How to be a man?
Rediscovering the masculine archetype
The title of this essay might be clickbait—so buyer beware. There is no good instruction manual for how to be a man, and I won’t pretend to provide one here. It might be better to first ask ourselves a more rudimentary question: what does it mean to be a man anyway?
First let us say that having wide shoulders, a penis, a great deal of testosterone, and an intense love of football—or any list of features for that matter—cannot describe being a man. And I would propose that the question, indeed the mystery of what it means to be a man, is far more interesting than any definition or program we could come up with.
Today the topic of manhood is either dismissed or taboo, politicized, or degraded to a caricature. We are assaulted daily by a lot of half-truths and generalizations about men, led to believe by academics and the media that man is a dark and dangerous presence whose sole mission is to exploit, degrade, and keep women oppressed. Men are portrayed as a dark ‘patriarchy’, a cabbal of potential rapists that must be controlled, if not castrated.
Of course, the dogma of ‘the other side’ is no less manichean: women are a dangerous and seductive force that needs to be controlled and women need to be silenced or covered from head to toe. The radical conservative man would like to control and dominate women, just as the radical progressive woman like to control and dominate man—both extremes meet in the same place.
Today we need a more constructive vision of man (and of women too), beyond the ancient fear and the culture war; beyond the facile ideologies of left and right and the relentless clamoring of identity politics; beyond every kind of truism and cliché, religious fundamentalism, or just received wisdom. We have to, in some sense, start from the beginning.
Stereotypes and Archetypes
Let us start by acknowledging our differences. As the father of a one-year old boy, I'm constantly struck by the differences between my son and my daughter. My one year old boy—a future or potential man—besides being biologically different from my daughter, has an entirely different energy. When I look into my son's eyes I see a deep gravitas that is profoundly male; when I look into my daughter's eyes, I see a kind of dynamic playfulness that is profoundly female. I recognize in my son a potential man, and in my daughter a potential woman.
Of course we are all varying degrees of masculine and feminine, and there is a certain ‘spectrum’. And yet masculinity and femininity are not merely cultural constructions: they are ancient and biological realities. Incidentally, and to avoid being 'politically incorrect' here, male and female polarities are present in queer and trans people as well. The point is: we need to be able to consider different male and female qualities and polarities and how they operate.
Sameness has been the dominant ideology for too long. The hippy generation and the american cultural hegemony—with intentions of pure gold—did young men and women a profound disservice to tell them that they can ‘be whoever they want to be’. Furthermore, postmodern theory, while opening up much experimental possibility and tolerance for difference, also has left us in a profound cultural void. We have become prisoners of a blank slate ideology and monotonous sameness. Today it is taboo to talk about distinction, difference, or any essential quality—and yet at the same time we are desperate to re-discover male and female archetypes.
So where do we go from here? We certainly don't need any more male (or female) stereotypes. On the other hand, we do need male (and female) archetypes. The difference between archetypes and stereotypes is just this quality: mystery. Furthermore, archetypes are dynamic, they evolve over time; they are a combination of biological givens, deep history, and the present moment. To study archetypal patterns can help us be more powerful, just, and happy.
History and biology can't be transcended, or dismissed. As a culture we have been given a lot of bad information. Therefore let us study the archetypes, the mythologies, the histories and biologies that our society is built upon. The question of Man (and by extension Woman)—which I have intentionally put in capital letters—might be more theological or spiritual matter than anything else. Therefore, to be a man is nothing to be ashamed of. Man as a principle is something divine.