Growing up without mature masculine role models handed Bryan Reeves the difficult lifetime task of initiating himself into a mature manhood.
“The weak or absent father cripples both his daughters’ and his sons’ ability to achieve their own gender identity and to relate in an intimate and positive way with members both of their own sex and the opposite sex.” ~ Robert Moore & Douglass Gillette (King Warrior Magician Lover)
I grew up with two good men in my life.
But they were hardly examples of healthy masculinity to model myself after.
My father left my mother when I was four. I know it crushed him because I remember the night he left, sitting on his lap in his home office, a hastily filled briefcase cocked open next to us on the black leather couch. Although I don’t remember his words, I viscerally remember his anguish. I didn’t know quite what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t good, and I knew he was leaving.
For the next 15 years I lived with “father” as fantasy.
I saw him sporadically, short intense bursts of father-energy scattered across the prime of my pre-teen years. It was actually rather disorienting. I had his presence so infrequently that when he was around, my body changed.
He once showed up at a baseball game I was pitching and volunteered to umpire. It felt like someone unplugged my electricity. I couldn’t throw the ball straight, instead throwing high arcing softball-like pitches that he couldn’t figure out how to call. He actually had to stop the game and consult someone else’s dad about what to do. When he showed up at soccer games, I felt like molasses on the field, unable to run as fast as the other kids, and my shots on goal were void of any confidence.
I do have sweet childhood memories with my dad. One summer we traveled across the southwest USA, visiting a native american medicine man on a Hopi reservation and donkey-tripping down into the Grand Canyon. One night, we camped on the less-visited north ridge under a massive sky speckled with more stars than I’ve surely seen in all the accumulated nights of my life since.
But when I hit 10, he married my step-mom. New adventures whisked him away more consistently. I wouldn’t again spend enough time to know him as an actual person until I was in my late 20s when my French wife kicked me out of France (and her life) and I moved to Miami to live with him and work for his company.
Within a very short period of time, I hated him.
It’s not important why, and it involves my insanity as much as his. But he was my father, and the fantasies his distance had created in my mind quickly shattered. I wanted to be nothing like him.
The man I really grew up with arrived when I was 10, as my birth father began slipping away.
My step-father and my mother married a few months after they met and had my littlest sister just a few months after that (I did the calendar math; I knew what was up). He was a good man. He was also an alcoholic with a horrifying rage. But he was silly funny, and we desperately needed his humor in our lives. Besides the rage and his alcoholism, he was a strong male presence in the house, the kind that liked to build things with his hands in a little basement workshop and gorgeous stone walls that meandered through the garden. He was good to me, my sister, and my mother. Given the nuclear rage he routinely unleashed in our home, sometimes for things as mundane as misplaced keys, the fact that he never hit us seems nothing short of a miracle to me now.
He got sober after I left home.
In my coaching practice, I see this over and over in men who grew up with strong mothers and weak, missing, or disoriented fathers: we know well how to express feminine energy but are woefully ignorant around expressing masculine energy in mature, healthy ways, in intimate relationships with women and also with each other.
That’s been me since I left home at 16.
Now 40, single, and childless, I look back and see the still-smoldering wreckage of too many intimate relationships past. I see good women who sometimes were literally screaming for me to step up and be a man in relationship to their feminine yearnings. I knew how to be a good brother to women, a good son, and a good friend. But I did not know how to be a good man to a woman. The cost of not having men consistently demonstrate a mature, healthy masculinity for me has been grave.
My dads were innocent by ignorance. No one showed them either.
At 40, I’m only now waking up to what it means to be a healthy masculine man.
Our society lives haphazardly into adulthood. The bulk of our education focuses on teaching kids how to add numbers, read words, learn ideas, recite history, and follow rules set by other people. Our most important institutions congratulate young people with certificates in hand that merely certify the amount of information they have in their brains.
They don’t initiate us into adult lives as intentional, thoughtful, awakened men.
Life as a mature masculine man must be modeled, even ritually initiated in boys. Without the embodied transformation created by modeling and intentional ritual, boys remain caterpillars sensing they’re destined for something magnificent but completely ignorant as to what, and even more ignorant about how to fulfill upon that destiny. It’s our natural boyhood instinct to avoid the transformational death inevitable inside the cocoon, and so we never live as butterflies.
We remain in perpetual adolescence. We blow our relationships with women (as adolescent boys do) because we don’t know how to meet our feminine partners without depreciating them or using them as a false source of our self-worth. We avoid genuine authenticity with other men. We live out lives of acquisition and relative isolation that leave us feeling dreadfully empty.
Ancient indigenous cultures all over the world have boy-to-man rituals that involve great pain, or at least the threat of it. Young Amazonian men in the Satere Mawe tribe wear hand gloves made of leaves and filled with hundreds of angry bullet ants whose bite is scientifically rated as the most painful ant bite in the world. They must bear the pain for 10 minutes without wincing or complaining, as proof of their worthiness of manhood.
New Guinea men of the Vanuatu tribe throw themselves off a tall tower of wood towards the earthen ground, head first, secured at the ankles only by two long jungle vines tied to the tower. Miscalculated length of vine or breakage means serious injury or even death. These jumps mark a boy’s charge into manhood, as their depth of manliness is measured by how high they are willing to fall.
I have been unknowingly trying to initiate myself into mature manhood my entire adult life.
Desperate to jail break myself out of adolescence, I would throw myself into the transformational fires of horrible relationships with women; give myself to spiritual practices that promised pain; sleep in caves and wander the planet aimlessly for years, crossing countries and deserts, journeying to places of great death and barrenness like concentration camps, the Australian outback and Chilean mountainsides, in search of relief, answers, breakthroughs, release, freedom … Initiation.
The lack of mature masculine role models is epidemic in our world today.
In the classic book, King Warrior Magician Lover, the authors write:
“The crisis in masculine maturity is very much upon us. Lacking adequate models of mature men, and lacking the societal cohesion and institutional structures for actualizing ritual process, it’s “every man for himself.” And most of us fall by the way side, with no idea what it was that was the goal of our gender-drive or what went wrong in our strivings. We just know we are anxious, on the verge of feeling impotent, helpless, frustrated, put down, unloved and unappreciated, often ashamed of being masculine .… Many of us seek the generative, affirming, and empowering father (though most of us don’t know it), the father who, for most of us, never existed in our actual lives and won’t appear, no matter how hard we try to make him appear.”
I do not call for head-first tower diving or bathing in angry bullet ants to help us find our way. But we are generations of men painfully disoriented, with few healthy masculine role models to point the way.
We have the more difficult work then of crafting ourselves into the masculine role models our world needs, and that we ourselves desperately want.
“Because there is little or no ritual process … capable of boosting us from Boy psychology to Man psychology, we must each go on our own (with each other’s help and support) to the deep sources of masculine energy potentials that lie within us all. We must find a way of connecting with these sources of empowerment.” (KWML)
Our women, our families, our communities, our boys AND our girls absolutely depend on it.
—Originally appeared on www.ReclaimingMaleRoleModels.com
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—Photo Mo Riza/flickr