Bravery is not proprietary to men.
I spent years telling the sacred myths. These myths include tales of heroes plowing their chariots into the field of battle, of ancient voyages across mystical seas, of star-crossed lovers fleeing through the wilds to escape their pursuers.
I’m a polytheist priest. It sure beats church.
At some point I stopped thinking of these myths as simple allegories. In ancient times, they were prescriptive: the heroic values they taught were meant as instruction for young warriors. Be brave, be strong, have dignity.
I decided that telling those stories was great, but living them would be better.
I have no illusions that I’ll fight monsters or save damsels. I’ve never done anything heroic in my life. But at the core of the sacred myths is a simple template: travel freely, live by your ideals, and don’t rest until you leave a mark on the world. A single individual can have a huge impact.
- You have a purpose in life.
- If you don’t know your purpose, travel.
- Humans are capable of extraordinary things. Learn to do them.
- Follow your ideals, not a set of rules.
For the past year I’ve lived by these tenets and refined them. I’ve spent that time training and getting ready for the greatest adventure of my life, an 8,000 mile walk from the source of the Mississippi River in the U.S. to the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. It starts in June. The purpose of the journey? To meet the gods.
So that’s my spirituality. How does the Heroic Life tell me to be a better man? Well…
I guess I could start a train of clichés about manly virtue, the good old days when men were men and honor still meant something. If you really need to hear that, “300″ is available on Netflix.
What I learned by aspiring toward a heroic life is this: masculinity is bullshit.
When you dedicate your life to understanding what it means to be heroic, and acting accordingly, you get to hear a lot of people talk about their hopes and fears. That means men as well as women. And most intriguingly you get to see how they actually live up to them. What I saw in Thailand, Mexico and the United States—and what I expect will be a recurring theme across my travels—is that masculinity does not support heroic action.
By heroic action I mean standing up and doing the right thing when no one else will, even if it hurts.
The values of masculinity (men should be brave, just, valiant) are designed to promote that kind of action. But they fail. What they do instead is turn it into a badge: men get to wear it (whether deserved or not), women don’t (unless they wear black leather).
Bravery is not proprietary. It’s not a male quality. Saying it is has the effect that everyone is less heroic: men slack on the job, and women are told it’s not their place. This is true of all of the good qualities masculinity is supposed to embody. As long as we cling to a worldview that says men are ___, women are ___ we’re creating one more unnecessary voice telling people what they can and can’t do.
I guess I could accept that if it was factually correct. The reality is I’ve seen more strong women and more willingness to stand up for what’s right among women than I have among men.
The belief that we are “inherently” masculine or feminine (or that those terms mean anything) runs deep. In Mexico, a friend’s girlfriend cautioned me that I was too much of a feminist.
“I was raised by a very feminist generation,” she said. “I’m glad I can work a professional career and live on my own. But women still want to be protected and supported. And men will go crazy if they have to stay home like a wife.”
I had no answer, for one simple reason: she waited three weeks to tell me this. Originally it was a conversation between her boyfriend and I, so she didn’t interrupt. A woman doesn’t interrupt in Mexico. She had to wait till she had an opportunity when her boyfriend wasn’t there to speak for her, just to tell me she’s afraid maybe feminism has gone too far.
To some people it’s inconceivable that men can be happy doing traditionally feminine roles, but a growing movement of stay-at-home dads are finding joy in something “masculinity” tells them not to do. At the same time, women find that they can pursue powerful careers and never feel like less of a woman. In a world like that I don’t think masculinity has a place. What would Good Men do? Back off the gender mold, that’s what.
The purpose of spirituality is to transform the individual. Often we want our spirituality to comfort us. We like the be reassured that our beliefs are essentially correct and that everything will turn out just fine if we stay the course. That leads to stagnation and failure.
Instead, challenge those assumptions.
How has my spirituality influenced me as a man? It made me question my deepest beliefs and everything I was raised with. It made me look past my comfortable assumptions and stop giving a free pass to subtle sexism. It taught me that masculinity is an illusion, one that we tell ourselves when we want to feel in control.
If your spirituality doesn’t challenge you, is it even doing its job?