A Father’s Blessing is a Boy’s Greatest Gift

According to Roman myth, it had been foretold that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born.

In every boy’s life there is a moment when he imagines his destiny outside the expectations of his parents. When that time comes, the deepest wound a boy can suffer is not receiving his father’s blessing.

My dad never overcame such devastating blow.

At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany with his mother and moved to Guatemala to begin a new life at my grandparent’s estate, which, at the time, led out to grassy fields, steep ravines, streams, rivers, and roaring waterfalls. It was every boy’s fantasyland.

Precocious and inquisitive, Dad learned to read at age four and turned into a bookworm with an insatiable appetite for learning and discovery. He loved science fiction and the Tarzan of the Apes book series, devouring them all, more than once.

Dan and Horse

To ease Dad’s transition into his new environment, my grandfather bought him a horse and two dogs. Thereon, every afternoon after school, he’d set off on his mount to explore the vast wildlands of this fantastic realm. From a high point, he could see a shimmering blue lake, far in the distance, backdropped by four imposing volcanoes — two in permanent, fiery upheaval. His favorite resting spot was a waterfall plunging thirty feet into a crystalline pool teeming with crayfish he loved to catch. He’d stop there to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.

Guatemala was once ruled by the Maya, one of ancient history’s most advanced civilizations. The fields across which my father roamed were thus strewn with obsidian arrowheads, jade beads, stone axe heads, and pottery fragments which he collected and treasured all his life.

These wild experiences, and the books he read, filled my father’s young imagination with a stirring sense of adventure. By the time he was ten, he yearned to climb the highest mountains, trek across the most inhospitable jungles, and draw maps to guide other explorers. Swept-up in his excitement, he wrote about his dream, and, late one evening, waited for his father to return from work to share his budding aspiration.

I never liked my grandfather. He was cold and stern, stiff like a slab of petrified wood. It wasn’t until he died that Dad told me how the old man used to drag him down to a basement and kick a ball at him with such force it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather was also of the idea than a man’s identity is solely defined by his profession so worked long hours and was hardly present in my father’s life.

That night, taking Dad’s story from his hesitant, outstretched hands, the old man adjusted his wire-rim glasses and started reading. Dad, meanwhile, looked up at him with an eager sparkle in his blue eyes, waiting for his blessing.

Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:

Tsk! So a nobody, that’s what you’re saying… a bum, basically. Is that all you aspire to?”

Before Dad could shake his head and explain, the old man’s callous fist crushed his dream and threw the crumpled paper on the floor. “You will write no more nonsense!” he thundered, and walked away.

In my mind, only two things can explain my grandfather’s reaction.

First, that he thought a man could only earn a living and provide for his family by holding a “respectable” job and feared climbing mountains and drawing maps would lead Dad to failure. In other words, he crushed my father’s dream out of love, wanting to protect him from hardship later in life.

Second, he was jealous, and wasn’t about to let his son bask in heroic limelight. As a boy, he too may have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason. Perhaps some other dream-crushing ogre stopped him in his tracks.

Whether A, B, or both, not receiving a father’s blessing is one of the deepest and most devastating wounds a child can suffer. Had his boyhood dream been honored, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer. Instead, he became a businessman, just like his father, and lived to regret it.

As a father myself, I’ve always wanted the best for my two daughters and know how easy it is to buy into the prevailing cultural notions of success and wellbeing. Having also suffered great hardship in life, I found myself steering them in their early teens onto the college track out of a fearful wish to spare them from what I had suffered for not having gone to college myself. I now realize that while I was doing it out of love, my actions were misguided.

As we age, life has a very cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: ‘What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky. We no longer believe the impossible possible and start playing it safe. So when our children come to us with their own dreamy castles, we call them “impractical” and crush them underfoot, just like my grandfather did.

If “security” and “safety” become watchwords by which [we] live, gradually the circle of [our] experience becomes small and claustrophobic. This suggests that to ask “Why face danger?” is the wrong question. The right question is “What happens if I try to build a life dedicated to avoiding all danger and all risk?” — Sam Keen, ‘Learning to Fly’

I wish Dad would’ve defied his father with the same courage displayed by Richard Halliburton, one of the world’s most dashing explorers and adventurers.

At age 18, Richard wrote this letter to his father in response to his wishes that his son return to his senses and back to Princeton:

Dad, you hit the wrong target when you write that you wish I were at Princeton living “in the even tenor of my way.” I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my “way” as uneven as possible, then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility. No, there’s going to be no even tenor with me. The more uneven it is the happier I shall be. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain, thrills — every emotion that any human ever had — and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed. My way is to be ever changing, but always swift, acute, and leaping from peak to peak instead of following the rest of the herd, shackled in conventionalities.

Although he drowned at age 39 in a typhoon while sailing from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Richard had already lived a full and adventurous life most men would kill for.

During his short lifespan, he climbed the Matterhorn, got himself incarcerated at Devil’s Island, hung out with the French Foreign Legion, spent a night atop the Great Pyramid, rode an elephant through the Alps like Hannibal, played Robinson Crusoe on his own desert island, retraced the path of Odysseus, met pirates and headhunters, and bought a two-seater airplane he named the Flying Carpet and flew off to Timbuktu. He swam the Nile, the Panama Canal, the Grand Canal of Venice, and even the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal. The chronicle of his adventures made him a bestselling author.

In contrast, my father became a businessman, an alcoholic, and for the last twenty years of his life merely a shadow of his former self. While he might’ve died younger than at 88, had his father blessed his boyhood dream, he would’ve lived on his own terms, fulfilling the destiny that was his to live and not the aspirations of someone else.

It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly. — The Bhagavad Gita

In ‘Men and the Water of Life,’ mythologist Michael Meade says, “If children were simply satisfied with what the parents offered them, they would remain children forever. It’s not simply that parents don’t try to give enough to the child; rather, it’s that whatever the parents give is never enough. The child has a destiny outside the imagination of the parents.”

If a father does not honor and bless the boy’s own destiny, the boy will grow to become another wounding father and devour his children, just like the Titan Saturn, in a never-ending cycle of wound upon wound.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Related Content:

In Praise of Youthful Idealism

Understanding Prejudice

Teaching boys to confront their innate biases

Let’s face it: we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. It’s only natural.

“Tribal prejudice, says Elizabeth Culotta in Science Magazine, stems from deep evolutionary roots and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side.”

Like most, I’m sure you think your family is the cat’s meow compared to all the rest and that you’d risk your life to defend it.

Even in arbitrarily-constructed groups with no shared history, psychologists find that people still think those in their ingroup are smarter, better, more moral, and more just than members of outgroups. Think of the time you were last partnered with a stranger when playing a board game.

“Outgroup bias is core to our species,” says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. “It is part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe.” The problem, he says, is that like smoke detectors, the system is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat.

In the Implicit Associations Test, for example, people are asked to rapidly categorize objects and faces. The speed and pattern of the mistakes they make show that people more quickly associate negative words — such as “hatred” — with outgroup faces than ingroup faces. In disturbing tests using a video game, people looking at a picture of a person carrying an ambiguous object are more likely to mistake a cell phone for a gun and shoot the carrier if he is an outgroup male. Remember George Zimmerman?

Neuberg studied what might turn this detection system up and down. “When you feel threatened,” he says, “you react to danger more quickly and intensely.” People, he adds, also “startle more easily in the dark. That’s why prejudice rears its head in a dark alley rather than a well-lit field.”

Keep your lights burning. If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness. — Luke 12:35 and The Gospel of Thomas

The light to which Jesus referred is the light of reason, and I have no doubt Trayvon Martin would be alive today had Zimmerman been using his brain.

The Psychology of Extreme Hate

Writing for Psychology Today, Allison Abrams corrects a common misconception. “While all racists are prejudiced,” she explains, “not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice involves cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice taken to the extreme against a particular group of people based on perceived differences. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred.”

According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts. On the other hand, hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes.

Abrams goes on to list the factors behind extreme hate:

1. Fear

2. The need to belong

3. Projection

4. Emotional incompetence

Fear

Psychologist and political advisor Dr. Reneé Carr says that “when one race unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group — fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened — they will develop defensive thoughts and behaviors. They will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in [an] attempt to secure their own safety and survival.”

Hate crimes, for example, reached an all-time high in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Need to Belong

Some members of extremist hate groups, Abrams says, are motivated by the need for love and belonging — a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups is one way to do so. Take the case of Reinhard Heydrich, chief architect of the Holocaust.

Nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis, and “Hangman Heydrich” by others, Reinhard was the leading planner of Hitler’s Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population in Europe. As a boy, he was a target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his high pitched voice and devout Catholicism. He was beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish slurs amid rumors of Jewish ancestry in his family. At home, Heydrich’s mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, Heydrich grew up a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, he became a cadet in the small elite German Navy. Once again, he was teased. By then, Heydrich was over six feet tall, a gangly, awkward young man who still had a high, almost falsetto voice. Naval cadets took delight in calling him “Billy Goat” because of his bleating laugh and “Moses Handel” because of the aforementioned rumored Jewish ancestry and his passion for classical music.

Think about this… a bullied, beaten, withdrawn, sullen and unhappy boy was the chief designer of the nightmare that killed 6 million Jews. But he is not the exception. In ‘Wounded Boys at War,’ I profile other atrocities committed by wounded and alieneated children… all male.

In both Heydrich and his tormentors, we find men who lash out at “the other” driven by unconscious fears, prejudice, and hatred — those defensive thoughts and behaviors explained by Dr. Reneé Carr. We also see an innate expression of tribalism.

We men are tribal by nature.

In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the most famous experiments on tribal behavior. He convinced twenty-two sets of working class parents to let him take their twelve-year old boys off their hands for three weeks. Sherif then placed them on a remote location in two separate and equally numbered groups. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone. Still, they set about marking territory and creating tribal identities. A leader emerged in each group by consensus. Norms, flags, songs, rituals, and distinctive identities began to form. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, made weapons, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, and called each other nasty names.

“The male mind appears to be innately tribal,” writes Jonathan Hait in ‘The Righteous Mind.’ “It is structured in advance of experience so that boys and men enjoy doing the sorts of things that lead to group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups in contrast to two-person relationships for girls.”

Projection

“The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders. Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will.”

Referring to homosexuals, those were the paranoid words of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover published in his 1947 article for The American Magazine titled ‘How Safe is your Daughter?’

During the 1950s, Hoover engaged in a maniacal persecution of gays which was later labelled ‘The Lavender Scare.’ Not surprisingly, he was also widely suspected of being in a secret, same-sex relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson.

“The things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Harron.“Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our perceived shortcomings by transferring — or projecting — them onto others.”

Omar Mateen (29) killed fifty people and wounded an equal number at a gay club in Orlando in 2016. He was said to have been frequently angered by the sight of two men kissing. Regulars of the ‘Pulse’ reported having seen Omar at the nightclub where “he would go over to a corner and sit and drink by himself.” Kevin West, a regular at Pulse, said Mateen messaged him on-and-off for a year before the shooting using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d. Cord Cedeno also said he saw him on it. “He was open with his picture on the sites… he was easy to recognize,” said Cedeno, who said he was also contacted by Mateen at least a year before.

Low Emotional Competence

Loma K. Flowers, of the nonprofit EQDynamics, defines emotional competence as the “integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action.” This is where bigots and haters, like George Zimmerman, lose their footing.

“It is easier to believe fallacies,” says Flowers, “than to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues.

“Thinking takes work… to line-up facts with feelings… to sort out, for instance, how much of your anger is really about being laid off from your job versus being about others objecting to Confederate statues erected to symbolize white supremacy… or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life (like Reinhard Heydrich). The challenge is to link each feeling to the right context. Whether these beliefs are generated internally from feelings of worthlessness and projected onto others and/or learned from teaching or modeling by family members or your community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence.”

If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another. — Adolf Hitler, ‘Mein Kampf’

In this excerpt of Hitler’s manifesto we hear a man whose deep seated prejudice and self-loathing are projected onto an outgroup while simultaneously attributing to ‘the other’ his own hatred and genocidal intentions.

A more contemporary example is Donald Trump’s comments while campaigning in 2015:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…they’re bringing drugs… they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists!”

Those that can make you believe absurdities, said French writer Voltaire, can make you commit atrocities.

Nine months after the 2018 midterm election during which Trump repeatedly warned the country of an imminent invasion by Hispanic immigrants, a 21 year-old gunman massacred 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” he wrote in his manifesto.

History, I’m afraid, will continue repeating itself unless society helps young men, especially those who feel alienated and powerless, to develop emotional competency, and taught, at a very young age, about their innate tribal tendencies, ingroup bias, and outgroup prejudice. This is one of the main goals of my book for boys, ‘The Hero in You.

Here are some of the things I tell them:

A Boy Like You Cover
Book by Frank Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren

“We are all made of stardust,” said astronomer Carl Sagan.

When I first learned that all the atoms in you and me are the same as in everyone else it made me think of Lego blocks. Although they come in different colors, they’re basically the same.

Say you were to build an awesome castle or cool spaceship. You wouldn’t use Legos of just one color, right? That’d be dull. Same goes for people. If I was in charge of populating planet Earth, it would be pretty boring if I only used one color to make humans. Or think of painting. Imagine you take a big, white canvas and paint it white. What do you get? The same bland, white canvas all over again. Personally, I’m rather thrilled Earth decided to use not only white, but also red, yellow, brown, and black to paint us humans. Study nature closely and you’ll discover that her secret ingredient is diversity.

(…)

Now let’s talk about what makes a man unique.

It helps to think of a man as a computer assembled by nature using a unique set of parts. The software written into the male computer was programmed during the time we lived as hunter-gatherers, or, in our specific case, as male hunters. That experience wrote the instructions which guide our behavior, even today.

For example, we men don’t talk much and 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.

We are also less empathetic than girls, less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, and suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our hunting 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 our camp depended on us to bring food. We bond with our buddies by challenging them.

We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate ancestors, the chimpanzees. 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. He then separated them in two groups. For the first five days, each group of eleven boys thought it was alone yet set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules like, perhaps, “no farting” or “no girls!” They came up with 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, territorial behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. You see? We are still warriors at heart 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’ll die in the process.

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 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 which means using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then using our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.

Knowing we are tribal and territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different, think differently, or 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.

(…)

Unless you plan to live on a deserted island when you grow up, you will need to strengthen your social intelligence.

I say “strengthen” because you already have it. It’s a gift from the way we evolved as humans and the one that allowed us to become the dominant species on Earth.

Let’s start by making an important distinction between baseline intelligence and social intelligence. I know a lot of highly intelligent people who seem clueless when it comes to getting along with others, and I’d much rather spend time with an uneducated and simple-minded friend, who is otherwise gentle and kind, than with a selfish, insufferable know-it-all. Truth be told, I often behave like one. There are days when I can’t stand myself. Like all humans, I still have much to learn.

Social intelligence is intelligence in relationship to others.

It means knowing how to relate to others by deciphering and understanding what makes them tick, by being aware and appreciating what they want, how they feel, what they believe in, and how they think. It’s the ability to establish and maintain positive relationships; to know how to behave in different social situations, handle conflict constructively, and to compromise and collaborate.

Superheroes, in contrast, are loners and therefore sad and lonely. They sulk in dark caves, like Batman, crouch alone atop rooftops, like Daredevil, hide behind shields like Captain America, or under ice, like Iceman. In that sense, they are like those guys who waste a great part of their lives in front of screens or playing video games.

The only way superheroes can relate to the world and feel important and in control is if there’s a villain to destroy. Because they mostly live in isolation, they are incapable of understanding what causes villains or bullies to do what they do, and, therefore, never solve anything. They just blow things up. That’s why as soon as they destroy a villain, another one takes his place. While it makes for good storytelling, you’ll do much better in the real world with the Life Force of Social Intelligence than with all the powers of flight, super-strength, super-speed, and x-ray vision.

Before we continue, we need to make another important distinction. Social intelligence does not mean playing nice all the time, or not standing up for what you believe in, even though some people might disagree with you or get their feelings hurt. It doesn’t mean you have to be liked by everyone or fit-in all the time. People pleasers have very weak King energy and low emotional intelligence.

That is why emotional intelligence is the first ingredient for strong social intelligence. If you’ve paid close attention up to this point and completed the exercises in your Warrior’s Workbook, you already know what emotional intelligence is and have begun to lay a strong foundation for it.

But just in case you’ve forgotten, emotional intelligence is knowing yourself, your unique temperament, what makes you tick, understanding where your different emotions come from, what they want from you, and how to harness them to react properly and make good choices.

The second ingredient for strong social intelligence is listening.

Notice I did not say “hearing.” Superman can hear things from miles away, but can he listen? True listening requires more than just your ears. It requires a receptive heart, and to open your heart, you must truly care about others. If you can’t care, you cannot love, and if you can’t love, you can’t serve like a true hero.

Fred Rogers, an American T.V. personality, said that there isn’t anyone we can’t learn to love once we hear their story.


We will continue to despise people until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves. — Martin Luther King Jr.

Minessotta riots fire
Young rioter in Minnesota - May 2020

As American cities burn with rage, violence and despair, I am reminded of this African proverb:

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

In ‘Raising Boys,’ Stephen Biddulph says that “by understanding the psychology of boys, their stages of development, their hormones and hard-wired natures, we can raise them to be fine young men: safe, caring, passionate, and purposeful. Millions of boys have poor life chances because we have failed to understand and love them. We can save them still.”

Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, was recently described by his wife thusly: “Under that uniform, he’s just a softie.”

Had Chauvin been properly guided as a young boy, I am convinced we would not be dealing with the current mayhem.

As a male elder of the human tribe, my mission to properly initiate boys has now acquired a greater sense of urgency.


Related content:

Rage! Harnessing the Power of our Emotions

Critical Thinking in a Crazy World

On The Wildness of Children

Lies the hope for the world

Deep in a remote jungle city in South East Asia, National Geographic reporter Hereward Holland writes that “in this gaudy mecca of eroticism and greed, the cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. Many items on the menu, including drinks, are derived from poached endangered animals.

“At one riverside bistro a tiger skeleton marinates in a dark alcoholic tonic in a 12-foot aquarium; its vacant eye sockets gazing down on patrons. The elixir is believed by its many aficionados to be a potent aphrodisiac that imparts the animal’s muscular vitality.

The tiger wine is good for men, says a Chinese businessman, grinning maniacally and flexing his arms like a bodybuilder. ‘It makes a man strong in the bedroom.”

Never mind the pathetic spectacle of a grownup man incapable of recovering his erotic power by no other means than quaffing the deliquescing remains of a tiger. What I’m wondering about is the disconnect; of what made humans so detached from the rest of nature to now see her as nothing but a storehouse for their rapacious and often deviant appetites.

What kind of mind, I ask, is one that looks at an ocean and sees only breaded fish sticks and Omega-3 pills? Who in every rainforest sees nothing but a pricey mahogany table or green pasture to raise a juicy burger? Who sees a cure for erectile dysfunction in every tiger or rhino, a trophy for his fragile ego in the rack of a buck, a convenient drain for toxic sludge in every river, a mountain as a jewelry store and wild spaces as just ‘unpeopled.’

Only a dissociative mind. The mind of a schizophrenic and sociopath. An ecocidal mind. The same kind that considers anyone superficially different from him as less than human, thus fit for extermination. A genocidal mind, like Adolf Hitler’s.

Humanity, I fear, is suffering from reactive attachment disorder (RAD), prevalent in infants living in institutions; foster kids who go from one caregiver to another, or children who are separated from their mother for long periods of time.

Our separation from Mother Earth can be traced to the start of the Agricultural Revolution, about 12,000 years ago. Prior, we had lived for hundreds of thousands of years as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Once we settled, we cut the umbilical cord and all hell broke loose.

The symptoms in those suffering from RAD include attention-seeking, neediness, infantile behavior, anxiety, detachment, and showing limited emotions. Pretty much the afflictions of the bulk of humankind.

Love is predicated on attachment, so it’s nearly impossible to love or care for anyone or anything from which you are far removed.

As it is, most of our sensitivities developed as hunter-gatherers are now all but lost. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or silkiness of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without checking labels. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. Bleared by the glaring light of screens, our sight now misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic media images and shouting voices that incite us 24/7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage and fear have made it impossible for us to find serenity and equanimity.

Our species no longer resonates, vibrates, thrums, or harmonizes, so can’t play its once rightful part within the concert hall of nature. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth — from the Latin mater for “mother” — simply becomes a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

We are living at right angles to the land and have commodified our aliveness, as said writer Maria Popova. And it may well be that our heedless violence against the planet is explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensual selves, so we seek to remove from view that which reminds us of what we have lost.

In his international bestseller ‘Last Child In The Woods,’ Richard Louv says that “since 2005, the number of studies of the impact of nature on human development has grown from a handful to nearly one thousand. This expanding body of scientific evidence suggests that nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.”

I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority. — E.B. White

Curing adults from their acute nature deficit disorder seems hopeless. But I refuse to give up on the coming generations, which is why my book for boys seeks partly to call them out to the wild.

Here’s what I tell them:

Rewilding the American Boy2
Photo by Ashley Ann Campbell

For 99% of modern human history, or like forever, we lived as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our few clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins on our backs, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness.

We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, rugged, resourceful, and adventurous.

(…)

We are creatures of nature and are paying a heavy price for living apart from it. Some have called this “nature deficit disorder.” The average American kid now spends over 7 hours a day in front of a screen. Compare that to the life of an American Indian boy as described by Charles Eastman who was a member of a Sioux tribe in 1858 and whose original name was Hakadah.

In his book, ‘Indian Boyhood,’ Hakadah says that “he enjoyed a life almost all boys dream of and would choose for themselves if they were permitted to do so. What boy,” he asks, “would not be an Indian for a while — the freest life in the world?”

“This was my life,” said Hakadah. “Every day there was a real hunt. We were close students of nature. We studied the habits of animals just as you study your books. No people have a better use of their five senses than the children of the wilderness. We could smell as well as hear and see. We could feel and taste as well as see and hear. Nowhere has the memory been more fully developed than in the wild. All boys were expected to endure hardship without complaint. [We] had to go without food and water for two or three days without displaying any weakness, or run for a day and night without rest. [We] had to traverse a pathless and wild country without losing [our] way, either in the day or nighttime. [We] couldn’t refuse to do any of these things if [we] aspired to be warriors.”

I don’t know about you, but if I ever got lost in the wilderness, I would hope to find someone like Hakadah to guide me to safety rather than a modern-day boy with a cell phone or tablet.

I realize many kids today live in places where there is no immediate access to open natural spaces. But it doesn’t have to be a gigantic wilderness. With the right imagination, your local park or nearby creek will do just fine. Anything but sitting around playing video games or glued to screens which is causing two additional disorders:

The first one is psychataxia, a disordered mental state causing confusion and an inability to concentrate.

The second disorder caused by too much screen-time is social-emotional agnosia, the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. In other words, kids suffering from this disorder can’t relate to others.

(…)

In all my walks out in nature I have never seen a bird’s nest that’s two stories high with a hot-tub and a 60-inch plasma T.V. Have you?

I have never seen an obese, out-of-breath squirrel leaning against a tree unable to keep up with her fit friends because she ate more acorns than were necessary to keep her body fit.

I’ve never seen a bear hauling a ton of trash and dumping it in a river.

All I’ve seen in nature is balance.

Maybe that’s why I also haven’t seen a therapist couch, a drug rehab clinic, nor a prison in the wild. You only need those when things are out of whack or unbalanced. And the only ones who are unbalanced are humans, which is probably what made British philosopher Bertrand Russell describe planet Earth as the lunatic asylum of the Universe where the inmates have taken over.

Good for the Planet, Good for the Child

Rewilding the American boy is not only good for the environment but good for the boy.

Reporting for the National Center for Biotechnology, Susan Strife and Liam Downey say that increased urbanization combined with dwindling natural spaces and increased time indoors has sparked recent concerns regarding children’s diminishing direct contact with nature. Evidence that children are spending more time indoors and less time in nature has also sparked research across the health and psychological sciences that links children’s diminished contact with nature to important childhood health trends, including increased levels of depression and increased incidences of cognitive disabilities, obesity, and diabetes. This research indicates that exposure to nature has physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive benefits that not only buffer the symptoms of the above disorders but also positively affect children’s overall development.

A child’s brain develops stronger connections when exposed to a rich environment. A recent study shows that the brain’s hippocampus, involved in learning and memory, is highly susceptible to plasticity. Neuroplasticity induces lasting change to the brain throughout an individual’s life. Neuroplastic change has significant implications for healthy development, behavior, learning, and memory, and can be elicited by thoughts, emotions, and environmental stimuli.

Navigating nature also develops spatial thinking, described by Temple University’s Dr. Nora Newcombe as “seeing in the mind’s eye,” allowing us to “picture the locations of objects, their shapes, their relations to each other and the paths they take as they move.” In a 2013 report on maps and education, National Geographic concluded that “spatial thinking is arguably one the most important ways of thinking for a child to develop as he or she grows. A [child] who has acquired robust spatial thinking skills is at an advantage in our increasingly global and technical society.”

Besides the documented benefits to a child’s health and mental wellbeing there are profound life lessons to be found in the wild. “Every aspect of Nature,” said astronomer Carl Sagan, “reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos will penetrate its deepest mysteries.”

An old tree, for instance, felled by age and storm and surrounded by fresh green shoots that had been waiting for their chance to rise, can teach a child more about the inevitability of death as a precondition for new life than any dry old textbook.

A stagnant, pestilent water pool can serve as a metaphorical warning against inactivity… to never allow their dreams to wither on the vine of life.

Watching a river flow effortlessly around rocks will teach them the power of persistence, flexibility, and yielding when confronting obstacles.

A bent tree sapling, struggling to get out from under the shadow of older trees to capture sunlight, is a testament to the rule by which we should all live — to find our own light, truth, authenticity and destiny, and stop trying to be an imperfect copy of someone else.

While I may not be able to save the tigers from being turned into wine to rejuvenate the flagging libido of older men, my hope is that my book will reach the new generation before the rest of nature succumbs to the rapacity of humanity’s dissociated, unwise, and unnatural mind.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Parent resources:

Vitamin N (public library link), by Richard Louv, author of the New York Times best seller that defined nature-deficit disorder and launched the international children-and-nature movement. Vitamin N (for “Nature”) is a complete prescription for connecting with the power and joy of the natural world, with 500 activities for children and adults.

Sense of Wonder (public library link), by Rachel Carson. A celebration of nature for parents and children by the acclaimed conservationist and writer of ‘Silent Spring.’

The Beauty in Hardship

Teaching children to embrace life’s challenges

What would this picture look like had it not been for the fierce resistance put up by the Eurasian land plate against the colliding Indian subcontinent 50 million years ago?

Featureless, flat… no soaring Mt. Everest — the crown jewel of the Himalayas.

What need would there be for a hawk’s great speed and keen eyesight if its prey were not swift and elusive?

Life itself would not exist at all without the gift of sunlight which is only made possible by the crushing force of gravity pressing against the core of our nearest star, the Sun.

No resistance, no soaring beauty. No opposition, no flourishing life.

And yet, humans seem unable or unwilling to accept this fundamental principle and further seek to shield children from hardship and suffering. All at a heavy price: the tragic loss of the nobility of their spirit.

In our misguided effort to pave for children a frictionless road to the land of plenty, we are raising a generation of weak and feckless individuals addicted to instant gratification and expecting a trophy just for getting out of bed. By the time they take their first step, we tell them they’re special… so, so special! Good thing they don’t ask us why, for we would be hard-pressed to give them a valid and useful answer.

Snowflakes are not special. What they are is unique. They all start their journey as tiny ice crystals high in Earth’s atmosphere, indistinguishable from one another. Their singularity is shaped by the path each one crosses and by what they encounter on that path.

In the womb, every child is indistinguishable. At an early age, they begin to manifest a unique temperament. Their character, however, just like a snowflake, will be forged by their journey through life. The greater the challenge and resistance, the stronger, more creative, resourceful and magnificent they’ll become. Muscles, mind you, grow stronger when swimming upstream.

Our job, then, is not to remove obstacles, but to teach children how to sharpen their swords. Rather than preparing the path for the child, we must prepare the child for the path.

A child unschooled in the fundamental principle of resistance in nature will see challenges as overly daunting, unfair, and unwelcome. Which is why my book for boys begins by exposing them to this fundamental reality.

I tell them “our universe is like one ginormous, never-ending fireworks display. An enchanted story of beauty and creativity as well as extreme violence and destruction. That’s what makes it such a good story. A fairy tale without thunder and lightning, or without epic battles or fiery dragons, would not be a good story no matter how pretty the princess is.

The origins and evolutionary story of humankind are next presented to develop in the young boy’s mind a sense of gratitude in the face of the improbability of our presence on Earth; a sense of humility when considering how recent humans emerged on the cosmic stage, and to dwell on the unique opportunity we have as the only species capable of reflecting the universe’s beauty, and the choice, either to continue spoiling the cosmic story, or contribute to its magnificent unfolding.

“…even though humans might be secondary characters in the story of the Universe, we are the only ones telling the story as far as we know. We’re the ones sending telescopes into space to take pictures of the dazzling spectacle and then watching them with mouths open and dropped jaws — sometimes with tears of wonder in our eyes — because we can’t get over how elegant and graceful everything is. Just like the magic mirror in Snow White, we’re like the mirrors upon which the Universe can finally reflect itself and see how beautiful it is. We are the Universe’s best ‘selfie.’ That’s awesome! Because it means we now have the opportunity and responsibility to make sure we continue making it a wonderful story. It’s like we’ve been given a beautiful garden to care for and must decide whether to be bees, or locusts.

Bees pollinate and make gardens flourish. Locusts are mean, rapacious, and ravenous grasshoppers who swarm into a garden, destroy it, then fly off to look for the next field to consume. They’re like those death-dealing aliens in science fiction stories who go from planet to planet laying waste to all life to feed their insatiable appetite.”

I then narrate our species’ life as hunter-gatherers during the 99% of the time modern humans have been present and thrived on Earth. This I do with two objectives: to introduce them to the Life Force of Grit, and, to underscore how being out in nature helped us develop our creative imagination, social intelligence, and survival and adaptation skills. It also serves as a precautionary warning against under-nourishing these intrinsic traits and skills with a steady diet of media and video games.

“We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, adventurous, rugged, healthy, eating different kinds of food which helped our brains grow larger to the point of sparking something no other animal appears to have: a creative imagination!

(…)

For 99% of modern human history, or, like forever, we kept living as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our 30 or 50 clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins which protected us from the elements, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness. We survived through scary droughts and bitter ice ages. We were, and still are, a gritty species. The Life Force of Grit is one we all have but few choose to use. Above all the other life forces, Grit is the one you never want to do without.

To capture a young boy’s imagination and cement in his mind the value of the Life Force of Grit, I make use of metaphor, followed by a familiar story with which they can identify.

Here’s what I tell them:

Alladin

To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to superfine. Rocks don’t like being polished. In fact, they hate it! That’s why you hear a harsh, scraping sound when you rub sandpaper on their surface. They are the same sounds as the groans, huffs, and deep sighs we make when learning something new, like riding a bike. If we give up then, we will accomplish nothing.

If you want to be a great soccer player, cook or musician, for example, you better be ready and willing to endure a lengthy period of harsh training.

Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.

Just to see what would happen if we remove this resistance, let’s pretend you and I are Masters of the Universe and rule over nature. We’ll go out on an open field to conduct an experiment with a hawk and a mouse.

Circling above us, is the hawk, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal. Natural selection has developed in the hawk a flying speed of 120 mph, reaching 180 mph when diving for its prey. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. Truly a magnificent and noble creature! Suddenly, he spots a mouse. Easy lunch, one would think. But nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive, so an exciting chase is about to begin.

Since we are Masters of the Universe and control the levers of nature, let’s see what happens if we slow the mouse down a bit. To make it even easier for the hawk to find him, we’ll also gradually change the mouse’s color from camouflage brown, to neon pink. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and powerful eyesight will diminish step by step.

Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly, but simply — like a chicken — give chase to the mouse on solid ground.

What will happen if we continue this experiment for the ‘benefit’ of the hawk? What if we slowed the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl? Care to guess?

In time, the once-majestic hawk would lose its wings, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his open beak. Naturally, the unintended consequence of our experiment is that the hawk, in its weakened state, would become easy prey for a hungry coyote.

What have we done, young man!

By making it ‘easy’ for the hawk, we have turned him into something other than a hawk. We have taken away his power, his beauty and nobility, and made him dull.

Written in the software of what it is to be ‘Hawk’ is the need for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse.’

Best not to mess with the laws of nature.

Nowadays, you hear a lot of young people saying things are hard, wishing someone would make things easier for them. They sound like hawks cursing at nature for making mice so speedy and elusive.

Now let’s suppose you were walking on a beach and stumbled upon a weatherworn and rusted oil lamp. Since you’ve probably seen the movie ‘Aladdin,’ you know what’s inside, so you pick it up and rub it hard with the palm of your hand.

Poof! A Genie appears.

Only this time, he won’t grant you three wishes, but only one; the one the Genie has already chosen for you. You can either accept his offer, or not.

From that day forward, the Genie promises you will never again feel challenged, rejected, sad, afraid, anxious, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. What’s more, you will instantly forget all the bad things that ever happened to you. If fact, all your previous memories would be erased — both good and bad. From that moment, your days will be all sunshine and rainbows. No more storms, thunder, and lightning. No more obstacles or difficult challenges.

Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?

Since you’ve already read about the rule of opposites governing the Universe… the one that says that for there to be light there must be darkness — meaning joy is not possible without suffering — and since you’ve made it all the way to this point in the book, you’ve proven yourself to be smart and gritty so I’m certain you’d reject the Genie’s offer, push him back into the lamp and throw it back into the ocean never to be rubbed again.

page break cropped

Before Covid-19 struck our world, the outlook for boys was already grim. We’re now confronting a more formidable challenge. If there ever was a right time to fortify a boy’s psyche and gird his soul, surely this is it. To succeed in the world of their future, they will need every tool in the survivalist toolbox.

Teaching them to face hardship — with courage and grit — and preparing them for the road ahead are the greatest gifts we can give them.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to lead spirited lives of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

Related articles:

You’ll Figure it Out – The Life Force of Clear-Eyed Optimism

Rewilding the American Boy

Rage!

Harnessing the power of our emotions

In the history of Western literature, the very first word is “rage,” for that is how Homer’s ‘Iliad’ begins.

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, and made their bodies carrion, feasts for dogs!”

And all this mayhem just because of a girl.

In Homer’s epic, the great warrior Achilles is forced to give up his prized spoil of the Trojan War — a young captive girl. Enraged, Achilles abandons the battlefield and sulks in his tent causing the death of many of his comrades by his indecorous withdrawal.

Achilles is not alone in his affliction. A low EQ, or emotional intelligence, is a condition common to many men.

The Bible, for instance, records the first ever case of murder committed by Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, Cain, who, in a fit of blinding rage, bludgeoned his younger brother Abel after the Lord accepted Abel’s offering in preference to his own.

More recently — May 2014, to be precise — 22 year-old Elliot Rodger slaughtered seven people in Santa Barbara, CA. because he felt rejected by the sorority girls at Alpha Phi.

In his words:

“On the day of retribution, I am going to enter the hottest sorority house at UCSB and will slaughter every single, spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls I’ve desired so much, they have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance toward them, while they throw themselves at obnoxious brutes.” — Excerpt of Elliot Rodger’s video recorded manifesto

Rage, says author Parker Palmer, is simply one of the masks heartbreak wears.

How different might the tales of these three young men have been if they’d been taught to draw upon their inner resources to master the moment… if, as boys, they would’ve been helped in nurturing their emotional intelligence.

Might there be a midpoint, then, between Cain and Elliot’s fiery rage and Achilles’ sulken, cowardly withdrawal? Halfway between our innate responses of fight or flight?

The ancient Greeks said there was and called it ‘sophrosyne’: an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind, which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to temperance, prudence, decorum, and self-control.


Men are like rivers. When rejection, disappointment, and despair rain down upon them, their current swells with hurt. Their sense of control and masculine pride come under threat. This is their ‘Achilles Heel’. Ashamed, disoriented, and untaught on how to deal with such powerful emotions, they repress them, but the hurt invariably breaks through and overflows, wreaking havoc on self and others.

Imagine if we could transform the chaos of these pent-up emotions into generative energy. What a better world it would be!

In Spanish, the word for “river dam” is ‘represa’ — to repress. But a dam does not end with an impervious barrier. A floodgate opens to a turbine which transforms the river’s raging power into energy. That’s sophrosyne!

Young men in America urgently need the wisdom of such harnessed power, which is why my book for boys devotes an entire chapter to the Life Force of Temperance.

“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.’

Before training boys on this indispensable strength of character, though, I first help them tackle some of their generation’s most insidious problems, like the pervasive culture of narcissism and instant gratification; the dispiriting envy provoked by deceptive social media narratives about the ‘perfect body,’ the ‘perfect life,’ instant fame and wealth; the false promise that kids can be anything they want to be; that they are ‘special’ for no apparent reason instead of unique for many, and I further explain why obstacles and resistance (i.e., not always getting what we want) are necessary to spark ingenuity and creativity and what ultimately lend beauty and meaning to life.

Since children learn and retain best through story and metaphor, I introduce them to the Life Force of Temperance by way of the tragic tales of two famous young men, followed by the ‘Allegory of the Chariot’ by Greek philosopher Plato.

Chariot version 2

“Neither too hot nor too cold is what ‘Temperance’ means. Neither too fast nor too slow. It’s all about moderation. About self-control. About being able to say ‘no’ to short-term rewards in exchange for a greater reward in the future. It’s also about knowing when enough is enough.

I’ll explain this by way of a true story about a man by the name of Jack London.

In 1889, when he was just thirteen years old, Jack taught himself to sail. At fifteen, he borrowed three-hundred dollars to buy a small sailboat, the ‘Razzle Dazzle,’ and became the most successful oyster pirate in Northern California. Needing to earn money to help his poor family, Jack would go out at night on his boat and steal oysters from the companies who grew them along the shores of San Francisco and he’d then sell them at the fish markets in Oakland. At seventeen, he quit school and joined a crew of seal hunters and sailed to Japan. At twenty-one, he trekked deep into the Canadian wilderness in search for gold. Jack also loved to read and write, and by the age of thirty, was the most successful and highest paid writer in America. ‘The Call of the Wild,’ is one of his most famous books.

Pretty cool, right? Just imagine what Jack’s Instagram or Snapchat would have looked like had social media existed when he was growing up. Who wouldn’t want a life like Jack’s?

But here’s what happened…

Jack blazed hotter than a wildfire and kept pushing himself faster and faster, harder and harder, like a merry-go-round whizzing at breakneck speed with its wooden horses panting and covered in white foamed sweat. Jack wanted more — more fame, more money, more ‘likes’ — and he wanted them now! And because he could never get enough, he made himself sick, drank too much booze, and died at the age of forty.

Before I tell you what you can learn from Jack’s fate, I’ll tell you another true story. This one is about a boy named Alex, better known as Alexander the Great.

Alexander was born in Greece in 356 B.C. to King Philip II and Queen Olympias. At age 12, he showed impressive courage when he tamed the wild horse Bucephalus, soon to be his loyal battle companion. At age 20, Alexander became King of Macedonia and began a campaign for world domination. In thirteen short years, he defeated the mighty Persian Empire, conquered Egypt, and ruled over the largest empire in the ancient world.

Also pretty cool.

But here’s what happened to this guy.

Alexander kept pushing himself and his troops harder and harder. At one point, his exhausted soldiers refused to fight further. They told Alexander that a true leader knows when it’s time to stop fighting. Because he didn’t like the advice they gave him, Alexander killed his most trusted lieutenant in a fit of drunken rage.

“In victory,” said writer Robert Greene, “do not go past the mark you aimed for.”

To understand what this writer meant, imagine your school’s football team is trouncing the opponent 70–0 at the end of the third quarter. There is absolutely no way the other can win. Victory for your school is certain. Now suppose you’re the captain of your team… would you instruct your players to ease-off, or continue crushing it?

Alexander kept on crushing. Not only greedy, but dangerously vain and arrogant, he allowed his success to go to his head to the point of believing himself a God. Alex kept fighting, partied hard (just like Jack), drank too much, died at the age of thirty-two, and his empire soon collapsed.

Memorize this: A wise warrior knows when it’s time to stop swinging his sword.

What shocks me is the fact that Alexander was tutored by none other than the wise philosopher Aristotle who was himself a student of another genius by the name of Plato. It was Plato who warned everyone about the danger of not having self-control, or temperance. He explained himself by writing a simple story with a hidden, but crucial meaning, named ‘The Allegory of the Chariot.’

Every man, Plato said, is made up of three parts. The first is the logical, thinking part, that Plato called the “charioteer” — or conductor — whose job is to drive and control the chariot. The other two parts inside every man are the horses that pull the chariot — one black, the other white. The black horse represents our emotions. The white horse represents our spiritedness, that combines, both our physical and mental strength, and our courage.

Let’s summarize these 3 parts and connect them to the ‘Energies’ discussed in Chapter 9:

The King represents your Brain = Charioteer.

The Warrior represents your Strength and Courage = White Horse.

The Wild Boy represents your Emotions = Black Horse.

Remember what Confucius said? That we should never give a sword to a man who cannot dance? Confucius was referring to a man who is not connected to his body and emotions, and, therefore, can’t control his black horse. It’s the man who, when angry, doesn’t take the time to understand where the anger is coming from and what it wants from him so foolishly lashes out with violence. In other words, instead of wisely simmering, he blows hot and burns others.

Earlier in the book I told you that feeling and expressing emotions is a good thing but not so if you allow them to take over. The black horse of your emotions must always, always be under the wise control of the charioteer — the inner-King who brings order to your life and calms your storms.

The white horse, on the other hand, is very important because it helps you get what you want out of life. It is essential to achieve your goals. It’s that fierce warrior inside every man who won’t sulk or run when the going gets tough. It’s also the excitement you feel when you are doing something you love. But if you allow the white horse to run amok, you will end up like Jack London and Alexander the — not so — Great.

Hold your horses!’ is another phrase you should memorize for it may one day save your life as it may have spared Alex and Jack from their tragic fates. This expression was first used 2700 years ago by Greek poet Homer in ‘The Iliad,’ referring to a guy by the name of Antilochus who drove like a maniac in chariot races.

What I don’t get is this: Why on earth didn’t Alexander pay attention to his wise teacher Aristotle and learn all this stuff about charioteers and horses? Why did he not connect the dots? If you ask me, Alexander must have been distracted or half-asleep during class which I hope is not what you’re doing right now but, rather, paying close attention so you don’t make the same mistakes.

Aristotle was trying to teach young Alexander to know when enough is enough, and to listen to his body and properly deal with his emotions to prevent crashing his chariot in a fit of blinding rage hurting himself and others.”

Like fire, anger is a great servant but a terrible master. — Martin Luther

While intended for boys, this ancient wisdom would well serve adults and may help quell the many bursts of rage flashing across America today.

The sorry state of the nation’s discourse proves how woefully unaware and unintelligent many are about their emotions. Running hot through the civic bloodstream, today’s default response is rage. Debates are ‘won’ by who can shout the loudest. Many of its leaders are men who wield the sword of power but don’t know how to dance. Outrage is now the chief currency of the ‘news’ and media ecosystem. The country’s politics are infected by vitriol, and tightly-lidded dishes of seething anger and acrimony are present at dinner tables, especially at Thanksgiving, where families sit on eggshells in fear of inflaming one another or self-combusting. Politics, once ago but “the normal affairs of state and its citizens,” is now something better not discussed. And then people wonder why things are getting more strident and divisive and problems keep getting worse.

Rightful anger and spirited debate are necessary to resolve issues and fight injustice. In fact, I think larger doses of this robust tonic are needed in a country where its citizens are increasingly living true to what South African writer Breyten Breytenbach once observed, that “Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.” No more lamentable proof of this contagion than the growing indifference to the hundreds of innocent lives lost every year to mass shootings.

But while rightful anger is very often called for and necessary, the battle is all but lost if we allow it to play us like helpless marionettes.

In my book I tell boys that rather than raising their voice, they must harness their anger, simmer, and work on improving their arguments. Speak when you’re angry, warns writer Laurence J. Peter, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.

So it’s not a matter of cutting ourselves from our feelings, but of attaining a serene mind which no longer falls prey to our emotions; no longer shaken by adversity or intoxicated by success, as said Jean Francois-Revel and Matthieu Ricard in ‘The Monk and the Philosopher.’ “If a handful of salt falls into a glass of water,” they observed, “it makes that water undrinkable, but if it falls into a lake it makes hardly any detectable difference.”

The world today is experiencing unprecedented turmoil and greater storms lie ahead. The innate fierceness in men is needed more than ever. But such power must be expressed by calm inner strength and not with violence which is only a manifestation of frustrated, unconscious impotence like the one that made Achilles sulk, Cain murder, and Elliot slaughter so many innocent people.

My book aims to prepare the future generation of men to overcome the many challenges that will soon test their character by teaching them how to deal with the swelling hurt of life’s inevitable disappointments, defeats and rejection without burning themselves and others in an explosion of rage.


Follow my book’s heroic journey to publication!

Related articles:

A Mass Shooting and the Birth of a Book

Adventure, Danger, Honor and Glory – The Path of the Masculine Warrior

Women of the World, Please Take the Wheel!

 

 

“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.

The One Life Force You Cannot Do Without

“If you never want to master a skill, or finish anything you start, nor do anything significant in your life, feel free to skip this chapter.”

So I introduce the ‘Life Force of Grit’ in The Hero in You, my book for boys.


Stars shine owing to the crushing the force of gravity. No pressure, no radiance.

Carbon crystals become exquisite diamonds under extreme temperatures and pressure deep in the Earth’s mantle.

Resistance is a fundamental force in nature.

Had the Eurasian plate not presented its fierce resistance against the colliding Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas would not be crowned with Mt. Everest.

So it is with any worthy human endeavor.

We never know how high we can soar until we are called to rise. — Emily Dickinson.

And when the call to our true purpose comes, there is no greater life force we must bring to bear than the Life Force of Grit, a word originating from the Proto-Germanic root ‘ghreu’ — to rub or grind.

Three years ago, I was called to rise and lend my life a higher purpose. Ever since, my journey has been met with great resistance. Many times have I wanted to give up and run back to my previous life cushioned by security.

In the face of adversity, Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said there are three forms of prayer:

One: I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot.

Two: Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.

Three: Overdraw me, who cares if I break!

I have chosen the third.

“Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory.” added Kazantzakis. “His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.”

“God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts must become butterflies. There is only one way: The Ascent! View the abyss with a defiant glance — without hope and fear, but also without insolence, as you stand proudly erect at the very brink of the precipice.”

“Deliver yourself from deliverance. Salvation is a sham. Pursue only one thing: a harsh, carnivorous, indestructible vision — the essence. Ascend, because the very act of ascending is happiness and paradise. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks!”

Gritty words from a man who lived their truth and had this written on his tombstone: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free!”

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers

We don’t seem to be raising our children with such steely determination and ‘stick-to-itiveness’ these days. Instead, we seek to clear their path from all obstacles, paving their way through life with a frictionless road to the land of plenty.

If they quickly tire, or become bored with one activity, we rush to ease their discomfort by facilitating a new one. “Don’t like the piano, Billy? That’s okay sweetie, you’ve given it almost a full week. We’ll pay for tennis lessons instead.”

For ten years, I worked at a Waldorf-methods public charter school. By the fourth grade, every student is handed a violin, one of the most difficult instruments to play. Certain that this would turn them off music for good, I asked the teacher what the purpose was.

“Grit,” he responded, with a grin. “Embracing and overcoming discomfort is the only way they’ll achieve mastery, in music, and in life.”

“Anything you rub long enough becomes beautiful,” I tell boys in my book.

“You’ll know what I mean if you like to collect rocks…”

Excerpt from Chapter 10

To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to super-fine. Rocks don’t like being polished. That’s why you hear a harsh, scraping sound when you rub sandpaper on their surface. They are the same sounds as the groans, huffs, and deep sighs we make when learning something new, like riding a bike. If we give up then, we will accomplish nothing.

If you want to be a great soccer player, cook or musician, for example, you better be ready and willing to endure a lengthy period of harsh training.

Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.

Just to see what would happen if we remove this resistance, let’s pretend you and I are Masters of the Universe and rule over nature. We’ll go out on an open field to conduct an experiment with a hawk and a mouse.

Circling above us, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal, is the hawk. Natural selection has developed in the hawk a flying speed of 120 mph, reaching 180 mph when diving for its prey. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. Truly a magnificent and noble creature. Suddenly, he spots the mouse. Easy lunch, one would think, but nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive. An exciting chase is about to begin!

Since we are Masters of the Universe and control the levers of nature, let’s see what happens if we slow the mouse down a bit. To make it even easier for the hawk to find him, we’ll also gradually change the mouse’s color from camouflage brown, to neon pink. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and powerful eyesight will diminish step by step.

Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly, but simply — like a chicken — give chase to the mouse on solid ground.

What would happen if we continue this experiment for the ‘benefit’ of the hawk? What if we slowed the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl? Care to guess?

In time, the once-majestic hawk would lose its wings, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his open beak. Naturally, the unintended consequence of our experiment is that the hawk, in its weakened state, would become easy prey for a hungry coyote.

What have we done, young man!

By making it ‘easy’ for the hawk, we have turned him into something other than a hawk. We have taken away his power, his beauty and nobility, and made him dull.

Written in the software of what it is to be ‘Hawk’ is the need for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse.’

Best not to mess with the laws of nature.

Nowadays, you hear a lot of young people saying things are hard, wishing someone would make things easier for them. They sound like hawks cursing at nature for making mice so speedy and elusive.

Now let’s suppose you were walking on a beach and stumbled upon a weatherworn and rusted oil lamp. Since you’ve probably seen the movie ‘Aladdin,’ you know what’s inside, so you pick it up and rub it hard with the palm of your hand.

Poof! A Genie appears.

Only this time, he won’t grant you three wishes, but only one; the one the Genie has already chosen for you. You can either accept his offer or not.

From that day forward, the Genie promises, you will never again feel challenged, rejected, sad, afraid, anxious, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. What’s more, you will instantly forget all the bad things that ever happened to you. If fact, all your previous memories would be erased — both good and bad. From that moment, your days will be all sunshine and rainbows. No more storms, thunder and lightning. No more obstacles or difficult challenges.

Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?

Since you’ve already read about the rule of opposites governing the Universe… the one that says that for there to be light there must be darkness — meaning joy is not possible without suffering — and since you’ve made it all the way to this point in the book, you’ve proven yourself to be smart and gritty so I’m certain you’d reject the Genie’s offer, push him back into the lamp and throw it back into the ocean never to be rubbed again.

Alladin

As I put the finishing touches on ‘The Hero in You,’ I look back at the many months of struggle, the rolls and tumbles I’ve endured, the seemingly implacable resistance that continues to push against my conquering will.

Overdraw me, I say, who cares if I break!

If I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible blows

The rock will split. — D.H. Lawrence

With indomitable keenness, I will continue rubbing and grinding until I bring to the world a worthy and exquisite piece of literary sea glass.

Our struggles define us, not our desires, wrote Zat Rana.

And in our defiant ascent, the force we can never do without is the Life Force of Grit.


Follow my book’s gritty journey to publication.

RELATED READING

Life is Not a Caucus Race in Wonderland

Raising Children in the Land of Fear

A lesson on perspective.

In the first episode of ‘Journeys to the Ends of the Earth,’ photojournalist David Adams travels across the shimmering heat of the Sahara desert with a Tuareg caravan. These fierce nomads have crisscrossed this forbidding landscape for thousands of years calling it ‘The Land of Fear.’

While Adams’ account of the Tuareg life is altogether fascinating, there was one scene which made me pause. It’s when Adams says the Tuareg set their makeshift camps at least five miles away from the nearest water source.

That’s crazy! I thought to myself. Why would anyone do that in such an inhospitable climate?

They do so, Adams explains, so that their children don’t take water for granted.

Stunned, I had to stop watching. I couldn’t help but contrast the Tuareg perspective with that of the industrialized West and wondered if living in close proximity to abundance explains why it’s so hard for us to count our blessings. In this part of the world, I thought, the Tuareg practice would likely get them sued for child abuse.

When young, my go-to response when I broke something at home was, “We can always buy a new one.” Born into wealth, I grew up thinking money grew on trees and took everything for granted. It drove my dad insane, yet, instead of straightening me out, he gave me a free pass tinctured with a brief sermon. Later in life, I would pay dearly for such disregard.

Now that I can barely sustain myself, I wish I would’ve been raised like a Tuareg child or shared the life of the boys who shined shoes at the park in front of my childhood home in Guatemala.

lustrador

Across our front street, the park had curved pathways shaded by tall, broad-leaf trees, where these boys, as young as seven, shined shoes for men in hats during their lunch break or after work. These kids did not attend school. Their meager earnings were mostly handed over to their fathers to buy alcohol. Looking down at them from the roof of my house, I envied their freedom, the ruggedness stamped on their brown, sinewy bodies, the dexterity with which they propelled discarded bicycle rims with long sticks held with their stained hands, and the way they laughed as they raced behind them. Meanwhile, surrounded by abundance, I was bored and unhappy.

Norman Douglas, author of ‘South Wind,’ noticed that the children who have the most fun, the children who are most inventive, are those who have absolutely nothing to play with.

William Kamkwamba was such a boy… a boy who harnessed the wind and saved his family and village from starvation.

In my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I use William’s story as an example to boys of how poverty and hardship are often catalysts for ingenuity.

Excerpt from Chapter 5

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He lived in a village of about ten mudbrick houses, painted white, with roofs made from long grasses collected from nearby swamps. For most of William’s life, his village didn’t have electricity, just oil lamps that spewed smoke and coated their lungs with soot. His family, like others in the village, were poor farmers who grew mostly corn.

Unlike most kids in rich countries, William had no toys to play with. He and his friends scavenged for empty cardboard boxes which they would wash and then use to build toy trucks. They built larger wagons, like go-carts, using thick tree branches to build the frame and giant sweet potatoes for wheels. The wheel axles were made of poles carved from a blue-gum tree. They also loved to play soccer but had no money to buy real soccer balls, so made their own with plastic shopping bags which they wadded together and tied with rope.

I think kids are better off without flashy, fancy, noisy toys. If I were still young and was writing a letter to Santa Claus, I’d ask him for just five things: A stick, some string, a cardboard box plus a cardboard tube and dirt!

The year William turned 13, he became aware things in him were changing — not only his body, but also his interests. Like you, William was growing up.

He and his best friend Gilbert began to take apart old radios to see what was inside and figure out how they worked. For a long time, William had been fascinated by the sounds coming out of a radio and wanted to know how they got there.

“Why are these wires different colors?” “Where do they all go?” The boys had many questions but no answers, so William set out to find them himself. Before long, people were bringing their broken radios and asking William and Gilbert to fix them.

At that point, William didn’t know much about science, or that doing science could be a job. But he was becoming more and more curious about how things worked. For example, he wanted to know how gasoline makes car engines work, so he began stopping truck drivers to ask them: “What makes this truck move? How does it work?” But no one could tell him. It seemed to William that people in his village were happy enjoying their cars and radios without knowing how they work, but not him. “I was filled with the desire to understand,” he says, “and the questions never stopped coming. If finding these answers was the job of a scientist, then I wanted to become one.”

Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of all times, once said he had no special talent but was only passionately curious, like William.

I don’t know what makes people stop using the Life Force of Curiosity as they grow older. They stop asking questions like ‘What if?’ or ‘I wonder…’ or ‘If only…’ Most of our world’s greatest inventions have come about precisely because someone asked these questions. Sometimes these discoveries can even save lives as William was about to prove.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate only one meal a day. Unable to feed his dog, Khamba, William took him out to the field one day, tied him to a tree, and left him there to die. There was nothing else he could do. With little money, his father could no longer pay for his education so he had to drop out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William says.

Now imagine yourself in a similar situation: living in a cramped, mudbrick hut with your parents and six sisters, no electricity, only able to eat once a day; you’re hungry all the time and can’t go to school anymore because your parents can’t afford it. Imagine further that you’ve never used a computer, know nothing about the Internet, and barely speak English. This is what William was up against when he was fourteen years old.

But rather than whining about it or complaining that the world was unfair and owed him a better life, or looking for an easy way out, William imagined a better future for himself, his family, and his people, and decided to do something about it.

Because he couldn’t go to class, William spent his time playing board games with his other friends whose parents could not afford sending them to school anymore. “But these games weren’t enough to keep my mind stimulated,” William says. “I needed a better hobby. Perhaps reading would keep my brain from going mushy.”

William decided to go to the library.

I could talk all day long about why you should read and learn instead of playing video games, but I’ll let William’s story convince you of why it’s such a good idea.

“Come to borrow some books?” the librarian asked William as he entered the small, musty room. It was the first time he had set foot inside a library.

He nodded, then asked, “How do I do it?”

William spent that first morning sitting on the floor, flipping through pages and marveling at the pictures. He says that for the first time in his life, he experienced what it felt like to escape without going anywhere.

Wanting to keep up, he checked out the same books his friends were studying at school. Back home, he fashioned a hammock from empty flour sacks and strung it between two trees. From then on, he spent his mornings at the library and the hot afternoons reading in his hammock under shade.

One Saturday, Gilbert met him at the library just to look at books for fun. The first book William spotted was the ‘Integrated Science’ textbook used by his older, former schoolmates. Turning the pages, he saw a photo of a large waterfall located in southern Malawi where the country’s electrical company operated a hydro plant. This is basically a machine that produces electricity using falling or flowing water to turn the blades of a turbine which spins a generator.

“Well,” he told Gilbert, “this sounds exactly like a bicycle dynamo. It lights a bulb by turning a wheel.”

Dynamos are like small metal bottles with a grooved spinning cap that attach to the wheel of a bicycle. William had seen them around the village before but didn’t know what they were for until he saw his father’s friend riding-up to their house on a bicycle with its headlamp shining. As soon as he stopped, the light turned off. It was the dynamo that created electricity to power the lamp.

The photo in the book made William think about the swamps behind his house which also created a waterfall during the rainy season.

“What if I put a dynamo underneath it?” William asked Gilbert. “The falling water could do the spinning and produce electricity. We could listen to the radio whenever we wanted.”

Putting a dynamo under the waterfall would be easy. The problem was running wires all the way to his house to power the lights and radio. That would cost a fortune. And what about during the dry season when there is no waterfall?

“I guess I’ll have to research this a little more,” he thought.

William kept reading, but because his English was so poor, he struggled with many words, so went to look for the dictionary on a bottom shelf of the library. When he squatted to grab it, he noticed a book he’d never seen before. It was pushed deep into the shelf so hidden from view. It was a textbook called ‘Using Energy.’

William says this book changed his life.

Textbook Using Energy

The cover of the book showed a long row of windmills. William had no idea what a windmill was. All he saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a fan.

He called Gilbert over and pointed at the picture. “Don’t these look like the pinwheels we used to make?”

“Yeah,” Gilbert said, “but these things are giant. What are they for?”

“Let’s find out,” William said, and began to read:

‘Energy is all around you every day. Sometimes energy needs to be converted to another form before it is useful to us. How can we convert forms of energy? Imagine hostile forces have invaded your town. If you needed a hero to save the day, it’s unlikely you would go to the nearest university and drag a scientist to the battlefront. Yet, according to legend, it was not a general who saved the Greek city of Syracuse when the Roman fleet attacked it in 214 B.C… it was a scientist.’

The book went on to explain how a Greek inventor, named Archimedes, used his ‘Death Ray’ — basically a bunch of mirrors — to reflect the sun onto the enemy ships until, one by one, they caught fire and sank. It was an example of how you can use the sun to produce energy. Just like with the sun, windmills could also be used to generate power.

It all snapped together for William.

“If the wind spins the blades of a windmill,” he thought, “and the dynamo works by turning the pedals of a bike, these two things could work together! If I can somehow get the wind to spin the blade on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I can create electricity and power a lightbulb. All I need is a windmill and I could have lights! No more smoky lanterns in my house. I could stay awake and read instead of going to bed at seven.” But most important, a windmill could also pump water. With his village and the rest of the country starving to death, a water pump could save lives by irrigating crops.

“Gilbert!” William exclaimed. “I’m going to build a windmill!”

William had never tried anything like it, but he decided to step out of his comfort zone and embark on a hero’s quest.

Gilbert smiled. “When do we start?”

“We start today.”

For the next month, William woke up early each day and went to a scrapyard to find pieces for his windmill. Now that he had a purpose and a plan, he began to find exactly what he needed. “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity,” he says. When he wasn’t at the scrapyard, he hung out at the library or sat in his hammock and read. His imagination was constantly at work.

People in his village thought he was crazy. His room was full of junk from the scrapyard. “What’s wrong with you?” his mother asked one day. “Your friends don’t behave this way. Look at this room! It looks like a madman’s room. Only madmen collect garbage.”

William proved them wrong.

Despite the many things that went wrong, he persisted, and brought his windmill to life.

Tuareg camp

In the ‘Land of Fear,’ the Tuareg camp five miles away from the nearest water source so their children learn to not take it for granted.

The shoeshine boys in my country were happier and more inventive than a privileged child looking down on them with envy.

A poor boy in Malawi used hardship as a catalyst for ingenuity.

Meanwhile, children in the West grow up in abundance, plied with the latest gadgets, toys, electronics, and myriad distractions, which partly explains the growing epidemic of anxiety, ADHD, and depression plaguing American children.

In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai warriors greet each other with the phrase “Kasserian Ingera?” — “Are the children well?”

“Not well at all,” would be my answer should one of them greet me at a shopping mall in an industrialized city, especially on a Black Friday.

Parents in this part of the world might want to consider removing their children from their world of plentitude to spark their inventiveness and teach them to not take everything for granted.


Learn Emotional Intelligence from a Clever Horse

Clever Hans

Meet ‘Clever Hans’: A horse that performed arithmetic and intellectual tasks on the level of a third-grader.

“He can do almost everything but talk,” reported the New York Times in 1911.

In his book ‘Subliminal,’ theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow explains how:

Hans learned to respond to his master’s questions by stamping his right hoof. The New York Times reporter described how, on one occasion, Hans was told to stamp once for gold, twice for silver, and three times for copper, and then correctly identified coins made from those metals. He identified colored hats in an analogous manner. Using the sign language of hoof taps, he could also tell time; identify the month and the day of the week; indicate the number of 4’s in 8, 16, and 32; add 5 and 9; and even indicate the remainder when 7 was divided by 3. Sometimes, he could answer his master’s questions even if not verbalized. By the time the reporter witnessed this display, Hans had become a celebrity.

A psychologist named Oskar Pfungst decided to investigate. He discovered that the horse could answer questions posed by people other than his master, but only if the questioners knew the answer, and only if they were visible to Hans during the hoof tapping.

Pfungst eventually found that the key to the horse’s feats lay in involuntary and unconscious cues displayed by the questioner. As soon as a problem was posed, the questioner would involuntarily and almost imperceptibly bend forward, which prompted Hans to begin tapping. Then, as the correct answer was reached, another slight bit of body language would signal Hans to stop.

Social Cues

Scientists, Mlodinow ads, attach great importance to the human capacity for spoken language. But we also have a parallel track of nonverbal communication, and those messages may reveal more than our carefully chosen words and sometimes be at odds with them. Nonverbal communication forms a social language that is in many ways richer and more fundamental that our words.

One recent study, for example, found that when trained properly, a wolf can respond to human nonverbal signals. Like us, wolves are highly social animals, and one reason they can respond to nonverbal cues from humans is that they have a rich repertoire of such signals within their own community.

In ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,’ Charles Darwin argued that emotions — and the ways they are expressed — are not unique to humans and provide a survival advantage.

Consider, for example, a smile — an expression we share with other primates. If a submissive monkey wants to check out a dominant one, it will bare its teeth as a peace signal.

“In monkey talk, says Mlodinow, “bared teeth mean I don’t plan to attack, so please don’t attack me first. In chimpanzees, the smile can go the other way — a dominant individual may smile at the submissive one, saying, don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you.

You might think a smile is a rather shoddy barometer of true feelings. After all, anyone can fake one. But our facial expressions are expressed subliminally by muscles over which we have no conscious control. Our real emotions and signal expressions cannot be faked.

Genuine vs Fake Smile

A genuine smile involves contraction of specific muscles which pull the skin surrounding the eye toward the eyeball causing an effect that looks like crow’s-feet but can be very subtle.

Learning to read these subtle cues is fundamental to social interaction and the development of empathy: the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. — G.K. Chesterton

In ‘Figuring,’ a sublime book by Maria Popova, she explains that the word empathy came into popular use in the early twentieth century through the gateway of art, to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a painting in an effort to understand why art moves us.

But if we don’t expose ourselves to a painting, we cannot project our emotions onto the canvas and intuit the subtlety of the artist’s intention and resulting effect in our feeling bodies.

Likewise, now that our social interactions are increasingly mediated by social media and text messages, our capacity to read subtle cues broadcast by body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions is atrophying. An emoticon, no matter how clever or cute, just doesn’t cut it, which might explain the growing level of societal discord and strife.

Just think of the last time one of your text messages was completely misunderstood by its recipient.

While this modern-day scourge affects both old and young alike, my current work and concern is with our boys.

Much like shielding boys from danger inhibits their ability to effectively overcome obstacles and navigate the world, allowing them to mediate their human interactions through technology prevents them from developing strong social-emotional intelligence.

Social-emotional agnosia

Also known as expressive agnosia, social-emotional agnosia is the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and voice intonation in social situations. People with this form of agnosia have difficulty determining and identifying the motivational and emotional significance of external social events. In other words, they can’t relate. Social-emotional agnosia often occurs in individuals with schizophrenia and autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism. The prevalence is 1 in 42 for boys and 1 in 189 for girls. These rates yield a gender ratio of about five boys for every girl. The latest estimate of autism prevalence is up 30 percent from the rate reported in 2008, and more than double the rate in 2000. — Scientific American.

Children’s social skills may be declining as they have less time for face-to-face interaction due to their increased use of digital media, according to a UCLA study.

UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

“You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” said lead author Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. “If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

Another UCLA study linked technology with a decline in critical thinking and analysis.

Roughhousing Boys

As I explain to boys in Chapter 2 of my current book, 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. 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. We are also less empathetic than females… less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, and suffering.

The only way Clever Hans was able to answer questions was while being face-to-face with the questioner.

The only way boys will develop positive social skills is by removing the screens which shield them from direct human interaction and send them out into the world.

This, no doubt, will help them become as emotionally-intelligent as a horse.


To receive future tips on raising boys click here.

Learn about the rewards you’ll receive when supporting the publication of ‘The Hero in You.’

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.