Facing the Wild Man: How Wounded Boys Become Men
Are you a wounded man? You know if you are. In a way, all men are. But being wounded isn’t the problem.
The problem is that most men these days don’t know what to do with their wounds, are deeply lost within them, and make identities out of pain, suffering and resentment.
Worse still, increasingly culture is turning against masculinity itself. It is rare to find positive masculine archetypes in the contemporary landscape at all, as it’s conceptualized as merely ‘toxic’ or ‘patriarchal’.
If you’re not being fed the progressive wimp motion of masculinity as cruel, meaningless and unfeeling, you’re left with the 1950s archetypal bully of old.
This is leaving men with nowhere to turn, as neither of these conceptions amount to real men.
But what is a real man?
That question has led me down many rabbit holes, through addiction, mental health issues and even my own rebellion against masculinity itself as a younger man, I’m pleased to say there is definitely an answer.
I recently finished reading Robert Bly’s ‘Iron John: A Book About Men’, a fantastic mythical insight into how men have traditionally come of age and learned to transcend pain, rejection and boyish naivety.
Iron John is originally a Germanic myth that roots our culture, and Bly breaks down the story in contemporary terms, showing what we’ve lost in our modern era of soullessness and cowardice in the face of danger.
Iron John tells the story of a young prince who frees a Wild Man and learns from him, he goes from fear to courage on his journey, and processes his traumas along the way.
This piece picks up on the key element of the story, the child of a distant father (or positive male archetype), enmeshed by the Great Mother, stuck in what I call ‘manboyhood’.
Manboyhood is an endemic condition in this age.
So many modern grown men either behave like sheltered wimps or adolescents, you see it in the meekness of hipster media types and the hedonism of city traders alike, both are increasingly full of superficiality, drink/drugs, womanizing/porn, nihilism and ego.
Such paths inevitably spiral down to a form of personal hell.
Yet by locating and learning from the Wild Man, a positive form of masculinity can rise from our ancestors and carry us forward with courage, nobility and aptitude.
The (Unconscious) Yearning for the Father
Many men grow up today either without a father figure, or with an emotionally distant one.
Bly believes the ‘hole of the remote father’ leaves a gap in a boy’s life that ‘demons can enter through’.
Anxiety, depression, anger issues, addiction – all are common symptoms of such demonic entities festering in the wounded boy’s soul.
My own personal experience vouches for this.
As a man who had a distant relationship with his father in adolescence, I succumbed to anxiety and addiction, while my now deceased elder brother took the rage route.
Without a father to contain him, secure him, he raged at the world and authority, almost demanding the firm hand of authority to come down on him and control him in lieu of a spiritual or physical father’s presence.
In fact, I’ve never met an addict who didn’t have some sort of distance from his father.
The Great Mother
While single mothers are not always at fault for the distant father, we have seen the father take less and less of a role in a boy’s life, as well as become a foolish figure in contemporary media, rather than one of wisdom.
Check out the video below, and bear in mind this was made in 2007. The father has become even more of a bumbling doofus who needs his wife to tie his shoes since.
This lack of the physical and spiritual father has led boys in developing what Bly calls ‘female instincts’.
While much of society says we need more female influence on boys, I beg to differ. Boys need their mothers to grow. Men need men.
Paraphrasing Jung, Bly states that in picking up female instincts a boy’s own instincts are muted, thus blocking him from discipline.
Many manboys know this subconsciously and therefore hate their mothers for it.
However, hatred towards the mother is that which keeps a man stuck as a teenager.
Other men develop grandiose beliefs and behaviours to hide their wounds, while others display them like trophies on Twitter, ordering others to feel pity for them and recognise their ‘bravery for speaking out’.
Others, like me, become the addicted.
They seek oblivion from reality, freedom from their own life story that goes on in repeat inside the frightened, lost soul.
I went on to blame patriarchy, capitalism and anything else I could use as an excuse for the pain in my soul.
The Way Out: Meeting the Wild Man
One vital point Bly makes is that your mission is not to become the Wild Man, but to learn from him, leaving him to be wild.
While the Wild Man of Iron John is poetic metaphor, your own notion of the Wild Man will appear when you take the decisive step away from blaming others, victimhood and fear.
The first step to this is understanding this spiritual axiom: YOUR WOUNDS ARE GIFTS.
Perceiving wounds as gifts may seem impossible to you, yet this is the first step to wisdom.
How else did the great men of history become great without their suffering?
Ghandi was great because he was oppressed by the biggest Empire of all time.
MLK was great because of the very racism that tormented him physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Churchill was great because of the Nazi menace that ploughed through Europe and threatened to plunge the continent into darkness.
There is one question to ask yourself in your own life if you feel your suffering oppresses you and has no purpose:
- How can your suffering help others?
As soon as you answer that question with your heart, you will see your suffering has meaning.
The point isn’t to seek out suffering, life will give you enough of that, and just enough for you.
Use what you have, don’t create more.
Joining the Tribe
Once a man realises his suffering contains the seed of connection and the potential to help others, he opens his pain from insular obsession, to outer identification with the world.
Part of being a man is being able to be honest, stoic and helpful to others.
Part of being a man is also learning to be part of a community.
Narcissus, the mythical character from whom we get the word narcissistic, was a man stuck in his wounds, and crucially as the tale goes, separated from his tribe.
In his loneliness with his wounds, he fell in love with his own image, this is the tale of a man who rejects society to stay in manboyhood, using grandiosity to hide himself from the world.
Many modern men fear the tribe, they fear exclusion, yet they must consider that whatever holds us back will kill us quicker than what we fear.
This is a masculine truth.
The Great Mother seeks to nurture and protect. This is okay for boys, but men must break free, and if society and culture has turned its back on positive masculine archetypes, you must find your own way yourself.
Your ancestors’ spirit will be with you.
Man must first go out alone, seeing that too much safety means suffocation, and allow himself to find his tribe.
This is moving from the Mother’s to the Father’s world, and he is expected to fall hard when he leaves safety.
The Father’s World
The purpose of our journey into the unknown is that we fail, we fail again, and we learn.
In this process of relinquishing blame on others and seeing that they too are broken and frail, the wild man calls deeply within, and we see we have begun on a true adult path that others have walked.
In the fires of the dangers of life with no safety net, we see we must learn personal responsibility, discipline, and a respect of tradition in order to survive, and in this journey we are gifted discipline.
We find that we are learning a man’s lesson, that discipline can carry us through tragedy and grief, all the way to contentment as a man.
It is in this journey that we become something like real men.
We have experienced the love and care of the mother, yet most importantly we’ve discovered it needs limits.
We become men by walking the paths our ancestors walked.
Whether we unite with a physical, metaphorical or spiritual father, we learn the world through his eyes, learn to lead, take responsibility, to be patient, to watch, observe and to maintain meaning and order for men lost in manboyhood, who tip the balance of the collective soul, society, and being itself.
The wilderness bestows ultimate responsibility on an individual.
If a boy is willing to meet the call of the Wild Man, he will be rewarded with life itself.