June 11, 2014
Men: The dad-wound
By popular request I am republishing this series on men,
The Four Wounds, which first appeared here four years ago
and elicited the most comments of anything published
in Monkeytraps. Second of four parts.
Men lose their fathers too.
We accept it as normal now. But I’m told it was not always thus.
Before the Industrial Revolution sent fathers off into factories and offices to make their livings, boys grew up seeing, hearing and smelling what grown men were all about.
Sons working alongside fathers in fields and workshops absorbed a felt sense of adult masculinity by means of psychological osmosis. More than mere instruction or role-modeling, this transfer of male energy provided a sort of emotional road map, a path the son could follow out of his mom-dominated boyhood.
Robert Bly describes the process:
Standing next to the father, as they repair arrowheads, or repair plows, or wash pistons in gasoline, or care for birthing animals, the son’s body has the chance to retune. Slowly, over months or years, that son’s body-strings begin to resonate to the harsh, sometimes demanding, testily humorous, irreverent, impatient, opinionated, forward-driving, silence-loving older masculine body. Both male and female cells carry marvelous music, but the son needs to resonate to the masculine frequency as well as to the female. *
Then society changed. Men went off to work in offices, and boys went off to be educated in classrooms, mostly by female teachers.
And sons stopped hearing their fathers’ music.
Like mom-loss, this caused permanent damage, in the form of three specific deficits:
~ Men are left hungry for fathering.
This hunger is experienced, when we acknowledge it, as a craving for male attention and acceptance and praise. We need those things the way a plant needs sunlight and water. Without them, something inside us dries up and shrivels.
Father-hunger can also be felt as a physical one. I remember being twelve years old and standing next to my sweaty basketball coach and feeling a strong impulse to hug him. The impulse startled me, partly because I didn’t even like this guy much, and partly because the urge seemed to rise from such a deep place inside me. At the time my own father was physically and emotionally missing in action, and I realize now that some part of me was reaching out for an emotional food it was lacking.
(I didn’t act on the impulse, of course. Big boys don’t hug.)
~ Men end up estranged from other men.
Without dads to model male nurturance and connection, we’re left in basically competitive relationship to other males.
And without the ability to talk honestly about our experience — without the knowledge and validation that comes from hearing what other men really think, feel, fear and desire — we end up suspicious and scared of each other. We expect other men to reject the inadequacy we secretly feel.
The bridges between men are basically burned. We may have male friends during boyhood and adolescence, but most men I know are trying to navigate adulthood without any real male friends.
~ Men are starved for healthy models.
Many of us derive our ideas of manhood from models offered by, god help us, popular culture: John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway, Hugh Hefner and Donald Trump, Jack Kennedy and George Bush Jr., Barry Bonds and Tupac Shakur.
Without real men to learn from, we absorb these cartoonish models into the deepest parts of ourselves.
Then we either try to copy them or consider ourselves failures for being unable to.
One last word about male education, or the lack of it:
Once upon a time there were established ways of turning boys into men.
Traditional cultures provided initiation rituals which helped boys cross the psychological threshold from childhood into manhood.
Usually this involved some ordeal or testing. Kikuyu boys hunted lions using only a spear. Native American braves undertook vision quests without food or water. Australian aborigines went “walkabout” in the wilderness for six months at the age of thirteen.
Often initiation involved visible changes to the body, like circumcision or scarification. Afterwards the initiate was transformed, inside and outside. You could look at him and tell he’d been initiated.
He was also accorded full adult status by his community, given all the rights and responsibilities of a full-fledged man, could marry, own property, vote in council, go to war.
We have nothing like that now in ordinary civilian life. (Military boot camp and gang initiations belong to fairly limited subcultures.) The closest I know of is the Bar Mitzvah, the day after which the 13-year-old initiate returns to living with a mom still reminding him to pick up his socks.
Thus many men never experience themselves as mature, or as (in Robert Moore’s phrase) fully-cooked.
Regardless of education, income or accomplishments, they go through adult life feeling like half-baked impostors, burdened by a chronic sense of inadequacy and self-doubt and wondering when the hell they’re going to finally feel grown up.
And when they never do, they decide it must be their fault.
Next: The feeling-wound