A Boy Needs to Hear the Shape of his Father’s Heart

Heartvoice (n): 1. The unvarnished and vulnerable unveiling of a man’s wounds, longings, regrets, victories and defeats. 2. A man’s authentic story.

I never heard my father’s.

My father didn’t either.

Not once having heard his father’s heartvoice, Dad did not know how to listen to his own so never allowed me into the inner chambers of his hurt. Never unveiled his wounds. Deeply buried, he never reached them himself, thus never healed.

“If a man, cautious, hides his limp, somebody has to limp it,” warns Robert Bly in ‘My Father’s Wedding.’

A few years before Dad died, I tried to limp his wounds by reconstructing his past. I urged him to face his demons hoping to make him whole. But I arrived too late. By then, his heart was an impregnable fortress and he left this world haunted by a thousand regrets.

“The strongest man,” I’d tell him, “is the one who has the courage to be vulnerable.”

My plea was always met by a puzzled, fear-tinged glance, a discomfited shuffle, a nervous smile, and a reflexive hardening of his armor. Like so many men.

“There is a big difference between being stoic and being in denial,” I’d prod further. “Stoicism is not about repressing our emotions but forming conscious relationships with them. If we don’t, instead of wisely responding to them we’ll keep reacting out of the darkness of our unconscious, invariably in negative ways.”

I wanted him, for instance, to go back to the moment of his childhood when his father would take him down to the basement of their house and kick a ball at him with such force it would often bruise him.

Be a man!” the old man would shout.

Or the time when he was about ten years old and excitedly handed his father a note in which he had scribbled his dream of becoming a world explorer only to see it crushed inside his father’s fist and tossed to the floor with a stern injunction to stop talking nonsense. Not receiving a father’s blessing is the gravest wound a boy can suffer.

I wanted him to grant himself permission to hate his father; to allow the rage to burn through so he could finally move to forgiveness. But all my father could do was make excuses for the ogre who’d bruised and crushed him. “I don’t hate my father,” he’d say. “He did what he had to do to make a man out of me.”

For, brother, what are we?

We are the sons of our father,

Whose face we have never seen,

Whose voice we have never heard. — Thomas Wolfe

There is an inevitable moment in every boy’s life when his father slips and falls from his pedestal. When the boy discovers that his father is not a god, but flawed and fallible like everyone else. This usually occurs when the boy himself falls from grace, around the age of ten, or the onset of puberty.

Adolescence: The age when a boy stops quoting his dad and starts criticizing him. — Evan Esar

In ‘East of Eden,’ author John Steinbeck describes such a moment:

“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. Who knows what causes this — a look in the eye, a lie found out, a moment of hesitation? — then gods are fallen, and all safety gone… and the child’s world is never quite whole again.”

For me, that moment came at age nine when I finally mustered the courage to ask my father why he and Mom did not make love anymore. I don’t know how I found out but surely must’ve panicked when realizing their marriage and our family were falling apart. I had discovered the sham in their relationship and felt unsafe. But instead of his heartvoice, he stared me down with a wrathful glare and shouted, “What did you say!?” which made my jaw quiver and my eyes brim with frightened tears. Without another word, he got up from his chair and walked out of the room.

I had pressed hard on one of his festering wounds, but being the kind of man who never takes time to examine his hurt, he wounded me instead — the default reaction of the bully.

As it is, many fathers exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the suffocating anguish of their dispassionate marriages, the festering anger of their unfulfilled desires, and the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence.

In that wretched state, what wisdom can a father impart if he hasn’t taken the time to grapple with the thorniest questions of existence, or the courage to journey through the dark and malodorous corridors of his psyche until coming to terms with the angel in himself and the devil in himself. In that state, it would be more benevolent if he met each of his children’s questions with “I don’t know,” rather than playing God twenty-four hours a day.

To be clear, before a boy falls from grace, I believe the father must remain King. The boy needs to be able to look up to him as an ever-protecting, omniscient and almighty god. The father must stand high above the boy, benevolent, of course, but awe inspiring, even evoking respectful fear. This runs contrary to the stance assumed by far too many fathers who lower themselves to the boy’s level and seek to become his “buddy” which must scare the hell out of a boy.

As King, however, the father must prepare himself for that fateful day when he is found out by the boy. When that happens, rather than stony silence, a raging glare or specious answers, the boy needs to hear his father’s unvarnished story. He needs to be shown his father’s wounds, his many mistakes and the way he’s dealt with life’s inevitable hardships and overcame them. The boy doesn’t need all the answers, simply told where he might find them.

Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one. — Li-Young Lee, A Story

I worry greatly about the millions of American boys now being raised without their fathers’ presence and with little guidance, I suspect, from other positive male role models. Denied the voice of their father’s heart, it is up to the male elders to respond to the responsibilities befitting their age and help initiate these boys into good men. This has become my mission at this stage in my life.

“As a man passes through the elders’ gates,” says mythologist Michael Meade, “his focus shifts from personal striving and status building to attending to the mysteries at the core of the community. The losses in life,” Meade adds, “become the cloth of the cloaks of elders.”

The losses to which Meade alludes, are precisely the ones boys hunger to hear once they’re at the threshold of manhood. They want to feel our wounds and watch us limp. If the elders hide this from view, boys will be forced to do the limping for us. They’ll continue making the same mistakes and perpetuating the many problems of our world which can often be traced back to uninitiated men. The cycle will never break and the hurt won’t heal. To wit, seventy percent of all suicides in 2017 were male.

“The way to guarantee that someone will continue wounding others [or themselves]”, say Michael Meade, “is to keep him ignorant of his own wounds.”

It’s not only boys who need to hear the male heartvoice but all men must be courageous and vulnerable enough to listen to their own.


Related Content:

Wounded Boys at War

The Purpose of Aging is to Become a Wizard

Dad! Please Find me a Wizard

“You’ll Figure It Out”

Clear-eyed optimism in times of crisis.

As a young boy, I resented my dad for using that phrase whenever I came to him with a problem.

I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” he’d say, patting me on the head. “Just pretend I’m dead.”

Well, he’s dead now, and I deeply regret not having once thanked him for such invaluable gift — the lifesaving skill of resourcefulness.

The full value of my father’s wisdom, however, was only made clear to me when I lost everything in a financial crash and found myself living in exile in a foreign country with less than a penny to my name, no safety net, and solely responsible for the well-being of my wife and two young daughters. Digging my family out of that muck took almost a decade.

‘Yes, Dad, I figured it out, and since I didn’t thank you in life, launching my book for boys is my way of paying it forward.’

In retrospect, those rough times have made me realize that while my father’s ‘harsh’ treatment helped me develop crucial street-smarts, there were other virtues and life forces I wish he would’ve trained me in that I know would’ve made the ordeal easier to overcome and — likely— prevented it. Virtues like Prudence, Temperance and Justice, which, along with Courage were the four cardinal virtues of classical antiquity instilled in children as part of their upbringing and regular education.

We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy. — Dr. Leonard Sax, author of ‘Boys Adrift.’

I could have also benefited from the Life Force of Grit which would’ve made it easier to persevere; or the one of Social Intelligence, essential to weave a safety net, or the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism which would’ve helped me put my predicament in perspective keeping me from falling into despair as I often did.

If there ever was a right time to nurture these virtues and life forces in boys, surely this is it. With the world poised on the brink of another Great Depression, they will need every available tool in the survivalist toolbox.

Even before Covid-19, the outlook for boys was less than favorable. Now, rather than a “boy crisis,” we may be confronting a full-blown disaster. As it was, boys already faced a grim and precarious future. A future in which the need for men was already in doubt, amid a present day environment where the very notion of manhood is regularly blasted across social media as toxic, alongside dangerous and misguided calls to neuter — rather than harness — the innate fierce energy in men that so often has been a saving force in times of crisis. A very confusing time to be a boy, to say the least.

Well, things just got a lot more complicated. To such degree, I fear, that mankind’s ultimate destiny may hinge on how we steel our youth to confront one of the greatest challenges in modern history.

In thirty years of working with children, I have never been more worried than right now for our sons. Nearly every problem we face in our civilization intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America. — Dr. Michael Gurian, New York Times bestselling author of ‘The Wonder of Boys’ and ‘Saving our Sons’

I share Dr. Gurian’s worries, but having risen victorious from the ashes of my own ordeal and learned from its lessons, I now look ahead with clear-eyed optimism. Not only from personal experience but also from knowing humanity has been in more dire straits before. In fact, our species came close to extinction about 190,000 years ago. Yet here we are… we figured it out.

With Dad gone, I can think of no better way to express my gratitude than helping boys navigate the rough road ahead. This is my mission in writing ‘The Hero in You.’

In my book, along with 9 other essential life forces, I introduce boys to the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism by way of a quote by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity while an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. “I am an optimist,” Churchill declared. “It doesn’t seem very useful being anything else.”

I then elaborate…

“Churchill was right, sort of, but I’ve discovered a better way to see things thanks to Doctor Albert Schweitzer, famously known for his heroic work healing the sick in Africa in the early 1900s. An optimist, Dr. Schweitzer said, is a person who sees a green light everywhere. A pessimist sees only the red stoplight. Only the truly wise person, he added, is colorblind.

You see, a clear-eyed optimist doesn’t see situations as only green or red, black or white. He neither thinks sunny days will last forever nor walks with a constant cloud over his head predicting more rain ahead. A clear-eyed optimist understands that both light and shadow are part of the landscape, beauty, and spice of life. He knows that the difference between hope and despair is a matter of how you tell the story. The way you choose to narrate your life experiences — good and bad — will either make you a victim of your circumstances or a hero in your own daring adventure.”

To train boys in reframing the narratives to which they often default, my book offers them these practical tools:

“Next time you find yourself thinking in terms of GREEN stoplights, such as,

I got an ‘A’ on my test because I’m super smart.

Everyone loves me because I’m special.

Everything in my life is gonna work out great!

I’m the luckiest boy in the world so don’t need to prepare, train, or work hard at anything.

If I succeed today, I’ll succeed tomorrow.

Or RED lights, like:

I got a ‘D’ on my test because I’m stupid.

No one likes me or wants to hang out with me because I’m a loser.

Things will never work out for me.

I never have any luck so what’s the use in trying.

I’m never trying-out for the class play or soccer team because everyone will laugh at me.

STOP! PLEASE STOP!

Stop using words like “never” or “always” or “everyone.”

Stop labelling yourself as “stupid” “loser” or “smart.” If you got a ‘D’ on your test, chances are you didn’t study hard enough. If you got an ‘A’, give yourself credit for having prepared well, then do it over and over again.

Stop expecting sunshine and rainbows all the time or predicting storms and tsunamis. Stop staring at the thorns in a rose or just admiring the flower. Both thorn and flower are part of what it is to be a rose. If you’re not ready to accept the shitty parts of life, don’t expect the good ones either.”

I then use my experience with publishing my book as a real life lesson for reframing one’s narrative.

Boy Sherlock

The fact that you’re reading this book means I was successful in getting it published. But while writing it, things were not looking good. Not good at all.

I had been working on the book for close to a year, and, seeing I was almost done, I decided to submit it to literary agents hoping to find someone interested in its publication. This is just like what aspiring actors must do if they want to be hired for a movie. They first need to find an agent.

Of the 33 agents to whom I’d sent the book, 11 had already rejected me and I had not heard from the others which meant they probably weren’t interested. Making things worse, I had run out of money and was as desperate as a hungry squirrel suffering from amnesia in the dead of winter.

Before discovering the wise words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, this is how I would’ve explained my situation:

“I’m screwed! There’s nothing I can do. Everyone hates my book. I’m a terrible writer and it’s my fault for thinking otherwise. This always happens to me and always will. I’m gonna end up out on the street starving to death. The world is not fair. I give up!”

Spoken like a true gloomy-eyed pessimist… all dark clouds, headwinds, storms, and tsunamis. Only seeing red stoplights.

A foolish optimist, or nincompoop, on the other hand, would tell the story quite differently:

“No need to stress out. Things will work out somehow, I can feel it! I’m special. People like me. My life will get better and better like in those movies with happy endings. All I need to do is wish harder and my dreams will come true.”

All sunny-sunshine, unicorns, cotton candy, and dazzling rainbows. Only seeing green lights.

A colorblind, or clear-eyed optimist is more like Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time.

Holmes would set all emotions aside, and, before jumping to conclusions, would search for clues, gather evidence, and then look coldly at the facts. His clear-eyed analysis would provide a more realistic and useful narrative for my predicament.

Here’s what he would tell me:

You have given this book all you’ve got. Perhaps not 24/7, but close enough, for almost 365 days. You have also researched over 50 books as part of that work. So the fact that it might not get published has nothing to do with your effort of which you should be very proud. If you need to blame someone, blame your bad luck, not your dedication.

Being Sherlock, I have taken the time to investigate the book industry. While the information is not all that clear, it appears that the odds of getting your book published are anywhere from 300,000 to a million-to-one. You must come to terms with this and adjust your expectations. Not everyone will become famous and chances are you won’t either. But remember what you’ve said before: You’re not writing this book to become famous; you’re writing it to help boys. If you are to live true to your word, you’ll print the book yourself, if that’s what it takes, and personally hand it to every boy you can, even if it means going door-to-door like those poor kids who are forced to sell magazine subscriptions to their neighbors to raise money for their school.

Also, none of the 11 agents who have rejected your book have said they hate it. What they’ve said is that it’s not for them. Big difference. Not everyone likes Brussel Sprouts (I sure don’t) but that doesn’t mean that they’re disgusting, nor that there aren’t people who love them. You just haven’t found the right agent for your book, that’s all.

Further, I have found no evidence to prove your claim that you’re a bad writer. What I have seen is how hard you work every day to become a better one and haven’t quit. You should be very proud of that.

You’re also incorrect in saying ‘this always happens to me.’ I have examined your life’s story and have found many instances where you have succeeded. Do yourself a favor and go back to those moments to find calm, inspiration, and strength.

You predict you will end up in the street starving to death, but you forget you’ve been in worse situations and managed to figure it out. The evidence tells me you’re a warrior and survivor so stop wasting time predicting rain and start making sunshine like you’ve done in the past.

You claim the world’s not fair? Ha-ha! Really? Tell me something I don’t know.

You give up? Seriously? And what will you tell those boys whom you’re urging to be heroes? Even worse, what will you tell yourself? You’re supposed to be an example of the heroic life. Heroes don’t give up. They adjust, adapt, and try over and over again until they get it right. Do yourself another favor and memorize this number: 606. It’s the name given to a successful drug developed by Dr. Paul Ehrlich in the early 1900s. It was called 606 because he had failed 605 times before!

Finally, even if your book fails, you have a choice in how you tell the story. You can tell it as a tragedy in which you played the part of the hapless victim, or turn it into the greatest tale of adventure and take credit for having dared greatly, just like American President Theodore Roosevelt said in this famous speech:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


Exemplified by the sagacity of Sherlock Holmes, and midpoint between a sunny Pollyanna and a doomsayer like Nostradamus, the Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism has never been more crucial.

Yes, Covid-19 has made the future for boys much more complicated than it already was, but neither victory nor defeat are cast in stone. Although telling boys “You’ll figure it out” will make them resourceful (like it did me), we need to do much more to fortify their psyches and gird their souls for the enormous challenges they now face.

My book aims to do just that.

‘It is also my way of telling you, Dad: “Thank you, wherever you are.’


Receive news of the book’s release by joining our mailing list. The first 50 people to do so will receive a free, autographed edition of ‘The Hero in You’ upon publication.

Single mothers of boys are automatically eligible for a 20% discount by emailing their name and mailing address to boyherobook@gmail.com, adding “Promo Code SM20” to the subject line.


Further reading recommended for parents:

The Optimistic Child : a proven program to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience, by Martin E.P Seligman, Karen Reivich, Lisa Jaycox, and Jane Gillham

View the full list of resources here.

Danger!

Essential for survival

Sad boy behind wire mesh

“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 eventually leads you into the open.

Pray for a tough instructor.

Rakiki hitting Simba

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).

Follow The Hero in You.

For updates, join our mailing list.

 

Age with Grace

I am midway through the autumn of my life.

Morbid thought?

Depends on how you orient yourself to the moment.

Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now – flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.

My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.

Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.

I figure I have three options:

  1. I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
  2. I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
  3. I could learn how to be old.

When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie

Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?

Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.

Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.

Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.

The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.

It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.

While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!

Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?

The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. – Carl Jung

What about Option 2?

Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.

I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.

Again, Jung:

“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”

I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf

Which brings me to the matter of purpose – Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.

I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.

I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:

“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”

But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.

When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.

A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:

“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”

Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done – or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?

In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:

“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”

I was stumped…

Later reflected…

And then wrote her my response:

“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.

I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:

An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. – Philip Larkin

My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.

In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and – to my point – how to survive.

In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.

In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.

I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”

The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.

But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.

Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.

My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.

Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.

At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.

“Old age, calm, expanded,

broad with the haughty

breadth of the universe.

Old age flowing free with the

delicious near-by freedom of death.

I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly

as it pours in the great sea.” – Walt Whitman


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