us and our hunting buddies to sit down and chat about how scared or unsafe we felt when encountering a Saber-toothed Tiger. We express our emotions by moving; we hit a desk when angry or run when stressed. That’s the reason men express love with less words and more physical action.
Men have fewer nerve endings for feeling pain and fewer pain receptors in their brains. That’s why we can stand more pain, although you wouldn’t think so when watching a grown man stub his toe on a chair and collapsing on the floor screaming about how much it hurts.
Women claim men can’t find things. They’re half-right. While we might not be able to find the cereal box even though it’s right in front of our nose, we can certainly spot the big things, like Mammoths. Our software was written out in the wild, hunting on the wide expanse of the savannah. We look at the big picture. We see the forest, not the trees.
Women get frustrated with men who refuse to ask for directions when lost. There’s a good reason for that too. We like to figure things out for ourselves. We are scouts and explorers, navigators and adventurers. We like to wade across churning rivers, slash our way through steamy jungles, and climb mountains to look far and wide to map out the road ahead. We are visionaries.
We are also less empathetic; less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, or suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our buddies fell and got hurt, we just didn’t have the time to sit by his side to comfort him. We picked him up, brushed him off, maybe gave him a pat on the back, and we both kept running after our next meal. We had to. Those waiting for us back at camp depended on us to bring food. Men bond with their buddies by challenging them.
We don’t avoid pain and danger, but actually go out and look for it. Exposing ourselves to danger made us develop the skills we needed to survive. Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written in the soul of man.
We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees. To give you an example, in 1954, a famous social psychologist convinced twenty-two sets of parents to let him take their 12 year-old boys off their hands for three weeks and took them to a remote place. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone, yet still set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules, songs, rituals, and flags. One boy in each group was chosen as the leader. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. Men are warriors because when living as hunter-gatherers we had to defend our clan.
We are also protectors. When we see someone of our clan or family in danger, we run to their rescue, even if it means we will die in the process. Writing for The Federalist, Jason Farrell says “masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland as he shielded students from bullets while pushing them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre when three young men died shielding their girlfriends.”
Sometimes, we even sacrifice ourselves for an ideal — the ideas we believe can improve human lives. There have been brave men, like Greek philosopher Socrates, Italian cosmologist Giordano Bruno, and English statesman Thomas Moore, who chose to die, rather than renounce their ideals and live. These men are some of the great Warrior Bees in the human story.
But much as there are great things about the male software, it also has its bugs and glitches like any computer program, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t constantly work on making it better. After all, we are Homo Sapiens, or wise men.
There is, for example, no reason why we can’t train ourselves to better express our emotions besides sulking, shouting, hitting desks, slamming doors, or punching people in the nose.
Although we are less empathetic, I don’t see why we can’t develop rational compassion, using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then lending our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.
Knowing we are territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different and speak a different language, instead of destroying their flags, raiding and vandalizing their camp, and calling them nasty names, we can choose to see them as part of the human family, learn from one another, and work together to make the world a better place.
The human enterprise thrived for hundreds of thousands of years because men and women cooperated, side by side, as equals, bringing their unique traits, strengths and powers to bear on a shared adventure. We’d do well by remembering that the Greek goddess Harmonia was born from the union of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love.
Realizing we lost our way ten thousand years ago, we must now ‘hark back’ — a phrase used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent.
While men get the hang of it, it’s best the world let women take the wheel. Just don’t leave us by the side of the road. You might need us to replace a flat tire now and then, or act as your human shield in case we come across armed bandits along the way.
“Young men between 25 and 31 are 66 percent more likely than their female counterparts to be living with their parents.” — from ‘The Boy Crisis,’ by Warren Farrell and John Gray.
Can’t say I blame them for failing to launch.
Look at the world through their eyes and tell me you wouldn’t choose to stay shut in your room playing video games, binge-watching ‘The Bachelor,’ or living-out your conquest fantasies through porn.
Having come of age during the Great Recession of 2008, saddled with unprecedented student debt, with home prices out of reach for many, a shrinking share in the labor force, a boiling planet, feckless leadership, and blurring lines between truth and fiction and right and wrong, the American Dream must sound to these young men like a bad joke delivered inside a nightmarish hall of the absurd.
With everything so seemingly out-of-whack, it is understandable why the sense of absolute control afforded by a joystick or the submissive behavior of female sex kittens is so seductive and comforting. It just feels, well, safer.
An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. — Arthur Miller
The United States has been down a similar path before.
The illusions of the ‘Roaring Twenties’ which swept Americans into an unfamiliar affluent consumer society were similarly snuffed out by the worst stock market crash in history. The Great Depression lasted for a decade. Even by April of its final year, more than one in five Americans were still out of work. Five months later, Hitler invaded Poland, igniting World War II.
The writing, though, had been on the wall for years.
Shocked by the carnage and chaos of the First World War (1914–1918), many people across Europe yearned for national unity and strong leadership to pull their countries out of mass unemployment, chaotic political party strife, and rising anarchy brought about by liberalism and Marxism. They longed for ‘strong-men’ to save them from their bewilderment and make them feel safe, proud and strong again.
Italy’s Benito Mussolini was happy to oblige with the birth of fascism, a term first used in 1915 by members of his movement, the Fasci of Revolutionary Action. Inspired by ‘Il Duce,’ the scourge of fascism spread across Europe and Japan. Hitler was just Mussolini’s most ardent and diabolical copycat.
“The main plank in the National Socialist program is to abolish the liberalist concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil, and bound together by the bond of its common blood.” — Adolf Hitler 1930s
After six years of heroic struggle, the Nazi threat was vanquished by the courage and sacrifice of young freedom fighters. Among them, the Americans, later lauded as ‘The Greatest Generation.’
Also known as the G.I. and World War II Generation, these brave men and women were shaped by the ravaging effects on their future prospects by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Before you get all teary-eyed, vicariously nostalgic, or thump your chest with the pride of exceptionalism, let me remind you the United States did not enter the war until two years after it started and only after attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. The brunt of the struggle was borne by the Soviet Union who sacrificed around 10 million soldiers (vs. 400,000 by the U.S.) to rout the Axis Powers.
But still, once called, Americans rose to the occasion and launched their might against the jackals.
Sixty years later, the Great Recession of 2008 was the defining moment which still plagues the current generation of young men who are failing to launch. If that wasn’t enough, the world they’re inheriting is, once again, witnessing the rise of ultra nationalist and authoritarian movements while the world’s leaders seem hopeless or complicit. Meanwhile, icebergs are crumbling, corals bleaching, habitats shrinking, bees dying, and the earth is burning. Since the American Dream is also failing them, these young men may want to drop their joysticks, come out of isolation, and take arms to create a new dream— or blueprint — for themselves, for humanity, and the planet.
That is, unless they also want to be known as ‘The Silent Generation’ — which followed the ‘Greatest’ — and was so labelled because its members felt it was too dangerous to speak out and safer to obey the mantra of the time — conformity — symbolized by the man in the gray flannel suit.
To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men. — Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Referring to that spineless, silent generation, Henry Miller wondered, “What has come over these youngsters? Who instead of upsetting the world with their fiery thoughts and deeds, are seeking ways to escape from the world? What is happening to make the young, old before their time, frustrated instead of liberated? What is it that gives them the notion that they are useless and unfit for life’s struggles?”
Miller followed his diatribe with this challenge: “A truly young man, product of his age, would be fixing to throw a bomb to restore us to sanity. He would not be thinking of ways to escape but of how to kill off the elders and all they represent. He would be thinking on how to give this tired world a new lease on life. He would already be writing his name in the sky.”
While I am not suggesting all-out anarchy, now is definitely not the time for silence or inaction. Waiting for a clear enemy, like Hitler, to emerge, or another 9–11, or for Earth to cross the climactic tipping point, might be a little too late.
“Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man,” wrote John Eldredge in ‘Wild at Heart.’ Look out the window and you’ll find enough meaningful and urgent quests in desperate need of the idealism and fierce warrior-energy of men.
It’s an illusion, said writer Sam Keen, to believe that the virility men seem unable to find can be recovered by anything except a new vocational passion. “The dispassionate, post-modern, cool man,” he added, “is the antithesis of the phallic male — no passion, no standing forth, no risk, no Eros, no drive to enrich history. Nor is the new-age man, who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth, a candidate for heroism.”
The world is starved for heroes. The vocational passion called for by Sam Keen is the one Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world.
It’s time, young men, to find that intersection and launch! Time to come out of the “safety” of your virtual realities, write your name in the sky, and give the world a good reason to name you the Bravest Generation!
THE IDEA OF SENDING MEN ON A COLLECTIVE TIME OUT has been whirling in my mind with insistent frequency, echoing louder upon hearing another story of a man-child acting up, particularly one holding a position of power.
To those who decry patriarchy, here’s a better term to describe the current state of affairs: puerarchy — the rule of boys. Of course there are exceptions, but they seem few and far between and powerless to dethrone the chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants.
In an orchestra, the oboe is the instrument to which other instruments are tuned. As far as I can see, there’s hardly an oboe in sight.
The greatest underdeveloped nation lies within the psyches of men, wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ So maybe it’s time for women to send us on a collective time out so we can mine our dense psyches and only allowed back once we develop emotional intelligence.
This idea is not new. Greek playwright Aristophanes proposed such a radical solution in 411 BCE in the comedy “Lysistrata,” an account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands as a means of forcing the men to negotiate a peace. They play ends with the signing of a peace treaty amid plenty of painful erections.
In my country we have a saying, that a female pubic hair can pull more weight than a pair of oxen. Those who believe men have all the power should revisit the stories of Helen of Troy, Bathsheba, Delilah, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Monica Lewinsky.
The Mars idea first popped in my head the day terrorists attacked Saudi oil refineries. That same day, a handful of brave young activists — mostly female — were coordinating a worldwide school strike to protest inaction on climate change. So while boys were busy flying deadly drones and blowing shit up, girls were working on saving our collective asses.
In 1951, Philip Wylie wrote ‘The Disappearance,’ imagining the aftermath of an extraordinary global occurrence that forces Earth’s men and women to exist in parallel dimensions. True to form, men bring their world to the brink of nuclear annihilation while women seek to resolve their differences by chatting and shopping.
Of all wild beasts, said Plato, boys are the most difficult to manage.
What’s wrong with us?
Why are most men incapable of expressing their fears and emotions besides slamming doors, sulking, having affairs, scapegoating, drowning in alcohol, drugs or pornography, or blowing shit up?
“A few suits of clothes, some money in the bank, and a new kind of fear constitute the main differences between the average American today and the hairy men with clubs who accompanied Attila to the city of Rome. ”— Philip Wylie, ‘Generation of Vipers.’
I know our brains are hardwired differently than girls, and that our long history as warriors and hunters predisposed us to action rather than introspection. I also know that, at times, the fierce boldness and aggression in men is vital. But come on guys! There is a reason our species is called Homo Sapiens (Wise Man). I say it’s time we live true to that classification.
Are we so straitjacketed by our warped sense of manhood to be incapable of becoming versed in the subtleties of emotional language? Must we continue to camouflage our fears with an exaggerated sense of strength? Isn’t it high time we learn to feel less threatened by emotional complexity? Can we learn to see our darkest emotions as Dragons and choose fight, instead of flight?
“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” — Katherine Hepburn in ‘The African Queen.’
In ‘Raising Cain,’ authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson say our culture’s historical assignment of relationship work to women has turned emotions into a disregarded “second language” for men. As a result, most have limited awareness or understanding of their feelings or the feelings of others. Instead, they tend to fall back on what they have been taught to do with other men — compete, control, and criticize.
It is not women’s responsibility to teach us this language, but seeing they’re better versed at it, we should have the humility and willingness to learn from them. After all, we demand their undivided attention as we ‘mansplain’ the refined art of changing a flat tire.
So where do we start?
Rising above our nature begins with learning what that nature is all about.
“We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study,” says Frans de Waal in ‘Our Inner Ape,’ and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace loving and erotic bonobo — a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
What you probably did not know is that the modern version going around on the Internet is not the original story.
The adulterated version goes like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he tells the boy. “it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every other person. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” To which the old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
The original story, however, ends this way:
The old Cherokee simply replied, “If you feed them right, they both win.” And the story goes on… “You see, if you only choose to feed the white wolf, the black one will be hiding around every corner waiting for you to become distracted or weak and jump to get the attention it craves. He will always be angry and always fighting the white wolf. But if you acknowledge him, he will be happy, so will the white wolf and you all win. For the black wolf has many qualities: tenacity, courage, fearlessness, strong will, and strategic thinking that you need at times and that the white wolf lacks. But the white wolf has compassion, caring, strength, and the ability to recognize what is in the best interest of all. You see son, the white wolf needs the black wolf at his side. To feed only one would starve the other and they will soon become uncontrollable. Feed them both and there will be no more internal struggle for your attention, and when there is no battle inside, you can listen to the voices of deeper knowing which will guide you in choosing what is right in every circumstance. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces will determine your life.
“Anger as soon as fed is dead. ’Tis starving makes it fat.” — Emily Dickinson
Dealing with conflict is as simple (and as complicated) as knowing when to flip the switch between these two energies. Chimp-like, or black wolf aggression in our relationships leads to a dead end. But it was essential, for example, to rid the world of Adolf Hitler in the 1940s. That was definitely not the right time to sit down with the bully to talk about his feelings.
The second ingredient for effective conflict resolution is emotional awareness. We men need to get better at identifying what we feel and where our emotions come from before we can begin to understand what to do about them. Our girlfriend’s kind reminder to take out the trash, for instance, might evoke dreaded memories of our mother’s overbearing nature and trigger defiance. A casual commentary by our wife about the neighbors’ lavish summer vacation in Tuscany might provoke a nasty reaction because we interpret her comment as an indictment on our manhood making us feel like a failure for being unable to provide her with such luxury.
“Every time you react emotionally instead of responding consciously, ask yourself, what am I afraid of?” — Don Miguel Ruiz Jr.
Finally, men need to develop emotional granularity, which is a bit like wine tasting, says neuroscientist Lisa Feldman. “Wine experts perceive extremely subtle variations in flavor, even among different batches from the same vineyard. People with less experience might not taste these differences, but perhaps they can at least distinguish a pinot noir from a merlot or cabernet sauvignon. A wine novice is much less capable of making these distinctions — perhaps he can tell dry wine from sweet wine, or perhaps they both just taste like alcohol.”
“People who exhibit high emotional granularity are emotion experts, Feldman adds. “Their brains can automatically construct emotional experiences with fine differences, like astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked. For a person who exhibits more moderate emotional granularity, all of these words might belong to the same concept, “surprised.” And for someone who exhibits low emotional granularity, these words might all correspond to feeling worked up.”
I have found no better way to develop emotional granularity and expand my emotional vocabulary than to read poetry and literary fiction (especially novels written by women). I’ve also discovered, in foreign languages, more useful words for emotions I had not been able to properly identify and express. For example:
TOSKA (Russian) — At its deepest and most painful, Toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness.
TORSCHLUSSPANIK (German) — Translated literally, this word means “gate-closing panic,” but its contextual meaning refers to the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages. The anxious, claustrophobic feeling that opportunities and options are shutting down; that you have missed the boat, you have to get a grip, you are getting old.
LITOST (Czech) — A state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery. The humiliated despair we feel when someone accidentally reminds us, through their accomplishment, of everything that has gone wrong in our lives. We feel a searing pain at the scale of our inadequacies.
YA’ABURNEE (Arabic) — Both morbid and beautiful at once, this incantatory word means “You bury me,” a declaration of one’s hope that they will die before their loved one because of how difficult it would be to live without them.
Just imagine the deep connection and intimacy such emotional granularity and richness of expression could bring to our relationships… with ourselves, as well as others.
Learning about our chimp/bonobo nature, becoming aware of the origin of our emotions, and developing emotional granularity will also lead to empathy, or, at the very least, rational compassion. With more and more men becoming fierce gentlemen — the oboes of the world — we will put an end to the age of puerarchy and join women in the struggle to overcome the many challenges our world is facing.
In this struggle, the female gender must also evolve. Hepburn’s dictum, that nature is what we are put in this world to rise above, must also be heeded by women. While gender-equality continues to make steady progress and fundamentally changing gender dynamics, women must learn their biology is still encoded with innate drives which unconsciously makes them predisposed to prefer a partner of status and wealth and who displays unwavering control, is strong and stoic, and who always seems to have an answer.
Faced with a man who has the courage to be vulnerable and express his deepest fears, his confusion, and his occasional feeling of helplessness or unworthiness, women must short-circuit their innate biases and receive him with compassion, which means, at origin, to suffer together.
As men learn to properly emote, women must be patient. At times, we will want to run away from deep conversation. Bereft of words for our emotions and afraid of vulnerability, we will often choose to flee to the solitary cave of our tortured souls. Allow us that respite. Like a pressure cooker, your escape valve is talking things through. We let-off steam in silence. This does not mean you should let us off the hook. Like a deft fisherwoman, slacken the line at times, then reel us back into conversation. We’ll get the hang of it, eventually.
Or you could send us to Mars, which might sound more expedient and appealing to many of you, but you will strip away the fierce boldness the world requires. You’ll be forever haunted by SAUDADE, Portuguese for the deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and loves, and the knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
We’ll both end up living in barren worlds. One utterly silent, the other with plenty of flat tires.
When hot, it puffs you up like Blowfish, chalking your victories to your brilliance but conveniently blaming bad luck for your defeats.
It electrifies your hair, raises goosebumps on your skin, and swells your patriotic chest at the rise of a flag and the beginning chords of your nation’s anthem without once allowing you to reflect on the underbelly and scourge of your country’s might and supremacy or whether the aroused sensations could be compensating for a feeling of worthlessness resulting from a presumed lack of personal power.
Pride, warns the Bible, goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.
Before my grandiose business schemes collapsed in early 1999, I was as arrogant and overweening as boxing legend Muhammad Ali who described himself as “young, handsome, and fast! further claiming he couldn’t possibly be beat.
“I’m not the greatest,” he boasted, “I’m the double greatest!”
His dazzling career ended in a humiliating defeat to lumbering, slow-armed boxer Trevor Berbick.
“To see Ali lose to such a moderate fighter,” one sportswriter lamented, “was like watching a king riding into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck.”
The legacy of the great emperor Marcus Aurelius, along with the mighty Roman Empire, were snuffed by the hot breath of conceit that burned delusional in his young son and successor Commodus.
A mere 70 years after Greek philosopher Socrates warned Athenians of the perils of their unquestioning pride, their empire collapsed under the sword of Alexander the Great whose own hubris and intemperance later led to the downfall of his vast and powerful empire.
Hubris, or toxic pride, awakens ‘Nemesis,’ the Greek Goddess of Retribution.
When the Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride blows cold, its breath originates from the belly of shame, scrawling one nagging question inside our heads:
“WHAT WILL OTHERS THINK OF ME?”
It makes us preemptively ashamed of what others might think should we fail at something, so we don’t even try.
Ashamed to be thought of as ‘losers’ if we don’t have lots of money or fame, we push ourselves to the breaking point, even if it goes against the grain of our temperament, and often at the price of our health, relationships, and wellbeing.
It forces us go to the gym to workout our muscles or pump them with steroids because we have chosen to believe only ‘real men’ have them and if we don’t, we think it is something to be ashamed of.
It keeps us from reading poetry or pouring our darkest emotions onto the pages of a journal, from dancing or painting, from hugging a friend and telling him we love him, because we have chosen to believe ‘real men’ don’t do these things.
It’s the one that keeps us from asking for help when we most need it, from saying we don’t know because we think we’ll appear stupid, from crying when we really need to cry or admitting we are lost and afraid.
The antidotes to neutralize the twofold venom (pride and shame) of this toxic Dragon can be found inscribed at the Greek temple of Apollo, high up Mt. Parnassus in the town of Delphi.
Home to the famous oracle Pythia, or priestess, ordinary Athenians would climb up to the temple to ask her questions and seek guidance for their actions. Think of her as the foremother of therapists and life coaches.
Among the 147 Delphic aphorisms, or guiding truths, inscribed on the forecourt of Apollo’s temple, are the twin weapons we must use to vanquish the Dragon of Toxic Pride:
“Know Thyself” and “Nothing in Excess”.
Self-knowledge not only involves a detailed mapping and intimate knowledge of our temperament and abilities but must also consider our evolutionary history and biochemistry to fully understand our behavior and its triggers.
We would then, for example, be suspicious whenever our hair unconsciously stands on end with nationalistic pride, and recognize this reflex as nothing more than our overactive amygdalas, and our species’ prosocial need to belong to something greater than ourselves, reminding us how this evolutionary-adaptive trait, when taken to an extreme, has led to unspeakable terror, oppression, war, and genocide. We’d then be free to seek belonging without renouncing our integrity and sovereignty.
A critical awareness of the presuppositions and biases of our thoughts and opinions would make us rightly skeptical of our much vaunted rationality and lead us to greater wisdom and away from dangerous extremism.
“Nothing in Excess” must have been what inspired Greek philosopher Aristotle to develop his concept of the Golden Mean.
Modesty, Aristotle proposed, or moderation when estimating our abilities, was the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and a sense of worthlessness.
Had young Commodus, for example, appropriately channeled the energies of King rather than identifying himself as King and God, he would have magnified his father’s legacy and possibly prolonged the halcyon era known as the Pax Romana. Instead, he declared himself to be an incarnation of the god Hercules and forced the senate to recognize his divinity. Statues of Commodus were erected across the city of Rome including one made of solid gold weighing nearly 1,000 pounds.
Taking time to appraise and value our unique temperament and abilities will keep us from pursuing careers or undertaking challenges for which we are unsuited, and, instead, assume our rightful place in the world from which we can radiate the power of our authentic worth.
Further understanding our brain’s unique neurochemistry can also potentially help us choose the right partner for a long lasting relationship, as discovered by anthropologist and chief scientific advisor to Match.com, Helen Fisher.
An honest assessment of our proudful victories will reveal the crucial role played by genes, luck, proper timing or circumstance, making us humble and quick to replace the insensitive label of “Loser” for the benevolent one of “Unfortunate” when judging the plight of those ill-served by providence. Pity would lead to compassion and be further nurtured by the awareness that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of our shared human experience.
Understanding our limitations will break through the stoic armor we often use to hide our doubts and fears, opening a door to courageous vulnerability which will allow us to seek help while inciting us to reconnect with our feeling bodies and not think twice about nurturing our softer sides through dance, poetry, tears, deep relationships, and intimacy.
The Dragon of Toxic Masculine Pride is a formidable adversary, no doubt, but no match for the True Masculine who recognizes the value of self-knowledge and seeks the golden mean between the extremes of hubris and worthlessness by cultivating the Life Force of Moderation.
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The following is part of a series of pieces included in ‘The Hero in You’: my book for boys (8–12) meant to guide them toward authentic, generative manhood.
(…continued from previous chapter)
Jane Goodall did not let her lack of knowledge of chimpanzees stop her from going to Africa to follow her dream. Once there, she used her imagination to study their behavior in a new way.
She started by doing something no one had ever done before. Instead of identifying the chimps with numbers, she gave them names based on their appearance or personality. For example, Jane gave the name of ‘David Greybeard’ to the chimpanzee who first approached her because he had a grey chin. Other names included Gigi, Mr. McGregor, Flo, Frodo, Goliath, and Mike.
It is the story of Goliath and Mike which reminds me of my early days at school.
Chimpanzees live in groups of several adult males and females plus young of all ages. In every group there is always one adult male who is dominant. Scientists call him the ‘Alpha male’ — the biggest and strongest. You might call him a ‘tough guy’ or ‘Jock.’
When Jane studied the group, the alpha male was Goliath who intimidated all the other males with his size and strength, especially poor Mike, a much smaller chimpanzee, and one of the lowest ranking males. Mike would often sit all by himself (as I used to at my school’s playground) and get attacked by other males. He was usually the last one to get food and would only eat after all the other males had done so.
But then, something extraordinary happened.
One day, Mike walked over to Jane’s camp and took two large empty cans by their handles. Carrying those two cans, he walked over to the place he’d been before, close to the other chimps. He started rocking back and forth, at first only slightly, but then more and more vigorously. The other chimps noticed this and started to watch him carefully. Mike began to make hooting sounds, and, suddenly, charged towards the place where the other males were sitting, running fast and hitting the two cans in front of him. When he approached, the other males ran away from him.
Mike ran into the jungle and disappeared from sight, but in a few minutes, he came back, making a lot of noise and hitting the cans. Once again, he charged the other males and, once again, they ran away from him.
Then he made a big decision. Mike decided to confront Goliath who was sitting by himself. He ran towards him, hitting the cans and hooting so loud even Goliath got out of his way.
Male chimpanzees show their submission to their more powerful buddies by grunting and reaching out their hands. Mike’s magic trick with the cans convinced the others, except Goliath, of his superiority. At that moment, all the other male chimps came up to Mike, grunting and reaching out their hands, and then grooming him. Grooming involves removing dirt, sticks, leaves, dried skin, and bugs from the hair of another chimpanzee. The last male chimp to do so was David Greybeard, who, until then, was Goliath’s closest buddy. Only Goliath remained apart.
The match was now set for a final round: Mike vs. Goliath. Whoever won this epic showdown would become the alpha male. The final faceoff came one day after Goliath returned from patrol in the southern parts of the group’s territory.
When Goliath and Mike faced off, both tried to outdo each other with their displays. Mike kept the cans in motion by rolling them across the ground making lots of noise. Goliath used his strength, going after and beating up some of the younger chimps to show who was boss.
After Mike and Goliath were done with their wild shenanigans, they stopped, sat on the ground, and nervously eyed each other. Suddenly, Goliath walked slowly over to Mike and began to grunt and groom him. Mike enjoyed this for a while, then turned around and started grooming Goliath. Mike was now the undisputed alpha male of the group!
You should know that during the entire showdown, Mike and Goliath never touched or hit each other. Each tried to overcome the other just through intimidation, which basically means frightening someone until they surrender. A staring contest is a good example.
Mike overcame his limitations, not by going to the gym to get stronger, not by learning karate or kickboxing, but by using the strength he already had: the assertive powers of his brain and imagination.
I am not suggesting the next time you go to school, you carry two large empty cans and start hooting and hollering while banging and pushing the cans across the playground to get noticed. That’d be weird, and probably make you spend recess inside the Principal’s office. All I’m saying is that you need to discover your unique strengths and talents and use them to occupy your place in the world.
Mike could have done many other things: he could’ve tried to fight Goliath, but you and I know how that would’ve ended. Mike could’ve also tried to beat-up his buddies, but being the weakest in the group, that would’ve ended badly as well. Instead, Mike discovered something unique in himself and used it to his advantage.
And that, my dear boy, is the difference between being aggressive and being assertive; between being strong and being smart; between exercising your body or using your brain.
When you are assertive, like Mike, people will respect you. Maybe they’ll even remove dirt and bugs from your hair. When you are aggressive, like Goliath, people will fear you, but will not respect you. What would you rather be: respected or feared?
Assertiveness, or gentle fierceness, is speaking-up for what you need and want but always with respect…always in control of your emotions. We’ll talk more about this later.
In the meantime, let me tell you another “monkey story.”
This is from another one of my heroes. His name was Hideyoshi, and he was born in Japan in 1536 to a poor farming family. His story will teach you many priceless lessons, especially how to turn personal disadvantages into advantages…how to turn lemons into lemonade.
Hideyoshi was short, about five feet tall. He weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was really ugly and wasn’t athletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him the appearance of an ape resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.
He was the ‘Mike’ of the previous story.
Most people today would think there was no way someone like Hideyoshi could have succeeded in life.
They’d be wrong.
Hideyoshi grew up at a time when the only choices for a poor peasant to move ahead were to become a priest, or a warrior or samurai. It was the Age of the Warring States in Japan, a period of social upheaval and near-constant military conflict. It was a mess. If you live in the United States, imagine your state in constant war against your neighboring state. This period of unrest in Japan lasted more than a century.
The samurai were the warriors of premodern Japan. Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword. Samurai led their lives according to a set of rules, or ethic code, called bushido: the way of the warrior.
Hideyoshi was not only puny but clumsy at martial arts but he still dreamt of becoming a samurai. Eventually, he rose to the top, unified his country, and became its supreme ruler. He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.
How did he do it, and what can you learn from him?
(to be continued…)
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“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black
From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.
No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.
“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.
Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.
Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.
Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.
Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world.
Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.
But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.
A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.
“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black
“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.
I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:
Your old grandmother says,
“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.
You look a little pale.”
Run when you hear that.A father’s stern slaps are better.
Your bodily soul wants comforting.
The severe father wants spiritual clarity.
He scolds, but eventuallyleads you into the open.
Pray for a tough instructor.
Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.
I do not comfort but challenge them.
Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.
Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).