I recently finished reading David Deida’s “The Way of the Superior Man.” Normally I would resist reading anything suggesting a singular behavior, certainly one that results in superiority. But with a 4.4 rating from over 300 reviews on Amazon, I felt the book must have something to offer. It also seemed like the perfect kickoff for my course of self-directed study on masculinity.
The book posits every person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, has masculine and feminine energy. And it is the job of men to harness the power of their masculine energy.
Early in the book I couldn’t help but think of the Terrence Mallick film “The Tree of Life” which, much like The Way of the Superior Man, deeply intrigued and frustrated me, often at the same time. That film encapsulates itself in the line of one of its characters:
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.
Masculine vs Feminine. Nature vs Grace. And we must choose based on what we are taught or left to figure out.
The book feels strongest and most competent when it discusses how a man can harness his own energy to control his outlook and his behavior. It speaks often of the “higher purpose” of each man. In one section it says:
It’s easy to feel disappointed by life; success is never as fulfilling as you think it is going to be. But there is a reason for this. Successfully completing a lesser purpose doesn’t feel very good for very long, because it is simply preparation for advancing towards a greater embodiment of your deeper purpose.
Living life to the top of one’s abilities is no easy feat. And whether or not you believe each person has one or more purpose in life, it is admirable to abandon the distraction activities we all engage in to figure out how to use our gifts to truly make an impact. The book repeatedly brings up the focus required for men to control their attention, their energy, and their efforts. While the language ventures frequently into the spiritual, the ideas are still fundamentally relatable.
It is when the book ventures outside the self to relationships with women where it begins to stumble. The male-female relationships the author describes are very specific and reductive. He paints a specific and almost stereotypical canvas of the way men and women interact, making broad statements about the behavior of women. Deida does not reference scientific studies or speak anecdotally about his clients the way Dr. Gary Chapman does so effectively in his book The Five Love Languages. Deida uses his pages to make sweeping generalizations.
And without the support of science or study, his advice can be hard to swallow. Especially with sentences like this:
You have mastered women and the world when no desire either to avoid or attain sways your loving or limits your freedom.
I don’t believe Deida means a literal mastery of women, however, using the language “mastering women” is absurd and detrimental. A viewpoint that encourages controlling women rather than understanding them. We have had enough men through history (and also our present) using their resources to “master” women in all sorts of horrible ways. What we need now is not mastery of women but mastery of self to enable a patient understanding of others.
The book also repeatedly makes the point that women are in a constant state of testing their men. As if it is the woman’s role in the relationship to be indecisive, emotional, and petulant. This continues to drive home established stereotypes; Men are not emotional, and men who are must have a more feminine energy. This doesn’t help move our conversation forward when we are trying to teach boys to be their whole selves, strong enough to try but also courageous enough to ask for help, calm enough to control their temper but also open enough to express their fear, sadness, and joy.
The word “emotional” is treated in this book, intentionally or not, as a dirty word.
Again I felt myself seesaw on my opinion of the book. I highlighted two dozen sections that I found to be helpful and particularly resonant. However, those sections are so often sandwiched in between borderline sexist or outdated views of gender and extremely non-specific spiritual advice. Which makes me wish I could extract those sections which did resonate with me and put them into a much more concentrated pamphlet.
And yet, I see why this book resonates with men. Yes, there are masculine and feminine energies in the world. And for some men, perhaps many, fully embracing this idea will provide them clarity and make their path forward easier. This can be said for any modality.
I don’t think it is hyperbole to say so many of us, men or women, are looking for some sort of guide through life to make decisions easier. A framework to help us contextualize our world. The challenge is finding one that doesn’t ignore or trivialize the needs of others. Dividing the world into masculine or feminine, decisive or emotional, feels not only archaic but ignorant.
I’m not sure we need superior men as much as we need competent men who understand their feelings and emotions and respect the ones of others. There is more than one way forward. It is incumbent on each man to find the way that works for him.
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