In 1990, Robert Bly took the New York Times bestseller list by storm with Iron John. An underdog hit that promptly took up a 62-week residence on the coveted list and effectively brought the modern men’s movement to the mainstream.
The timing was ripe — and its tenets promising, hopeful, and necessary.
Bly, and his fellow bear-chested torchbearers, tapped into an unquenched thirst for a new, more expansive and embracing paradigm of modern masculinity. It called out and put a name to a DNA-deep longing that had been simmering beneath the surface for decades.
It handed millions of men the script for an urgent rallying cry. One that offered to help him regain his wildness. His sense of mission and purpose. It was an escape plan from the quickly metastasizing malaise of the straight and narrow.
The inescapable labyrinth of family, career, and community that had finally cornered him and cut off his oxygen supply. Man was gasping for air. For life. And mercifully, this movement offered it.
A financial accountant could ditch a spreadsheet and bang a drum in the woods.
A fireman could escape for a long weekend and face his demons in a sweat lodge.
A hardened CEO could drop his mandated stoicism, melt his steely gaze, and rip his heart open in front of his brothers free of judgment and competitive backlash.
In many ways, it was the inner catharsis needed following generations of inherited dispassion, anal-clenched suppression and Fort Knox’d emotions.
Yet by every account — the movement failed.
Since Iron John came out, over 700,000 American men decided that life was simply too unaccommodating to continue. The social narrative concerning men continues to be widely unsympathetic, accusatory, and hostile, with the well-publicized blood trail of his destruction making such unbending contempt all the more challenging to overcome.
It’s become fashionable to talk about a masculinity crisis. To wax philosophical over the political, social, and cultural factors that have led to the apparent “brokenness of man”.
But to speak openly about men’s empowerment is to invite, at best, a collective eye-roll. At worst, the inadvertent, panic-stricken triggering of those who’ve experienced first-hand just how quickly “empowerment” can be degraded into something far more vicious.
So how could a movement that appeared so richly primal and invigorating fall so short?
How can the life-saving nourishment it promised provide nothing but empty calories and superficial bloat while man’s starved soul dangles limply from his homemade noose?
And perhaps most importantly — how did a once harmless movement get co-opted into the front lines of an unwinnable and unnecessary gender war?
In my view, there are three reasons why the men’s movement failed.
#1 Movements Move:
Above all, the men’s movement has suffered from stagnation and rose-colored romanticism.
An infantile longing for some loosely-defined glory days when “men were men”.
But were men ever men?
Were men ever fully aligned and peacefully expressed within their innate power and wholeness… or were the consequences of his pain simply less observably devastating?
It’s worth considering that the men’s movement has been fighting the wrong battle. Leaving a slick, gender-wide blood trail while paving a road back to a place that simply doesn’t exist.
A nostalgic remembrance based more on myth and ideological fantasy than reality.
The most incisive and precise definition of a “movement’ I’ve ever come across was offered by my friend, and fellow Quantum King founder, Marc Angelo Coppola.
In his terms: “Movements Move”.
In that spirit, the men’s movement was never a movement at all. It placed all attention and emphasis on archetypal imagery and arbitrary rites of passage rather than the living heartbeat of the men that actually breathed life into them.
We haven’t lost the art of “initiation”. We’ve simply misunderstood it.
The rite of passage was always metaphorical. Anyone who’s ever felt despair or isolation is indeed sitting in the dark cave of his own soul, searching frantically for the light.
But instead of bringing sacredness to his present struggle, the men’s movement hypnotized a generation into a nostalgic longing for something that had either long passed — or was never real to begin with.
We’re waiting helplessly for the elders to return, for sacred space to re-emerge — for freedom from the visceral clench and vice grip of modern manhood — missing the fact that those vice grips themselves ARE the initiatory fires — possessing all the characteristics needed to ignite our transformation the moment we stop bypassing them for something more superficially enthralling.
The “elder” isn’t coming back — but the timeless, dimensionless power within us — our inner king — resides, ready for duty.
While its intentions were noble, the movement was misguided the moment it left port for its maiden voyage. In fact, it never left port to begin with.
And because the men’s movement never actually moved, it became vulnerable to regressive re-definition. Sitting idle in the middle of the cold dark road, ready to be hijacked and redirected into the front lines of a violent rebellion. Which is where we find ourselves today.
#2: Movements are NOT movements against:
All campaigns of decade-spanning stagnation eventually sway from their initial intent. Being bent and compromised by the social narratives and cultural conditions in which they take place.
With the men’s movement failing to address the suffering of its constituents, the collective outrage and frustration finally spilled over and found a willing combatant lurking in the unreconciled pain oozing out of the feminist movement (and other long-overdue inflection points pertaining to social justice and civil rights).
After all, anger left unchecked gets projected out until it finds a willing dance partner.
The critical distinction here, however, is that unlike the feminist movement (or LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, etc.) the suffering of men, for the most part, has been rooted in an inner confrontation with his own shadow, not the result of persisting systemic racism, oppression and discrimination.
And that’s perhaps the greatest frustration of all. While the pain is no less real, there’s no obvious battleground to march forward on. And without an obvious oppressor — we have two choices; accept that there is none and courageously comb through the contours of our own collective soul — or recklessly wage war against anyone daring to wave a different flag.
Sadly, and with devastating consequences. the wounded heart only knows one choice.
Suddenly, the battlelines shifted from the inner architecture of the wounded male psyche to the family court system and back alley clashes with social justice warriors.
Empowerment became a zero-sum game. It became nearly impossible to entertain a conversation about men’s or women’s rights — without inviting a counter-attack from the other side.
The battle cry of the men’s movement became one of fierce independence to the disempowered whimper of “what about us?” — a cry out to an indefinable culture to delve out the attention and progressive action appropriately and deservedly locked onto women’s rights and feminism.
For all the positive, regenerative power we’ve been called to express, we’ve been seduced into a pyrrhic war where victory itself bleeds us dry. The sad irony, being that standing up as an ally and being a force for positive change is the very medicine our spirits need for their own healing and growth.
But instead of such fierce allyship, far too many men have spent more attention and energy playing a game of “my wounds run deeper than yours” and ‘my oppression is greater than your oppression” rather than offering the true healing and reconciliation he’s capable of.
As such, we’ve given in to the seductive lure of victimhood, and in turn, delayed any form of healing and progress.
The new men’s movement will start when we stop the incessant belief that empowering oneself means disempowering another. For any movement hijacked by blame, victimhood and self-righteous indignation is bound to fail — not because it lacks vigor, but because it invites a constant counter punch.
A movement is not the same as warfare. When you believe in a gender war, you’ll inherently take sides, and find ways, even the subtlest, to push your team closer to victory.
But as we’ve all so painfully experienced, there is no victor in a gender war. There is no hope for a society that suppresses one group for the benefit of another — even if that perceived benefit is the apparent (but ultimately impossible) rebalancing of the scales.
True progress demands progress for all. For the reconfiguration of a rigged game will only invite the next rebellion.
Further, progress can’t be solely marked by landmark legislations and precedent-setting rulings.
Instead, progress will only be marked when our actions are finally governed by our hearts, and our relationships ruled by mutual empowerment. When we can mourn each other’s losses — forgive one another’s misfirings — and celebrate each other’s rising.
You can call this idealistic. You can arm up with your rebuttals. But when radical interdependence is the most fundamental law governing our existence, anything short of this only prolongs our collective suffering and racks up the body count.
It’s only when we wholeheartedly support and encourage one another’s evolution and upliftment, independent of gender, race or orientation that we will thrive.
#3: Movements Empower, Awaken and Transform:
The next men’s movement will be fueled by mutual empowerment.
It will be peaceful — but not passive. Whereas the last one waited helplessly for the mythological hero to return — this one re-awakens him from within and calls him to action.
In that sense, this movement will move. It won’t sit idly in the back row of a gender studies class and rely on the romantic, idealized musings of a reclusive, mountain-dwelling psychologist.
We don’t need a full autopsy report on the rotting corpse of modern masculinity in order to give birth to the next. Such over-reliance on ineffectual intellectualism is part of the problem. Nor do we need a detached anthropological view of where things went wrong.
We tend to feel safe and distanced in our intellectualism. Like sitting behind the thick-paned glass while the caged animal withers and fights for freedom. We see ourselves separate from the pain we’re observing — and in doing so, resist the undercurrent pushing the movement forward.
Conversation alone doesn’t move us forward. Nor does reflexive action. Only deep, fully embodied transformation — and the new, empowered actions that stem from it. That’s what this new movement demands.
The grounds for awakening will no longer be in the deep backwoods — but in the deepest recesses of our hearts, and the everyday contexts in which they currently beat.
Men’s groups and retreats have undoubtedly started a necessary conversation. But beating a drum in the forest and simulating a long lost initiatory “rite of passage” has its limitations.
A weekend retreat is like a flush of morphine. It can only numb the pain as you continue to bleed out from your battered heart. Likewise, longing to restore the archaic “initiations” and ceremonies of ancient cultures may make for interesting Instagram fodder, but provide little more than a short-lived balm that rubs off the moment you step back into the friction of your everyday life.
The sacred remembrance — if there’s one at all — is far too soon forgotten.
As richly primal and invigorating as these one-off experiences may be, they don’t match the context of our lives, nor do they penetrate the deepest layers of our longing. The scholars, psychologists and panels point to an easy out – we’ve lost the rite of initiation.
They’re not wrong.
But where they are wrong, is that initiations aren’t recovered or restored — they’re not archaic, fossilized remnants of a time none of us were born into. They’re discovered and created with the contextual relevance of the culture they’re present in.
In truth, we are already stewing in the intense initiatory fires of our lives — in our relationships, in our businesses, in fatherhood, in our role as citizens fiercely committed to the welfare of all.
The crucible isn’t found in a weekend retreat or in the nostalgic longings for simpler times — but in the fabric of our everyday dealings and the unmatched pressures and stakes they carry.
The weight of expectations of the current man has never been so great — we expect ourselves to crush it in life, in business, as fathers and as partners, without recognizing that the mere ATTEMPT is unprecedented in the obstacles they encounter and the heroics they demand.
Lost in the fervent call for men to “be more”, is the fact that man already is more than he’s ever been. Almost unreasonably more.
This is the most fearless initiation in the history of man. These waters are indeed uncharted.
Yet instead of honoring the sheer will and courage needed to even embark on this unprecedented journey — men often feel shamed and abandoned as their sinking ships succumb to an intensity they were never trained to withstand.
The respect and reverence we so desperately thirst for ourselves is unjustly reserved for the mythical hero with only a fraction of the real-life burdens we so courageously bear.
Superman didn’t have to soothe a teething infant and save the world on four hours sleep.
King Leonidas didn’t have to bring money home in a crumbling, post-industrial economy.
Buddha discovered his true nature — but left a son and family behind to do so.
Statues have been erected and movies made for men far less courageous than you already are.
So crown yourself, king. For you’re already doing the impossible.
If men are failing, it’s only because they’re still playing an unwinnable game.
The demands on modern men require an evolutionary leap in being — not an endless circle jerk of finger-pointing, nor an exceedingly impotent commentary on where things went wrong.
The goal is no longer to simply “start a conversation” around what is meaningful and necessary — but to fire up the engine that drives us to change. Anything short of a quantum leap simply won’t do. The stakes are too high.
Over 34,000 American men took their lives last year — and tens of thousands more will inevitably do the same again this year. All of them leaving behind lovers, children, friends, wives, partners, and parents.
All passing down the implicit message that ‘life is not okay” which will continue to ripple and reverberate across the wounded hearts of their sons and daughters and ancestral timelines.
And relatively speaking — they’re not wrong.
Life, as most men experience it, is not okay. And no amount of crisis hotlines, symposiums or scholarly debates will fix it.
34,000 men ate lead, swallowed poison, hung from nooses, and jumped off bridges last year.
Yet perhaps even more tragically, if that’s even possible, are the millions of men who are currently submitting to an advanced state of decomposition even before being dropped six feet underground.
Death doesn’t need a headstart. You don’t get brownie points for doing nature’s job or doing your best impersonation of a living cadaver. Instead, you’re called to drum up the courage to live with complete awe and reverence of what you are — and to lead the urgently needed evolution of modern man one heartbeat at a time.
We no longer have the luxury of being so benign and calculated. Nor do we have the luxury of being so impotent in the outsourcing of our evolution to science and scholars.
We must drum up the courage by claiming full responsibility, and in doing do, continuously resist the seductive lure of selfish exile, resignation, and victimhood.
The world demands your full engagement as a man — as a king.
And it demands it right now.
May you be so bold in re-claiming your throne.
A version of this post previously appeared on Quantum King