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).
It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.
I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.
After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.
Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.
Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!
Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.
But is it enough?
At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?
Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass
I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.
When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.
As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”
It struck me with shattering force.
For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.
These things make me shudder.
But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.
What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.
The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb
Many villages are burning now.
I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager — listening attentively as I spoke.
“The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.
As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.
As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.
To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.
“My life didn’t start dark and twisted. I started out as a happy and blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure…Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection,and unfulfilled desires.”
Elliot Rodger (22) wrote this in his Manifesto before stabbing three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to the sorority house in which my elder daughter lived and shot three female students, killing two. Next, he drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death, and then sped through Isla Vista, shooting pedestrians and striking others with his car. Rodger exchanged gunfire with police during the attack, receiving a gunshot to the hip. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” – Parker Palmer
What turned Elliot from a “happy, blissful boy”, into a rejected, angry young man, tormented by unfulfilled desires?
Who manufactured his desires and illusions?
On average, American children watch 20,000 commercials per year, 92% of teens are online daily, and eight out of ten men between 18 and 30 view pornography at least monthly.
This is the Magic Realm in which many young men now receive their initiation. It is their distorted window to the world.
As a young boy, Elliot was told by the Realm to be polite and kind; girls like that, they said. But Elliot would soon find out that: “In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. And it was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height. It was too much for me to handle. I was still a little boy with a fragile mind.”
The Realm creates the illusion that no matter your background you will be accepted. Again, Elliot’s illusions shattered: “I was a bit hesitant to invite anyone from Pinecrest to my mother’s house, because it was located in Canoga Park, a bad area, and most of the kids at Pinecrest were upper-middle class who would look down on me for living there. But I couldn’t back out of this once my mother invited Connor. He came over and all went well, we played a few video games for a couple of hours. But after that playdate, he would always rip on me for living in a “poor” house. He would also tell other kids at Pinecrest about it. This infuriated me to no end.”
The Realm tells us things will be just fine if you work hard, stay out of trouble, and play by the rules. My father did all those things, and now – at age 86, suffering from bladder cancer – he lies in bed wearing a ski-jacket and mittens because he cannot afford to run his furnace, having lost close to three-quarters of his life savings courtesy of the reckless greed and irresponsibility of those that contributed to the stock market crash of 2008.
In this Fairytale World, good always triumphs over evil, heroes never cheat, liars see their noses grow, princesses fall for street urchins, happiness comes in a bottle, you join the army and “become all you can be”, girls enjoy being denigrated and abused (porn), everyone around you seems to be having the time of their life and getting everything they desire (Social Media), and conspicuous consumption – and a funny cat video – earns you the admiration of thousands of fans …it really is a wonderful place.
So, what happens when the light of reality is turned on, when the magic fails and the pixie dust dims?
How do we make sense of a world where good doesn’t always triumph over evil?
Where cads become presidents and heroes cycle on steroids.
When we witness, not the growing noses, but the swelling bank accounts of those who lie, cheat, and deceive.
When princesses don’t normally fall for polite paupers like in Disney’s Aladdin.
When girlfriends refuse to perform like porn stars, or when the cheerleader of your dreams refuses to kiss you because you actually look like a frog so your only choice is to settle for Audrey, your portly classmate with the wide hips and sensible shoes.
When the challenges inherent in every relationship pop our pink bubble of “happily ever after”.
What if the glass slipper won’t fit, but shatters?
When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option – the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. – Barry Spector, ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’
Disgruntled and Wronged
Puberty is a bitch.
It’s a fragile time.
A time when young men are struggling to arrive at a sense of self; to think about what is possible, instead of what is real.
Humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, said that we all own a real self and an ideal self. The real self of course is what we are intrinsically. The ideal self is the self that we think we want to be, that we strive to be, and that we feel we are expected to be.
The problem arises when our ideal selves are too far removed from what we really are. When the discrepancy is huge, the resulting incongruence can lead us to become disgruntled and discouraged because the real self never seems good enough and the ideal self seems impossible to attain.
The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement, concluded Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York after completing a study of 228 mass killers.
Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who consults on threat assessment for universities and corporations, said the most salient feature of mass killers was their belief that they had been wronged.
What wronged them?
The illusions propagated by the Magic Realm.
This feeling of being a failure implies that in the depth of our being we have accepted some objective, if not some worldly, standard of success. – Alain de Botton
Assuming unlimited opportunity makes us believe we can be anything we want to be. This is a characteristically American misinterpretation of the indigenous teaching that we are born to be one thing, and the task of soul-making is to discover it. (Spector)
15 Minutes of Fame
“Boys’ old sense of purpose—being a warrior, a leader, or a sole breadwinner—is fading. Many bright young men are experiencing a ‘purpose void,’ feeling alienated, withdrawn, and addicted to immediate gratification,” write Warren Farrell PhD, and John Gray PhD in ‘The Boy Crisis’.
Absent meaningful purpose, young men are desperate to find something larger than their small lives, and in the Magic Realm, one way to find it is by achieving instant gratification through notoriety.
“I’m going to be famous.” – Robert Hawkins (19), Omaha mass shooter.
“Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.” – Adam Lanza (20), Sandy Hook.
“Seems the more people you kill, the more you are in the limelight.” – Christopher Harper-Mercer (26), Oregon mass shooter.
“Directors will be fighting for this story.” – Dylan Klebold (17), Columbine
50 people perished for their 15 Minutes of Fame.
Boys will be Boys
They are masculinized in the womb by a bath of testosterone, wrote Chip Brown in ‘How Rites of Passage Shape Masculinity’ for National Geographic.
As boys come of age, Brown says, they are in the midst of a momentous transition, morphing under a fresh influx of the powerful hormone into physically mature men: body hair, defined muscles, bigger shoulders, burgeoning sexuality, an appetite for risk, and potentially elevated levels of aggression. They are coming to grips with behavioral tendencies and patterns programmed by millions of years of evolution.
“Boys will play with dolls, but chances are the dolls will be getting into a fight.” – Joe Herbert, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Cambridge
To ignore or deny this in the name of a gender-neutral society is to neutralize the constructive – often lifesaving – force males can bring to the world.
Masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland shielding students from bullets as he pushed them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre in 2012, when three young men died protecting their girlfriends.” – Jason Farrell, author at The Federalist.
The World Doesn’t Count to Three
Is what my father used to tell us when we pleaded him to count to three before ripping off the Band-Aids covering our wounds.
Like other mammals, humans begin life in a maternal womb. This space, bathed in amniotic fluid and kept warm by the surrounding body of the mother, is the archetypal nurturing environment.
After birth, the household – the realm of the Mother – symbolizes the psychological environment needed during the first stage of a boy’s life. It is a protected space, an enclosure in which he can grow relatively undisturbed by toxic intrusions from the surrounding world until his body and mind are prepared to cope with the physical and social worlds into which he has been delivered.
While the mother occupies the symbolic center of the first stage of individuation or selfhood, the father assumes this position in the second stage. The father is needed by the growing ego to gain freedom from the nurturing containment offered by the mother and to instill the rigor of functioning and performance demanded for adaptation to the world.
“Fathers don’t mother,” Yale Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett wrote in Salon Magazine, and a growing body of research demonstrates how important fathers are in a child’s life.
Where the first stage of individuation is characterized by containment and nurturance (the Garden of Eden), the second stage is governed by the law of consequences for actions taken (the reality principle). A person who is living fully in this type of environment has entered the “father world”. This is not the world as ideal but the world as real. Not the Magic Realm, but the world we live in.
Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history were committed by young males. Of the seven, only one was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.
Who fills the void?
The Magic Realm.
Male Initiation in Traditional Cultures
As bridging institutions, schools in the U.S. increasingly play the archetypal role of the paternal parent to a growing boy, whose job it is to help him leave the family container when the years appropriate for nurturing are over and adapt to the demands of adult life in the larger world.
But 80% of teachers are women according on the 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education.
Manhood, in other words, is something many American boys must now figure out for themselves.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. – African Proverb
Globally, traditional societies have observed rites of passage signifying the emergence of young men from childhood to adulthood – no concept of adolescence intervened between stages.
Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded into one of three fiefdoms of the Magic Realm:
For the well-off: into competitive consumers.
For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
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.
Led by the elders of the clan, traditional initiation rites of passage seek to prepare young boys to become men in service to their community.
“Discovering your place in the greater web of things, you offer thanks for your gift and return to share it with your people. You take up your new place as an adult in your clan.” – Bill Moyers.
What Can We Do?
I support universal background checks despite Nikolas Cruz (the Parkland shooter), having passed his with flying colors. I support a ban on assault weapons and overhauling our mental health system, but do not believe these measures go far enough, just as the $1.5 trillion this country has spent on drug control since 1971 has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Because addiction is not a “drug problem”, but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the manifestation of despair.
We can go as far as confiscating the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but we will not see an end to the slaughter. The despair will still be there. The Magic Realm’s empty promises will continue disappointing and angering young men like Elliot Rodger, who, I remind you, also used a knife and his car to maim and kill.
And, NO, Mr. President, we don’t need teachers carrying guns. I worked with teachers for ten years. They seem congenitally incapable of operating anything with moving parts: copiers, laminators, etc. They are educators, not vigilantes. We cannot teach them to shoot, as we can’t teach you to empathize.
A Call to the Elders of our Tribe
In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), good and evil do not correspond to what we typically think of as morally right or wrong but have an agricultural meaning and refer to fruit that is ripe (good) and unripe (evil).
America waits for its elders to ripen our young men by guiding them towards their own definitions of Self, worth, and individual and transpersonal purpose; remind them that it’s not their desires but their struggles that define them; to teach them to become the best original version of themselves, rather than an inferior copy of someone else; to shepherd them away from the Magic Realm and teach them to cope with the realities of loneliness, rejection, disappointment, and loss.
I say this half-heartedly. A quick inspection of the “men” leading our tribe will make anyone realize we’re in deep shit.
Schools need more male teachers;
More male mentors pairing-up with troubled teens;
Not a single student eating alone at recess;
Not more Tablets, but more recess and counselors;
Equal emphasis on social-emotional development as placed on academics, and
The goal of the jump is to land close enough to the ground that the diver’s shoulders touch the ground. Any miscalculation on the length of the vine means either serious injury or death. Land diving among the men of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island, goes back nearly fifteen centuries. The purpose of the ritual is twofold: first, it’s performed as a sacrifice to their gods to ensure a bountiful yam crop, and second, it serves as a rite of passage to initiate the tribe’s boys into manhood.
Ok, maybe not that extreme, but American boys need ritualized outlets for the fresh influx of the powerful hormone: testosterone. Anything but lying on a couch in the Magic Realm, playing at gunning, stabbing, mauling, and dismembering on a video screen.
Pop-up Calls to Kindness
I recently purchased socks online.
Ever since, ads for socks keep popping-up on my screen.
If the Tech Overlords in the Magic Realm can figure out how to do this, why don’t we put their genius and wizardry to better use by having them flood the screens of cyberbullies with pop-up calls to kindness?
And while we are at it, let’s require kids who bully classmates on social media to perform 180 random acts of kindness – one for each day at school.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
Until we have the boldness to tackle the deeper issues that our young men confront, the flags will continue flying at half-mast.
If you are one of our tribal elders, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active, influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.
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.
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.