My inner barbarian awoke from its civilized slumber while binge-watching documentaries on wars of conquest and the rise and fall of empires.
I felt unsettled, tugged by two contrary forces: one modernly conscious (woke?) — scoffing at the sight of grown men acting out their atavistic impulses and yearnings for status and glory through battlefield carnage — the other, an unconscious stirring, marked by goosebumps, raised hair, a quickened pulse and puffing chest with every scene depicting the victors raising their bloodstained weapons and hollering like madmen.
There I was, thinking I had evolved… no longer bound by instinct.
Adventure, with all its requisite danger, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of man. — John Eldredge, ‘Wild at Heart’
I realized it will take more than gentle appeals for inclusion, vulnerability, empathy and compassion to ‘correct’ a man’s tendency towards tribal aggression forged during millions of years in evolutionary history. Fully taming the warrior fierceness in men, I further concluded, is not only impossible, but foolish and dangerous.
Consider the runup to World War II.
In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Hitler on three occasions, finally conceding the Sudetenland, in northern Czechoslovakia, in exchange for Germany making no further demands for land in Europe. Chamberlain boasted it was “Peace for our time.” Hitler salivated, and, emboldened by Chamberlain’s fragility, invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, followed by Poland — on 9.1.39 — the day the British finally declared war. Chamberlain resigned shortly after and was replaced by Winston Churchill, nicknamed “The Bulldog” for his dogged tenacity and ferociousness. The United States joined the fight in 1941, and, to this day, the Americans who helped free the world from the scourge of Hitler’s diabolical ideology are revered as “The Greatest Generation.”
Today, young men have few paths to greatness. No mighty struggles, no crusades, no calls to conquest (besides video games), no loftier badge of honor than a virtual sword, and no codes of conduct like those which guided the Knights of the Round Table and the Samurai in Japan.
Yet, the stirring remains… always will, and the consequences of not leading boys and young men onto paths to glory through heroic quests are self-evident.
Many of the things that parents have nightmares about (risk taking, alcohol, drugs, and criminal activity) happen because we do not find channels for young men’s desire for glory and heroic roles. Boys look out at the larger society and see little to believe in or join with. They want to jump somewhere better and higher, but that place is nowhere in sight.— From ‘Raising Boys’ by Steve Biddulph
That place, Steve, is everywhere in sight. There are enough worthy battles out in the world to test the strongest of men. But in our society’s misguided attempt to tame the wild spirit of boys, they now cower and fear its expression, or, worse, vent it through self-harm or harm to others. “Some boys are so afraid they will become domestic,” says Robert Bly, “that they become savage, not wild.
If we are to overcome the challenges of the 21st Century, we better change our messaging, fast.
Rather than telling boys there is something fundamentally wrong about being male, I suggest we teach them how to harness their innate fierce energy in service to a cause greater than themselves. Let us drag them — kicking and screaming — out of their dark rooms and away from their screens to initiate them into spirited men of noble purpose!
Let’s inspire them with tales of true heroes; not the super-kind, nor those whose only proof of worth is their wealth, fame, or online celebrity. I’m talking about ordinary people. Those who have dared respond to the calling of their age and brought their unique talents to bear on the challenges of their time.
Let’s instruct them on the innate wiring of the male software — with both its virtues and glitches — and allow them to tinker with it until coding an evolved expression of manhood.
While we’re at it, let’s help them demystify the female gender so, when reaching puberty, they’ll know how to relate to women with realism and respect rather than through the confusing and delusory spectacle of porn.
Further, we must help boys develop a code of honor and conduct and the strengths of character essential for a flourishing life and to withstand and overcome the inevitable obstacles, disappointments and defeats inherent in every hero’s journey. They must learn, from the start, that life is neither a cakewalk in wonderland, nor a buffet where one gets to choose what one wants. It’s a sit-down dinner, where what is served is what they must eat — joys, sorrows, victories, failure, love, rejection, loss… the whole enchilada.
Above all, we must let them know they are needed.
Because right now, about the only thing our well meaning, but confused culture is telling boys is that they’re toxic and not wanted. This, while the world burns and gets overtaken by chest-thumping bullies and highchair tyrants. We are, I fear, nurturing a generation of Chamberlains, drained of all masculine power, and if history can teach us anything at all, it is that the most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless. Hitler was such a man.
My warning has nothing to do with raising boys under idiotic injunctions like “men don’t cry” or “man-up!” As I’ve said before, men’s seeming incapacity for emotional intelligence is partly responsible for warfare. But a crucial line must be drawn between being empathic and being weak. “Brave men are vertebrates,” said British author, G.K. Chesterton, “they have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. Modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover and their softness is inside.”
Our world could use more vertebrates, right about now. We need fierce, gentle warriors steeled with an inner strength informed by the wisdom of water — supple, pliable, but ferocious, persevering, and invincible!
Like hailstones on flowers, we keep pelting our boys with scorn for the mere fact of being boys.
Assailing them at every turn, mass media thunders dispiriting messages like, “The End of Men,” “The Demise of Guys,” “Are Men Necessary?”
Not yet capable of nuance or understanding context, the opprobrium poured on men with undiscriminating malevolence must sound to their fragile minds like a factual, congenital defect of their gender. Guilty before proven innocent.
It’s the same guilt one is made to feel when walking into a Catholic church and met by the limp and lacerated body of Christ nailed to the cross. “Because of my fault, because of my fault, because of my great fault,” worshippers chant as they tap their guilt-ridden heart with their fist.
A year ago, the American Psychological Association put out its first-ever ‘Guidelines for Practice with Boys and Men.’ “From the first sentences,” laments Dr. Michael Gurian, “the APA did what so many other organizations do: fall back on the soft science of ‘masculinity is the cause of men’s problems’ and ‘removing masculinity is the solution.’”
No wonder most men refuse therapy and are committing suicide in increasing numbers.
I suppose the scorn lashed against men is a form of payback for us having once blamed women for all the ills of the world… Lilith, Eve, Pandora, Demeter… I get it.
But I’m an adult. I can take the punches without losing my balance. Boys cannot.
So pummeled, the wings of their spirit are prematurely clipped, discouraging them to soar and actualize their innate masculine nobility. Then we wonder why they are failing to launch, lag behind at school, seek respect by joining online hate groups, or vent their confusion through mass shootings.
“As profiles of school shooters have shown us,’ adds Michael Gurian, “the most dangerous male is not one who is strong, aggressive, and successful; the most dangerous male is one who is depressed, unable to partner or raise children successfully, unable to earn a living, unable to care for his children. The most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless.”
When an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, women will be perpetually stuck with boys. And without strong men, women will never attain a centered and profound sense of themselves as women. — Camille Paglia
The inference, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is toxic, ergo masculinity is toxic, is as idiotic as saying: “Cleopatra was a cunning harlots, ergo all women are harlots.”
For every Weinstein, there are hundreds of men, like Aaron Feis, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves, who sacrificed their lives shielding the innocent from harm. Toxic you say?
For every Trump, I give you a Jefferson, a Washington and a Lincoln.
For every Hitler, I give you a Churchill and a Roosevelt.
Keep raising the toxic flag and shaming boys for being boys and you will awaken the beast. Our world has paid a heavy price at the hands of humiliated boys who sought retribution and power through bloodletting.
If you must vent, go ahead. There is a valid reason for your rightful anger. Just put away your shotgun and bring out your high-precision rifle. Boys don’t need to suffer the impact of your broad-stroked vitriol striking the guilty and innocent alike. Exceptions do not prove a rule. A radical Muslim, for instance, does not represent the entirety of the Islamic faith.
The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men. – Christina Hoff Sommers.
Boys need to know they are needed and wanted. That the world needs their fierce, warrior energy as much as it needs women’s intuition, empathy, and nurturing power.
“Boys are such great kids,” writes Katey McPherson in ‘Why Teens Fail: What to Fix,’ “because of who they are — so direct, so compassionate, so full of energy and wonder, if we can just see it and love it. To nurture it, though, especially as one of four sisters and a mother of four girls, I had to commit consciously to seeing male nature as a strong part of this world that needs my help to be and remain strong.”
If we, as a culture, insist on rejecting their unique gifts, we will perpetuate the parable of Cain and Abel. Brothers will keep slaying brothers and our boys will be condemned to a life of wandering — adrift and disoriented.
Male character traits such as strength, stoicism, rightful anger, and transformative power are vital forces for good if they are rightly understood and channeled.
Masculinity is not the enemy. The enemy is distorted, crafty, and malevolent language.
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!”
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.
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.
Men have been driving this world for the past two hundred thousand years and from what I can see through the rearview mirror the picture ain’t pretty so I say it’s time women take the wheel.
Notice I did not say, “Throw us out of the car and make us eat your dust.” After all, you’ll need us to change a flat tire now and then.
I know you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. I just think women’s hands should not be soiled by axle grease. They are meant to nurture and heal. Let us do the dirty work and heavy lifting, not because we think you’re weak, but because we care.
There’s a bully blocking your agenda? Tell us where he lives, we’ll take him out!
For the greater part of the human story, we were equals. You gathered, we hunted. This lasted for about 99% of the time modern humans have been on this planet. It wasn’t until ten thousand years ago when we began to settle and till the land that we disrupted the harmony with our macho bullshit. We came up with the notion of property and extended that notion to your bodies and personhood.
Afraid of your power, we began to blame you for the ills of the world and invented skygods after our own image to punish you.
Envious of your fecundity and your intuitive powers, we banished all female goddesses and filled the pantheon with male divinities and stoic male heroes. Reason became the supreme virtue, while the feeling body and emotions were declared vile and capricious.
Bewildered by your overpowering sensuality that continues to spin us like a top, we repressed it, veiled it to remove it from sight, and now seek its return in the dark and lonely theater of our minds projected through the perverted lens of pornography. Pathetic!
In our blinding arrogance, we considered your intellect inferior to ours and denied you the right to vote, robbing the world from your voice and wisdom at enormous cost.
We turned you from subjects to objects, which made it easier for us to exploit, enslave, and denigrate you.
Really sorry about all this too.
The record speaks for itself. Our seeming incapacity to develop emotional intelligence, and deal with our anger, has cost the lives of 150 million to over one billion people in warfare. Our self-imposed exile from our feeling bodies and emotions — hence from nature itself — has ushered in the sixth mass extinction and now has Earth on the brink.
The list of our blunders is exhaustive.
Recently, one of your female colleagues, a brave 16 year-old climate activist, speaking on behalf of the planet, was mocked and ridiculed by the most powerful man on Earth. Toxic, indeed.
But we’re all not like that. The rotten apples have not spoiled the entire barrel. It’s just that the bullies, loudmouths, windbags, braggarts and scumbags get most of the air time. They are the locusts of the world.
For now, it appears the locusts are winning, but listen carefully, and you’ll hear a growing buzzing of bees.
The New Zealand parliament, for example, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but still majority male, recently approved a landmark zero-carbon law.
2019 ended with a glimmer of hope when the Dutch Supreme Court (majority male) granted a landmark climate victory that could change the world.
And the decade ended with men and women joined in protest around the world.
“What lay underneath all this disillusionment,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, “was a readiness to question foundations that had been portrayed as fixed, inevitable, unquestionable — whether that foundation was gender norms, heterosexuality, patriarchy, white supremacy, the age of fossil fuels or capitalism.”
The tide is turning.
So while your anger and disillusionment with men is rightful and warranted, this is not the time to further the divide. You will be perpetually stuck with boys, warns Camille Paglia, so long as you continue denigrating masculinity and manhood.
I’m asking you to give us some time to figure out our shit.
Your steady and deserved return back to equality has caught us unprepared. It will take us a while to fashion an evolved conception of manhood. Bear in mind that the male software was written by nature during hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history. The traits in men that women often find exasperating were fashioned out on the African savannah, and, in many ways, have served their purpose.
In ‘The Hero in You,’ my book for boys, I explain the virtues and glitches of these traits:
Excerpt from Chapter 2
For example, we men don’t talk much. There’s a good reason for that. Imagine you’re out on the savannah with your hunting buddies and one of them just won’t shut up. You would never catch anything, and you, your buddies, and all the members of your clan would starve to death. Our ancestors survived and passed-on those instructions to the next generation of hunters: “Speak little, hunt more.”
Our male brains are wired to transmit our emotions more quickly to our physical bodies. As a result, we are more impulsive. We act quickly to solve immediate problems. It would have been a bad idea for us and our hunting buddies to sit down and chat about how scared or unsafe we felt when encountering a Saber-toothed Tiger. We express our emotions by moving; we hit a desk when angry or run when stressed. That’s the reason men express love with less words and more physical action.
Men have fewer nerve endings for feeling pain and fewer pain receptors in their brains. That’s why we can stand more pain, although you wouldn’t think so when watching a grown man stub his toe on a chair and collapsing on the floor screaming about how much it hurts.
Women claim men can’t find things. They’re half-right. While we might not be able to find the cereal box even though it’s right in front of our nose, we can certainly spot the big things, like Mammoths. Our software was written out in the wild, hunting on the wide expanse of the savannah. We look at the big picture. We see the forest, not the trees.
Women get frustrated with men who refuse to ask for directions when lost. There’s a good reason for that too. We like to figure things out for ourselves. We are scouts and explorers, navigators and adventurers. We like to wade across churning rivers, slash our way through steamy jungles, and climb mountains to look far and wide to map out the road ahead. We are visionaries.
We are also less empathetic; less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, or suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our buddies fell and got hurt, we just didn’t have the time to sit by his side to comfort him. We picked him up, brushed him off, maybe gave him a pat on the back, and we both kept running after our next meal. We had to. Those waiting for us back at camp depended on us to bring food. Men bond with their buddies by challenging them.
We don’t avoid pain and danger, but actually go out and look for it. Exposing ourselves to danger made us develop the skills we needed to survive. Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written in the soul of man.
We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees. To give you an example, in 1954, a famous social psychologist convinced twenty-two sets of parents to let him take their 12 year-old boys off their hands for three weeks and took them to a remote place. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone, yet still set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules, songs, rituals, and flags. One boy in each group was chosen as the leader. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. Men are warriors because when living as hunter-gatherers we had to defend our clan.
We are also protectors. When we see someone of our clan or family in danger, we run to their rescue, even if it means we will die in the process. Writing for The Federalist, Jason Farrell says “masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland as he shielded students from bullets while pushing them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre when three young men died shielding their girlfriends.”
Sometimes, we even sacrifice ourselves for an ideal — the ideas we believe can improve human lives. There have been brave men, like Greek philosopher Socrates, Italian cosmologist Giordano Bruno, and English statesman Thomas Moore, who chose to die, rather than renounce their ideals and live. These men are some of the great Warrior Bees in the human story.
But much as there are great things about the male software, it also has its bugs and glitches like any computer program, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t constantly work on making it better. After all, we are Homo Sapiens, or wise men.
There is, for example, no reason why we can’t train ourselves to better express our emotions besides sulking, shouting, hitting desks, slamming doors, or punching people in the nose.
Although we are less empathetic, I don’t see why we can’t develop rational compassion, using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then lending our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.
Knowing we are territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different and speak a different language, instead of destroying their flags, raiding and vandalizing their camp, and calling them nasty names, we can choose to see them as part of the human family, learn from one another, and work together to make the world a better place.
The human enterprise thrived for hundreds of thousands of years because men and women cooperated, side by side, as equals, bringing their unique traits, strengths and powers to bear on a shared adventure. We’d do well by remembering that the Greek goddess Harmonia was born from the union of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love.
Realizing we lost our way ten thousand years ago, we must now ‘hark back’ — a phrase used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent.
While men get the hang of it, it’s best the world let women take the wheel. Just don’t leave us by the side of the road. You might need us to replace a flat tire now and then, or act as your human shield in case we come across armed bandits along the way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cuesdisplayed 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black
From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.
No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.
“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.
Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.
Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.
Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.
Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world.
Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.
But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.
A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.
“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black
“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.
I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:
Your old grandmother says,
“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.
You look a little pale.”
Run when you hear that.A father’s stern slaps are better.
Your bodily soul wants comforting.
The severe father wants spiritual clarity.
He scolds, but eventuallyleads you into the open.
Pray for a tough instructor.
Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.
I do not comfort but challenge them.
Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.
Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).