Before we take this Ramble, I have a confession. This Ramble is also a bit of a book review for a few books I read recently. I’ve linked to them throughout the Ramble, and if you buy those books through those links, I get a little kickback. The site I’m linking to is called Bookshop, and they help support local bookstores that are all in danger of shutting down because of Amazon. So, if you buy from those links, you’ll be helping me, and helping keep local bookstores open, which is pretty fucking cool. I promise I’m not linking you to bullshit books that suck, I’m only recommending things that have helped to change me in some way for the better and that I think we can all learn something from. With that said, Ramble on:
“Toxic” masculinity. You hear it thrown around all the time. Makes me think of some kind of ‘roided up powerlifter glowing green after being exposed to noxious chemicals. You know, kind of like…
But what does “toxic” masculinity mean? What does is portend for the future of our boys when the adjective used to describe their biology is constantly paired with a word that literally means “deadly”? Is there a way we can raise men who embody the positive traits masculine without this so-called poison?
Fuck yeah there is.
Now, I’m not claiming to be a shining pillar of manliness. I’ve never been the picture of a testosterone-fueled Hollywood dreamboat. I’m not jacked or yoked or cut or chiseled. I spent a large percentage (probably half) of my life training brain more than brawn. I skipped athletics when I was in high school, opting instead to get my phys ed credits from marching band. Thanks to asthma, I always hated to run, and since running was the core of everything athletic that I could see, I chose to carry around a bundle of drums to beat on instead. I never joined the military–a thing many associate with masculinity. Instead, I thought the best way I could support the warfighter was to put my brain to use solving some of the hard technical problems they face way out there at the tip of the spear. I’ve made a modest career helping support the guys out there dangling their asses over the line, but not being one myself.
Doesn’t sound like a picture of masculinity, does it?
Luckily for me, being an athlete and military veteran aren’t the only measures of masculinity. Those men certainly display a number of masculine traits (and veterans have my unwavering respect for the sacrifice they made for my family and me), but those aren’t the only ways to make a man. Not by a long shot. Which brings us to the point of this post: “What does it mean to be a man in the modern world and why the hell should anyone listen to some dude on the internet?”
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Let’s start with the second part. Why should anyone listen to me? Well, I’m a modestly successful man who has read a bit about masculinity through the ages, listened to some really smart people talk about manhood, and generally feels pretty good about himself as a representative of the male of the species. Give me a few more paragraphs and you can decide whether I have anything useful to say. If you close this page thinking I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about, then okay, but if not, then maybe we can help a generation of lost boys become found men.
In my not-so-humble opinion, any good learning endeavor begins with books. There are 3 in particular that I think any man (or teenage boy approaching manhood) should thumb through.
The first one is King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. This was one of those that I was skeptical to pick up at first because I wasn’t much of a philosophy or psychology guy, but once I started, I found it hard to put down. It’s a dive into the Jungian archetypes of man that have carried pretty consistently throughout history and across geography. The crazy thing about it is how approachable and fascinating they manage to make something as chewy as Jung.
The general premise is that masculinity presents in 4 archetypes. I bet you can guess what they are. Those archetypes are pyramidal, meaning there are an aggressive version at one bottom corner, a passive version at another bottom corner, and one balanced version at the top peak of each archetypal pyramid. From there they discuss the presentation of each one of these variations in both childhood and adulthood, how to recognize when you are too far to one side or the other, and what kind of disservice you are doing to yourself and your community by not growing to your fullness.
The second book was nothing like what I expected it to be. From the title, I expected Iron John by Robert Bly to be some kind of John Henry or Big John fiction about manly men doing manly things. Turns out I was way off. Robert Bly creates a surprisingly enthralling narrative where he walks through the symbolism and metaphor in the Grimm story of Iron John, a fairy tale I had never heard before.
I don’t want to get too deep into it because Bly does a much better job than I ever could, but basically the story follows a boy born to power who finds Iron John and is pulled from wealth and civilization into the wild natural world. The balance he must strike between wild and civilized before returning to the world of men in triumph and power, describes the struggle all men must endure to embody a true definition of a righteous and masculine man.
Both of these first two books hit on two critical things that previous generations had that modern men lack: elder mentors and manhood rituals. The authors all posit that lacking a moment to point to where they can say “I am a boy no longer,” and not having another man–an Elder–to point to where they can say “This is how a man lives,” leave a boy wandering through adulthood, lashing out at those around him in search of some evidence that he is truly a man.
After those two books dedicated to defining the transition from boy to man and outlining the qualities of True Masculinity in its Strength, I’m recommending something more focused on awareness of thought and forming better mental habits.
As a Man Thinketh by James Allen is a very quick read. Basically a treatise on how thought sculpts your reality, it’s not long but it’s profound. There’s a reason that Allen’s work has been considered a classic since it was published in the early Twentieth Century. In the end, the primary thing I left with was the uplifting feeling that I was not only responsible for, but ultimately capable of, building the reality I wanted for myself.
That, to me, is the heart and soul of masculinity: taking responsibility for your actions, sculpting the world around you to realize your goals, protecting those people and things that are your charge, providing for the same, and leading them as an example of personal responsibility.
In the vast majority of cases, none of those tasks will require violence, anger, or aggression. But that brings me the final piece of masculinity that, in my estimation is the basis of this idea of “toxic” masculinity, and that is Violence. Capital V.
I don’t think you can mention the male of (most) any species and not also mention Violence. Birds, cats, dogs, deer, humans. All of these animals will attack one another under certain circumstances, and all of these animals will attack other creatures at other times. It is the role of the masculine to do the dirty work when necessary to protect or provide for society. Those who speak out about “toxic” masculinity are seeing this violence and aggression used in ways that are destructive and hurtful to society, and conflating it with true masculinity.
From the readings, especially King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, it seems straightforward to me. These men have yet to understand that they are acting from a place of insecurity and weakness. To embody masculinity is not to pick on those physically weaker or try to insert yourself into the world of an attractive woman through cat calls or unwanted confrontational advances. In fact, real masculinity is the opposite of those things. A masculine man will stand up for those weaker, help them along, and understand that by helping those weaker than himself he is making the entire community stronger. A masculine man can approach a woman he finds attractive confidently and respectfully and strike up a conversation in a way that doesn’t make her uncomfortable.
I said earlier that I had spent a large percentage of my life training my brain and not my body. I also spent a lot of my life insecure, depressed, and tired. Then I started going to the gym. I started lifting weights. I began to take pride in my body and recognize it for what it was: my only real physical property. I lost a ton of weight. I’m still kind of a squishy motherfucker, but I eat right, I train BJJ, and I hit the range a few times a month. Simply put, I increased my ability to do Violence and that made me a calmer and more centered man.
It is a hallmark of masculinity to train your body to the limits of its capability. That doesn’t mean that you have to be a chiseled Adonis. A man with ALS who can only move one arm who still works that arm to the best of his ability in a struggle to keep his machine functioning as well as possible; that man is masculine as fuck. That dude has as much of my respect as the powerlifter cleaning more than his bodyweight.
It’s a strange balance to have to strike, this melding of Testosterone and refinement, but I think it’s one that most men know in their hearts. I think those who display “toxic” masculinity know they are misbehaving, but don’t understand where they are compensating or how to grow into better men. Maybe someone will sit them down and be their Iron John or their modern-day shaman and put them through that ritual we all need to make the transition to manhood.
Thanks for taking this Ramble with me. Now, get out there and be some Lost Boy’s shaman.
Stay ready. Stay safe. Stay free.