I GREW UP in a macho culture where concerns of manhood took center stage at school and elsewhere. Even in a supposedly polite school, steeped in Confucian values, in a non-descript area of Manila’s Chinatown, daily challenges of who was a better man occurred regularly, to the point that a hidden area of my Chinese elementary school was designated “square corner” where contending gladiators decked it out with their fists (It is still a mystery to me that none of the more than thirty teachers in that school ever discovered this area). In high school, it was the vacant lot between two rival schools that saw action between adolescent boxers. Mercifully, there was always the presence of an extemporaneous referee who would signal the end of the bout, or even step in when the fight was not fair. In those days, weapons were considered rude and only bare fists allowed. Machismo, or that sense of being manly, was associated with the concept of strong masculine pride which was to encourage display of courage and strength, yet most often descended into exaggerated masculinity instead of honour and chivalry.
I was wise enough not to be party to these contests – alliance and diplomacy played the better part of valor. Restricted by my stature (my figure was less than Greek, as the song went) and lack of natural stamina, I did not participate in the usual male-centered activities, like contact sports (basketball, soccer, etc.) but involved myself in lesser testosterone-laced scouting, military training, or junior policing – so in some ways still conforming to the dictates of my gender. However, as I mature into my adolescence and adulthood, I was more inclined to reading a good book than watching sports or exploring the subtleties of various sport team strategies. I could hardly remember the stars of the NBA, or of any other sports, or the stats of popular teams. I couldn’t care less if our varsity sports team won or lost. Some days, it took cunning just to avoid the alpha males in the school hall. Darwinism is an unwritten way of life, it seems. Of course, they got the idea of “survival of the fittest” all wrong actually – since success is not dependent on strength nor intelligence, but the ability to adapt to change. In latter years, many of these toughies rarely saw scholastic or career achievements.
Most cultures have male initiation ceremonies where a boy is taken off women who had been the source of support and made to live among older men for a while. These rites of passage mark not only the person’s transition from childhood to adulthood but an inclusion into a tribe or social group. Joseph Campbell suggested that the rite of passage was a way “for the individual to die to the past and be reborn to the future.” This great quest is a human tradition that has existed from the beginning of time. The downside though for most culture is that macho stereotypes are reinforced by these rituals.
Masculine virtue and strength exemplified in literature and art became my own guiding light as I matured into my early teens. “If” – Rudyard Kipling’s classical definition of male ethics, dealing with different situations in life, in which he concluded with the line, “Yours is the earth and everything in it – Which is more, you will be a man, my son” became a kind of mantra for me during my senior high years –
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise… (excerpts)
The adventures of King Arthur and his knights further fired up my view of an ideal man. Furthermore, Tennyson’s final passages from Ulysses gave me guidance of how one deals with the decline of male strength (which is very much my state of being these days) –
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield…
In university, the search for community culminated in my joining a fraternity, the Upsilon Sigma Phi. Kipling’s timeless poem, along with the Fraternity Credo and other brotherhood value statements, were inculcated into our being through the test of hazing and humiliating “missions” imposed by our masters. I understood fully that something had to die to be born, and what died was my own childishness. Our motto We Gather Light to Scatter is actualized in how we applied the tenets of the Kipling poem. Apart from the motivation to seek communion with other men, the opportunity to serve the greater university and the nation through involvement in the arts (drama primarily for me) and campus politics and activism, was also a strong draw for me. However, I have also experienced the dark side of male camaraderie, which was often expressed in destructive, aggressive and dominating masculine personalities of a more chauvinistic kind. With the proliferation of fraternities on campus, competition degenerated into rumbles and violence, which sometimes turned fatal.
After college and immigration, I was caught up with the rat race and career became all important to me, and I had almost forgotten the macho roots I carried with me from the old country. Then, at the height of my midlife crisis, which brought into question my identity and purpose, I became curious of a mythopoetic man’s movement led by Robert Bly– a new vision of what it was to be a man. This interest was more compelling as I was then grappling with how to be a good father-model for my two growing sons. Bill Moyers said, “It takes more than imagination to make a poet: it takes indignation.” Bly was certainly like that indignant suffering prophet whose absurd and cruel experiences had weathered his life. He reminded me of the tragedy of distant fathers and the disappearance of male initiation rites in our culture. He found rich meaning in ancient stories and legends, using the Grimm fairy tales “Iron John,” the narrator, or “Wild Man,” guiding a young man through eight stages of male growth, prompting us of archetypes long forgotten – description of a robust, yet emotionally centered, masculinity. Thus, the models given to so many of us – of John Wayne or Audie Murphy or the Lone Ranger – were inadequate to help me to be human and male. Like the men gathered in that movement, I too was drawn by a sense of loss – the loss of familiar myths and road maps.
In our present “liberated” North American culture where LGBTQ pride is celebrated and same sex union is accepted and SOGI laws are embraced, the once sacred reinforced glass ceiling in most cases is shattered. Yet, remnants of the macho past remain. Note too that modern society has few structures for initiation and teenage boys manifest their adolescent freedom in wild behavior, rudeness to parents and sometime express their defiance through clothing and music. There remain the destructive effects of remote fathers. Warrior vitality is wrongly channeled into teen gang warfare, paedophilia, women abuse, and feelings of shame. The idea of “boys will be boys” encourages perception of women as sexual objects or toys. The Epstein-Weinstein scandals and the lessons of the #MeToo protests remind us of the examples of false manliness running amok. Millions of men have grown up with an environment of feminine energy – which isn’t a problem in itself but boys also need the masculine. Men start to think more about their fathers as they get older, and mythology has a lot to say about the heaviness of ‘entering the Father’s house’, leaving behind the expectation of lightness and comfort to face grim reality. Bly says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for instance, is an elaborate metaphor for this process of moving from the mother’s side to the father’s.
According to Psychology Today (2010), men in our culture are especially vulnerable to feelings of inadequacy and especially prone to misinterpret them as punishment to be avoided rather than motivation to change behavior. Most men have difficulties expressing their emotions. Or they have not fully resolved their understanding of “Do I have what it takes” as they seek their place in the sun. ”Most male anger comes from feeling like a failure as a protector, provider, lover. Blame gives him status as a victim. Victimhood gives him a temporary sense of self-righteousness, along with a retaliation impulse, which, in turn, stimulates anger,” the study suggests.
Bly’s solution calls for the warrior spirit and occasional ‘fierceness’ to be used in relationships. He quotes Jung, who said that American marriages were ‘the saddest around because the man reserved all his fighting for the office’.
In his interview with Bill Moyers, Bly said (some excerpts):
The warrior in men is not always the one that’s out there killing people… He is the one who is able to pursue a task until it is finished. And the warrior usually has a cause transcendent to himself… Americans are very weak in the warrior now… Robert Moore said, ‘The only warriors we have in the United States are the negative versions of it, the shadow versions, who are the drug lords. ’..
Becoming a man, I conclude, is simply having an older man bless me in my youth. Fathers are these proximate older men, but sometimes their silence is deafening. I end with this poem about my father:
This same power that grants me sighs at dawn
Makes me remember his absence
One year he was planted in this greener lawn.
I watch the green blossoms in his grave plot
Mark busy growth that struggles for the shot
Under Oceanview are his bones submerged
In a site they named Calvary
Much like the mound of skulls
When death saw its own abdication
And the Word that sets man free.
Dying for him too was my absolution…
The mourning son is brave in his narrow love.
He begs to return to past conversations
In the ancient minutes when his limbs were fresh,
When like the sugared red robbed birds,
His words sprouted wings although without direction.
The talks were nothing but were seeds – of everything –
And the mourning seeks the buzzing, the sound of breathing
Of the familiar mourned.
“But a man is not made for defeat –
A man can be destroyed but not defeated – “
Echoed his Hemingway borrowing.
I suppose he is as gentle in his leaving
As he was in his entrance.
The elegy for a father does not lie unsaid
And the prodigal son forgets the welcome feast
But retains forever
The gentle echo of his voice.
This same power that grants me sighs at dawn
Makes me remember his passing,
Gentle though it was,
And lets pain go hovering
Like the mute color of my father’s eyes…