Marc Graham

Transforming Lives Through Story

How Manhood Got Broke: A Call To Reclaim Masculinity

I swear we’re going to get around to discussing Story, mythic structure, forgotten history, and all the goodness that is novel-writing. Since a major theme of mine is writing with purpose, it’s fitting that we take a least one more look into the major events of the past few weeks. This is a long one, so top off your morning or evening beverage of choice, give me five or ten minutes, and let’s dig in.

One caveat: I’ll spend a fair amount of time discussing certain traits of Manhood. Let me be clear that, when I write about Manly honor or strength or self-sacrifice, I’m not implying that these are specifically male traits. I am saying that these are traits that must be embraced if one is rightly to be called a Man.

Last time, we discussed the millennia-long attack upon the Sacred Feminine. Patriarchal society, from religions to political structure, has done a marvelous job in stifling the female voice and spirit. Given the Buddhist (and quantum physics-ist) notion of Unity, one would think that by harming the Feminine, the Masculine has also been damaged.

One would be correct.

It’s arguable which came first, the self-inflicted damage or the damage done to the other. I suspect that a person (or institution or society) must already be damaged to be capable of bringing intentional harm to another. That harm cyclically reinforces itself, and over time it becomes nearly impossible to identify the source, the root cause.

My training is in mechanical engineering. Troubleshooting and problem-solving are part of my very nature. While duct tape and WD-40 have their place in the handyman’s toolkit, the more complex a system the more involved the repair. Surface solutions won’t do here. We simply can’t fix it if we don’t know how it got broke.

[Yes, the bad grammar is intentional.]

A Brief History

Now, I can’t say precisely when the damage began. I can say with confidence that the first major symptom of broken manhood is the advent of Monotheism.

Before anyone gets panty-twisted, this is not a rant against any particular religion. I’m a defender of people’s right to choose whatever beliefs they wish so long as they harm no others and, ideally, serve the believer’s growth and development as a human being. My analysis is purely from an engineering viewpoint. Does the system function or does it not?

The creation myths of all religions share common threads. These can even be found in the myths of Monotheism, which speaks to the agelessness of the root myths and the limited capacity of the priests to fabricate a monotheistic myth from whole cloth. We’re going to get a little deep here, so if you’re coming from a purely humanist position, bear with me for a bit.

In the Beginning…

Before Time was, was the One. Undifferentiated potential, infinite, timeless, formless (and genderless). The multiverse in singularity. To the physicist, this is whatever existed prior to the Big Bang (though time-based words like prior have no validity in this context).

To some rationalist monotheists, this potential, this all-in-all represents the lone Creator-god. But it can’t be. Potential must have a field, a medium in which to become expression. To the writer, it’s the page or screen. To the artist, it’s canvas or stone or clay. To the dancer, it’s the stage. And to the Creator, it’s the Void.

And that’s the problem. If the Creator is the sole first cause, the all-that-is, there can be no creation because there’s nothing (not even the Void) that is not the Creator for the Creator to create upon. With me?

For Creation (or Universe or Cosmos) to exist, there must first exist the infinite potential along with an infinite field of other-ness to receive it. There must be two. Only when the Void opens to receive the influx of Potential can Creation come into being. This is the reality of the Trinity.

If you’re catching the sexual undertones, it’s no accident. The very act of the Universe’s coming into existence is encoded into our DNA. The sexual act is an analog of the cosmic process of creation. As above, so below.

Ancient cultures had an innate understanding of this relationship. Gods and goddesses balanced one another. The masculine and feminine were seen as indispensable parts to the workings of Nature, equal in value if not in function. One could not exist without the other, and both were revered.

Granted, this was long. long ago. People were more attuned with Nature because if they weren’t that ignorance could kill them. They understood natural processes in an intrinsic, if not scientific, way. Perhaps most important, they transmitted to their children an understanding of what it was to be Man or Woman, and consciously and deliberately brought them into that way of being.

Women have a natural, biological initiation to mark their transition from amorphous childhood into full, fertile femininity. This inner initiation was celebrated (not shut away in a separate tent), and reinforced by changes in clothing, jewelry, and other outer forms to indicate the death of the child and the birth of the Woman.

The Passage of Manhood

Men have no such natural rites. The arrival of physical manhood can be subtle or inconveniently sudden. As the body develops, the mind and spirit must be consciously developed and strengthened to effectively control the newfound power.

Rites of initiation are fundamental to the successful metamorphosis of children into Men. These rites spanned the gamut from the hunt to battle to fighting to hunting… Yeah, pretty much they involved some form of violence and bloodshed.

Unlike our common conception of such things today, these rites were not mere blood sport, not some paleolithic mashup of paintball and Animal House. For the initiate, this was a life-or-death introduction to the meaning of Manhood.

A Man protects the community. A Man sheds his blood and puts his life on the line to feed the community. A Man suborns his natural impulses to Mind and Will and Justice, all for the betterment of the community. Children can be petulant and willful and selfish, but a Man upholds the higher good or dies trying.

Throughout tribal cultures, even to remote indigenous tribes in existence today, a Man’s power was carefully cultivated and imbued with honor–honor from the tribe, honor for the tribe, and honor for himself. The abuse of power through theft, violence, or inappropriate sexual conduct was virtually unheard of. Where such aberrations occurred, the individual was removed from the tribe, either through exile or death.

And Then It Got Broke

As tribal culture gave way to urbanization, things became muddier. A man no longer needed to bloody himself to provide for his family. Turn a few pots on the wheel or thread some cloth on the loom, and these could be traded to a farmer or hunter for food. Male initiation fell to the wayside as mainstream culture became distanced from hunters and warriors.

Then along comes some bright chap (likely unable to find any feminine sort willing to balance him) who decided he was just fine on his own, thank you very much. Creating gods in our own image, as we’re wont to do, he reckoned a solitary, male deity was just the thing to salve his lonely, limp ego.

Fast forward a few centuries, and the balanced systems of ancient polytheist cultures are all but gone. Even among the so-called advanced polytheist societies like Rome and Greece, their gods (at least in the accounts that have reached us) behave like senators (then and now), while the long-suffering goddess-wives scheme to hold on to status and slaughter their wandering husbands’ misbegotten offspring.

In these cultures, a male needed to do nothing, to earn nothing to claim the exalted status of Man. By simply being a male (like his god) and of the chosen people (as designated by his god), he bore the right to behaving as a god incarnate. The ideas of self-sacrifice, of controlling one’s passions, of earning one’s honor became not only quaint anachronisms, but dangerous heresies.

Where true initiation remained, it had to be hidden and disguised in order survive. Most of the forms of these sacred rites (clearly, not the power of them) found their way into profane knowledge, were neutered, then dressed up into the pseudo-rituals of college fraternities and social clubs.

Somehow, women too were caught up in the cult of the emasculated male. Since survival no longer relied upon strength, honor, and self-sacrifice, boy-adults who had no knowledge or experience of true Manhood were accepted as suitable husbands and fathers.

A woman’s strength was no longer a co-reflection and balance of her man’s strength, but a cantilever to prop up the failings and inadequacies of her mate. And she was lucky to have this honor, being so foreign to the male, [insert skin color or cultural association here] god of her people.

Thanks to soft city living (made even softer with technological progress), the complicity (willing or not) of women, and the predominance of a solo male deity, we find ourselves in the current situation. Molestation, abuse, and rape have been mainstreamed and accommodated. Our coddled boys don’t even have to work up the fire in their own blood to commit their heinous acts, when a little blue pill will do.

This Manhood deficiency is most easily recognized in sexual assaults, but it manifests in many ways. Road-rage, weapons violence, political tantrums, warfare, corruption, social media trolling, you name it. Wherever weakness is masked as strength, where ignorance is cloaked in bombast, it’s a sure thing that someone’s Manhood is broke.

A Note on LGBT+

Let me digress for a moment to address sexuality and gender identification. These natures have always been part of humanity, though labels and PACs have only recently come along. When I speak of masculinity and femininity, of Manhood and Womanhood, I do so not of an absolute polarity but of a spectrum.

We all land somewhere on this spectrum, with no healthy individual completely masculine or completely feminine. However one identifies and shows up in the world is that person’s prerogative. When this is done in strength and integrity, it’s a beautiful thing. When it’s a reactive, fearful or angry expression, the person (as well as society as a whole) is diminished.

While most of the recent sex-abuse revelations have been male-on-female, we cannot ignore the male-on-male abuses. Doubtless, there will be revelations of female-female, female-male, and all points in-between coming to light. Together we must stand up, step forth, and demand better for ourselves and our society.

Anyone who stands up and puts themselves at risk for the benefit of another acts in the highest traditions of Manhood. Anyone who uses their strength to improve our collective well-being through influence and balance acts in the highest traditions of Womanhood. Living in authenticity and integrity transcends gender and elevates each of us to the realm of the divinities.

Conversely, anyone who uses their power–real or perceived–to demean, objectify, or abuse another is no real Man or Woman. Such people deserve nothing less than to be shunned and exiled from our tribe.

So How Do We Get Unbroke?

Sadly, there’s no duct-tape/WD-40 solution for this. This may be a multi-generation fix. The past 2000 years of the Piscean age saw an explosion in cultural and technological innovation, to the detriment of social and personal integrity. Now as we move into the Aquarian age of self-awareness and accountability, humanity is primed for (relatively) rapid advancement in the spiritual arena.

How do we help our boys–child or adult–with this growth?

Honestly, for many it’s too late. Earning their power and learning to use it responsibly simply will not happen in this lifetime. The best we can hope for is to be vigilant and minimize the opportunity for them to do harm. Their personal evolution will hopefully level them up next time around.

For the rest of us, I offer a few suggestions.

Expect Better

In my experience, boys will live up to what others expect of them. A child held to a higher standard will strive to rise to the occasion. When I was young, no physical or verbal punishment could be more effective in improving my behavior than the sad statement, “I expected better of you.”

We have a tendency to excuse behavior for lack of the person’s ability to do better.

“Well, he’s a movie star/bigtime athlete/executive/senator. What do you expect?”

Personally, I expect a male in those roles to act like a Man. The more prominent and influential the position, the higher the expectation should be. We have to stop allowing abhorrent behavior because he sells out the box office or puts points on the board or brings in the revenue or casts the right vote.

If we set an expectation of how a Man should act, regardless of what he does or how he shows up in the world, this alone will spark major improvement.

Call Us Out

This is obvious, but easier said than done. The brave men and women who are casting a bright light on past abuses should be models and inspirations to us. People are no longer being given passes for unacceptable behavior.

I’d take this a step (or three) further. Let’s no longer wait until the harm is done. Let’s identify the un-Manly behavior as it emerges. Call it out. Shame it.

Granted, this is easier said than done. In many circumstances the targets are too shocked, intimidated, or comatose to prevent the action. They may not be able to prevent being victimized, but they don’t have to be victims. Strength can only be given away, never taken.

Most times, I’d daresay that simply being called out and scolded will be sufficient to stop the behavior. In more extreme cases, family members, teachers, employers, or law enforcement will need to be involved. Regardless, as a society, we need to put an end to tolerance of and excuses for unacceptable behavior.

Boys will be boys, yes. And they will continue to be boys well into senescence until made to understand how a Man conducts himself in the world.

Promote Examples of Manhood

Sadly, most of our culture is focused on boys dressed up like Men. This is, in part, a self-propagating problem. Authentic Men do not act out of desire for recognition or attention. They go about doing the right things because they need to be done. Those who crave the spotlight and seek to draw attention to themselves are boys playing dress-up.

There are exceptions, of course, where doing the right thing casts a spotlight on the Man. This is a happenstance, not the goal. Generally it’s fleeting, and when the news cycle passes he goes on doing the right things without people talking about it.

But we need to talk about it. We need to point out to our sons what true Manhood looks like. Ideally, the nearest and best example should be our fathers. Since the vast majority of fathers are boys themselves, if they’re even present they’re not fit examples.

We need to point out the quiet heroes who defend their countries, protect their communities, teach our children, raise strong daughters, heal our sick, expand our knowledge. We need to recognize the Man who does what he does not for the fame or the paycheck, but because that’s the use of his talents and abilities that best feeds his spirit and serves his tribe.

Provide Real Initiations

This one takes a little creativity. We’ve lost our tribal, mythical connections and there are few resources available to reconstruct the ancient practices that conducted a boy to the gates of Manhood. Some remnants exist in Torah schools and confirmation classes, on college campuses, or in local lodges and grange halls. Most of these contain only shards of our lost ancient wisdom and are not up to the serious work of transforming boys into Men.

A precious few among us are capable of self-initiation, consciously sacrificing the boy so that the Man can stand in his place. So how do we accomplish this for the others, particularly when we have so few initiates of Manhood to raise up the rest?

Despite the best efforts of monotheistic religions and vapid Western culture, authentic initiatic traditions remain.

A boy’s first hunt often served as his initiation. He had to endure the rigors of the wilderness, to face the terrifying might of the cornered prey, to demonstrate physical prowess in bringing the animal down, and to return with the prize to feed his people for a season. Some hunting cultures still embrace this means of initiation. This is not the guns-for-fun or sport-hunting culture, but a way of being that respects the Nature that sustains us, and that respectfully and humbly borrows from Nature so that hunter and tribe can continue to thrive in balance. Rare, but effective.

Martial arts provide another excellent opportunity for initiation, at least among the Eastern schools. Eastern societies have, until relatively recently, maintained a strong connection to their ancient initiatory systems, and these have survived the diminution of Manhood wrought by faulty economic, political, and religious systems. The best schools provide not simply physical training, but the associated development of mind and spirit. Through trial and personal effort they develop strength even as they teach the means to contain and control that strength.

Other avenues exist, such as sports teams, Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, the DeMolays, and similar organizations. As in all things, care must be taken. These can provide true initiatic experiences, or they can be opportunities for boys (children or adult) to dominate other boys.

Whatever its form, initiation into Manhood is crucial to restoring the balance we have lost. Through personal effort, self-sacrifice, and active care-taking of his community, a boy learns what it means and earns his right to be called a Man.

Live Authentically

While community action, establishing expectations, and taking part in group ritual are all well and good, the best thing that any of us can do to live as fully defined Humans–Man, Woman, or anywhere along the gender spectrum–is to understand ourselves and to live authentically from that understanding.

What does that mean?

It means living with intention, with honor, with integrity. It means taking the time and effort to look within, to understand that we are more than our physical traits. It means acknowledging that each of us is Creation writ small, that what we do with this life has implications far out-reaching the handful of years we spend in this body.

To tip the hat toward what I’ll be digging into later, every one of us has embarked upon a mythic hero’s journey called Life. We will experience trials, gather allies, confront enemies, and face the most fearsome demons.

In the end, each of us will return to the Village whence we came. By living authentically, we carry back with us the boon, the object of our quest that will enrich and enliven our tribe.

Meditation, yoga, spiritual practices, esoteric and philosophical studies–These are a few tools available to engage in authentic living. Any practice that stills the outer noise and allows us to experience our spirit, our true nature within and about the body, is a practice that can’t help but lead to living with purpose and authenticity.

Follow Wheaton’s Law

Fancy words and deep thoughts aside, perhaps the simplest, most concise guide to living in true Manhood can be found in Wheaton’s Law: Don’t Be a Dick.

Just don’t.

This is a discussion that’s long overdue in our society. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but we can start the conversation. Please share this article with your friends, and let’s start talking.

If you have other thoughts, ideas for initiatic practices, other suggestions on how to raise boys into Men, please share below.

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About Marc

I help writers use the power of Story to change their readers' lives.

6 Replies

  1. Marc, that was a remarkable post. Well thought-out and great mix of common sense and enlightenment. You are right about so many aspects of our society and how it’s developed over time. Or I should say societies. Thanks for the great post I enjoyed it tremendously.

    1. Thanks, Karen. I appreciate it!

  2. Charles Hutchins

    Nice piece, Marc. One of the regular speakers I have seen at the Unity Church says that becoming a true grown-up consists primarily of a shift in consciousness, from seeing oneself as a center of attention to seeing oneself as a center of influence. It means giving up focusing on how everything is affecting me, what a difficult day I am having or how unfairly I am being treated; and focusing on how my thoughts and actions are shaping the world. It is a super hard shift and one that requires daily renewed commitment, even now, well into my forties, especially when I feel tired. I look forward to reading more. Meanwhile, here is a nice piece of pocket lint for you.

    1. Marc

      Thanks for the lint! That’s a really strong point. Adults recognize their influence and actively use (and respect) to better form their world. Good stuff!

  3. Saytchyn Maddux-Creech

    Nice post, Marc.