The following is an essay written as an op-ed piece, picking up some of the themes in my new novel, The Pilgrim's Staff. I expect the book to be out and available in a month or so...
THE WAYWARD MALE
What do the abusive NFL football player and the campus rapist have in common with the pedophile Roman Catholic priest? I’d argue that they all suffer from misplaced, misunderstood masculine energy. Our sisters in humankind have done a commendable job in the past century or so, exploring their sexual identity and the potential of their gender. We men have lagged far behind them in coming to understand the peculiarities and responsibilities of manhood.
What does it take to be a man? What is the essential difference between men and women? How do we put our special qualities to good use, particularly in the service of our fellow human beings? These are important questions that we, as men, tend to gloss over as being of trivial significance. We tend to assume the answers as already given, and bruise our way through life on our impetuous, unreflective path to poorly thought-out goals and what we are sold as a notion of success.
The most obvious of differences is what we have between our legs. The penis and the testicles. They dangle there imperiously, demanding our attention almost from the moment of our birth—my grandson, and I suspect yours too, or your sons if you are not yet old enough to be a grandfather—plays with himself incessantly, and I think he is not untypical of his sex. I watch him giggle with self-conscious pleasure as he does so. This habit does not diminish as the young male grows through boyhood to adolescence, and on into maturity. Even old age. We do not talk about it, but for most men, I’d wager, the penis is the most sacred and treasured object of their lives, requiring constant care and attention. The neglect of its quiet, insidious, irresistible demands results in disastrous consequences—ranging from pedophilia, to rape, to physical abuse. I’d go so far as to suggest even the epidemics of work- or alcoholism, or other obsessive behaviors.
I speak as one man, but I have listened to the stories of countless others in this regard, as a long-time member of an international organization of men devoted to the betterment of Man-kind. It distresses me to read of good male energy gone awry. The secondary difference between ourselves and the other sex is of course our naturally-endowed physical strength, and it’s all to obvious how this energy can be abused. And here I speak not only of individual physical violence directed against another man—or woman—but also, by extension, of the appalling violence that we witness in everywhere in the world around us. The vast majority of it, let’s be honest, has its source in the male ego and its accompanying masculine energy.
How can this energy best be turned to productive, non-destructive purposes? I think we need to educate ourselves, our fellows, and particularly our young males to the idea of service. If I can channel my natural energy into a mission of service, I am likely to be a great deal happier and more fulfilled as a man. This education, traditionally, starts at the age of puberty with a ritual of initiation. Our modern substitutes for ritual initiation—confirmation for young Christian men, bar mitvahs for Jews, and so on—lack both the drama and the danger of ancient rituals that put young men literally at risk for their lives. I do not recommend a return to such brutal experiences, but I do believe that we need to find ways to challenge our young men in such a way that they are confronted not only with their physical vulnerability but also with the recognition of the mutual interdependence they share with their fellow human beings. They need to understand, at gut level, that their actions, positive or negative, affect those around them and not merely their small selves; and that their very lives depend on their ability to serve not only their own interests, but the needs of others with whom they share this endangered planet.
The world needs masculine energy—and not merely to procreate. We need male strength, and integrity, and sense of purpose. We need his sense of independence and gallantry, and adventure, his willingness to take risks and if necessary to put his life on the line for what he believes in. What we don’t need is masculine energy gone wild, taking the form of dominance and aggression, acquisitiveness and greed. We look around us and see too many grown-up little boys, squabbling on the playground for dominance and territorial rights. It’s not these little boys we need, it is grown men.
I confess I indulge in generalization and risk the untruths that can result. Not all the traits I mention are restricted to men. Not all women are saints. But I do believe that the time is past for men to take their gender as seriously as women have done, with such excellent results—not only for themselves but for our species at large. If we achieve a better understanding of what our manhood is about, we shall all be the better for it. And, just maybe, we shall have fewer wife-beaters, rapists and child-abusers. There is always hope.