Thanks to the #MeToo movement, toxic masculinity has been brought to the forefront of the American psyche. It exposed the deep patterns of abuse within American male culture, revealing why so many young people have a reasonable distrust and distain for male authority. Our traditional understandings of masculinity and expectations of men are being re-evaluated.
However, with more awareness and critique of how boys are socialized and develop their own sense of masculinity has also brought about more confusion. Several critics believe the inherent identity of men is under attack, as part of a political agenda to weaken and feminize them. But this common misunderstanding illustrates the same fundamental problem we’ve had for generations: men have had no positive masculine identity given to them by modern society. We have a cultural void where the only message of what masculinity actually is says it’s “not anything feminine.”
"[B]oys typically define their masculinity predominantly in negative terms–as not feminine, not female, not like mother... this may be the source of boys' tendency to devalue the feminine in general, a pattern not paralleled by girls' views of masculinity. Research suggests that young boys' forceful contempt for anything feminine is a means of assuring themselves that they are truly masculine (Chodorow, 1989; Kantrowitz & Kalb, 1998)." –Julia T. Woods
The craving for identity —to be known— drives us to fill the void with something, anything. The lowest common denominator of frustration, emotional stuntedness, irresponsibility, and abuse has filled it with toxicity.
But the masculine identity isn’t what needs to be eradicated; it just needs to grow up. If perpetually juvenile and toxic masculinity isn’t what we want, what kind of masculinity do we want? Hopefully, this contributes to a wider cultural conversation by defining “holistic masculinity” clearly as a positive, inclusive and mature development of masculine identify for anyone who self-identifies as male.
Rather than division and separation, holistic masculinity inclusively accepts both masculine and feminine sides of oneself in order to integrate growth in one focused direction towards greater moral character, power and vitality. A holistic male has experienced suffering, knows his own power intimately and uses it to protect and nurture the vulnerable around him. He is guided by an inner fire that has no substitute. It helps him discover truth, decipher wisdom and lead him to joys beyond circumstance. This kind of maturity cannot be bought or faked by mimicking another’s behavior or appearance. It has to be entered into — by going to that place only you can go within yourself — where it’s possible to distinguish the false self (what you do, what you have and how others think of you) from your True Self.
Here is where we need help. Most of us can’t find the doorway into knowing ourselves at this level. We need to be invited into it or initiated by someone who already has a positive identity of holistic masculinity of their own.
“[B]oys who lack a strong, personal relationship with an adult male, masculine gender can be elusive and difficult to grasp (Ingrassia, 1995; Tyre, 2008).”–Julia T. Wood
A young boy is invited into holistic masculinity when older, wiser, adult males who already embody its essence initiate him into training for the next phase of life. Even though it’s not a common experience for most American males, we have examples of this kind of “initiation training” in stories everywhere, like the classic archetypes in Rocky, Creed, The Karate Kid or Star Wars.
With the guidance of a wise elder, these stories tell of a boy who sets out on a journey to become a man. The boy faces struggle and along the way might ask his teacher something like, “What’s in [the darkness] there?” who replies, “Only what you take with you.”
Immaturity cannot comprehend what the teacher means when he says, “Your weapons, you will not need them,” —until— it has been fundamentally transformed into maturity. Immaturity simply has no reference for maturity. It’s blind to anything but itself.
This may be the single greatest root connected to so many of our collective problems. We can trace most of them back the scarcity of maturity. In every area of life, we need more wise elders who can teach us from their own experience, to grow beyond a world that resolves around our false self.
Ancient civilizations had symbolic rituals that led boys into this kind of mature manhood, which we’ll explore more in later posts. They called this men’s initiation process rites of passage.