By Paul Elam
“The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified mis-understanding. ‘Live,’ Nietzsche says, ‘as though the day were here.’ It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal––carries the cross of the redeemer––not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”
Joseph Campbell ~ The Hero with a Thousand Faces
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Anyone suggesting that they have ideas that will actually help men, psychologically speaking, has an obligation to place their philosophy, their rationale, front and center for men to see. I also understand that most practitioners don’t really do that, especially in what I loosely define as the “mental health” industry.
Usually what you get is a short and sputtering list of platitudes about “wholeness,” finding your “inner this” or “inner that,” accompanied by an obscure definition of the practitioner’s approach. It is either that or you get nothing but the bill.
Sometimes, often actually, they will inform you that they subscribe to feminist theory, which is an admission of their philosophy, except to the extent that it should be viewed cautiously, regardless of your sex.
This writing is intended to explain what I do in regards to assisting men, specifically in their more modern struggle for identity and an understanding of where they fit in the world. This is particularly important as the lack of those things may well result in some serious problems. Among them are family dysfunction, substance abuse, suicide, violence, anxiety, depression, shame and a lack of self-respect that often crosses the line into self-hatred.
It is not that the current crisis of male identity is the sole cause of these problems. It certainly isn’t. For example, family dysfunction is a self-perpetuating malady passed down from parents to children. In and of itself it has little to do with modern masculinity. Alcoholism is not a “male problem,” nor is violence or other forms of abuse, though those practicing under a feminist shingle may send that very message.
When assessing problems, it can be very difficult to tell the difference between cause and symptom, between a problem and its source. Does family dysfunction cause substance abuse or is substance abuse the cause of the dysfunction? Is violence at the root of relationship problems or do relationship problems fuel and promote the violence? Do communication problems cause hostility or does hostility cause communication problems?
Are all these problems symbiotic, just a teeter-totter interaction of various pathologies feeding each other? If so, can we ameliorate one problem by successfully intervening on another?
I suggest that there may be some truth answering those last two questions in the affirmative. There are, however, workarounds, back doors if you will, to what may well form part of the root structure of an array of problems with no readily visible connection. The good news about that is that you don’t need to see the connection initially in order to do something about it.
The philosophy here is that solutions begin with a recognition that there is indeed a crisis in male identity and male self-respect. It affects all of us, gay or straight, black or white or other race, regardless of religion or socioeconomic status.
Fifty years of gender politics have thrust all men into a new paradigm of sexual politics with no rule book. We are now three generations of men who have been pummeled with messages of who we are, almost all of them wrong, and who we are supposed to be, almost all of them destructive in one way or another. Our mental health industry is one of the prime proponents of these misguided ideas. They are espoused, for profit, at the expense of our men and boys.
The Old School Archetypes
The classic, historical masculine archetypes of Hero, Villain, Ruler, Warrior, Creator, Sage, Rebel and Explorer, all of which either defined what men chose or what they were driven to be. They provided men a model of what they chose not to be as well. They gifted men with a sense of identity and purpose, a rudder for their navigation of life. To a great degree (with some downsides) they worked. Jungian analysts, in the days before the ideological corruption of the field of psychology would likely tell you that these archetypes are rooted in our biology.
It is also important to note that all these archetypes are anthropomorphic projections of the human male experience. They took root in our earliest mythologies because they were already in play in human life. Strangely, “mythology” told the real story of our lives. Every epic battle, great journey, tragedy and triumph of mythical figures mirrored the internal and external experience of real human beings in some way or another.
And so it went from epoch to epoch.
All that has been supplanted with a new and toxic narrative. To simplify it, we now live in a Zeitgeist where all male archetypes have been reduced to that of Villain, with the expectation that they will assume the role of Hero when needed…and directed. The ongoing expectations of men to protect, provide, sacrifice and endure have not changed. The change in narrative, however, demands that recognition and honoring of those things ceases in favor of persistent demonization.
Similar changes have happened in the lives of women. The Manipulator, the Bitch, the Saboteur, the Queen and the Damsel in Distress have usurped the timeless archetypes of mother (Demeter), daughter (Persephone), lover (Aphrodite), civic life and learning (Athena), etc.. While all these and other female archetypes are on full social display, the spectrum of those archetypes has begun to degrade into a vacillation between two roles based on immediate perception. Women are universally seen as the Queen, unless they are in distress or claim to be in distress. Once the perception of female distress registers, social consciousness reverts them to being the original Damsel in Distress. It is as though they live in a perpetual state of flux between empowered and helpless, depending on which is more advantageous, just as we see play out today across the geopolitical landscape.
That, too, is ultimately heading for a crisis of identity in women, though for the purpose of this discussion we need not explore that further.
The denial of all this, and the assumption that it has not had a tremendous impact on the psyches of men, has left them in an emotional and social wasteland that produces more of the psychosocial problems already identified in this writing.
This leads to an inescapable conclusion. While men do need assistance with specific problems, they are also suffering in a famine of functional archetypes. Failing to recognize this, even if we seek in earnest to help them with problems symptomatic of that deficit, is putting a Band-Aid on potentially mortal wounds.
If we are to help men, it requires us to enable them to nurture a new narrative of themselves and their lives. They need new archetypes that foster a new sense of identity if they are going to thrive in a new age.
So what exactly is an archetype?
The Greek root words are archein, meaning “original or old,” and typos, meaning “Model or type.” Archetype: Original Model. Archetypes are the old, original models on which men, in the unconscious recesses of their biology, shape and mold their lives.
Perhaps in the days when there were payoffs, e.g. honor, appreciation, respect and status, men’s unconscious movement toward one archetype or another made more sense.
We do not live in those times any more, and we haven’t for most or all of your lifetime. What remains for most men in modern life is a world of expectation without reward, burden without honor and service without self.
Most men know on some level that this is true, but many have a very hard time facing it out of fear. Fear of the loss of social approval, the loss of love and the loss of what they imagine is the only space the world grants them.
Some of the fear is at least superficially warranted. Facing these issues means reaching a level of consciousness sufficient to make you a bad fit in the world of the walking blind. It means a new mythology with new archetypes born of a newer and more accurate picture of the world.
The daunting challenge is that men can no longer afford the luxury of allowing biology alone to write their story. Technology and ideology have rendered that too dangerous. The old model makes men far too easy to manipulate and far too willing to comply with the manipulation to their own detriment. You can find this same story throughout classic mythology so it is nothing new. Those, however, were cautionary tales, the moral lesson from which has been erased from the cultural consciousness. Most dare not speak honestly of Hera and Medea in the modern age.
The results of that resembles a modern genocide of the male soul.
Fortunately, that which has been forgotten can be learned again. And that which has been learned in error can be corrected. The fruits of that effort are the restoration and “wholeness” so easily promised and seldom delivered.
The risks of embracing this on a personal level is actually an illusion. Once you walk the newer path you will most probably find you don’t particularly want to return to the old one. The feigned approval of others loses its luster when the vision clears.
Despite appearances, all of this is really not so arcane. It is actually quite simple. You can start with most any problem in life; relationship and family issues are a good start. Map the mythology that got you there, that determined your actions and reactions. Were you playing the role of the Hero? The Warrior? Were you surrendering to the Siren’s Song? Was the Damsel in Distress a façade with something more sinister behind the surface impression?
Imagine the consciously constructed mythology that would lead you to a better place with better people. Imagine the story of you being written by your own hand.
The solutions are not always easy, but they are made much more accessible when you make the decision to clear your own path; when you are at the helm, navigating your own way, when the stars in the sky are arranged according to your own dreams and desires.
How many miserable professional men out there can remember a time when they aspired to be artisans, writers or artists, only to watch those dreams buckle beneath the oppressive weight of a story that they did not write?
How many desperate men are clinging to the role of provider and protector, having become automatons in loveless, abusive marriages that have ground their self-respect into the dust?
How many men have stories that end with a bottle of scotch and a handgun because they cannot breathe and do not know where to find free air?
Men need an alternative to the new mythology’s archetypes of Servant, Slave and Scapegoat. The only thing preventing that from happening is being trapped in or clinging to a narrative they did not produce and which has never served them.
We have seen the results of men living in a world that is devoid of any honoring of men’s roles or even of men’s being. How can men cope in this sort of world? How can therapists or anyone else facilitate a man moving from this restrictive, prison-like consciousness into a more truly masculine path that embraces his well-being, self-interest and happiness?
That is what my work is about. Not just a place for men to tell their stories, but to author and own them with support and encouragement from other men.
Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians ISBN 0415059046, Routledge (1986)