From Wildman to King: Another Look at Male Myth and Initiation Part 2

In many of the old tales, the hero is the youngest and seemingly least promising of several brothers. He appears to be a simple fool predestined to fail at everything he does.


In many of the old tales, the hero is the youngest and seemingly least promising of several brothers. He appears to be a simple fool predestined to fail at everything he does. His ambitions are ridiculed by everyone. Still, willingly or unwillingly, loved or rejected, for reasons good and bad, like so many other young men before him, he sets out to do the best he can.

Movement from the familiar into the unknown activates a dynamic, archetypally based constellation of opposites. On one side is the desire for a familiar, secure place where one unquestionably belongs, the rules are known, and basic needs are always provided for. On the other side is the drive towards self-sufficient independence. Many men find coming to terms with these seeming mutually exclusive needs difficult, especially when confronted with the fact of their dependence. Having been told countless times that "real men always stand tall on their own two feet," proud in their ability to go it alone, boys and men come to believe that radical independence is an indispensable quality of manhood, and judge anything less in themselves as failure.

At the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum from the man who fiercely resists all attempts to limit his freedom, yet so closely linked as to often be manifest in the same man, is the man who is seemingly incapable of doing anything on his own. Apparently lacking a life force of his own, his very existence seems to depend on his link to some external source of vitality. While the connection can be to anything or anyone, more often than not the object of his dependence will be some representative of the all nurturing, all engulfing Great Mother, a figure who is both longed for and bitterly hated, often at one and the same time.

In actuality, a man who habitually denies the fact of his dependency has no more escaped from the clutches of the Great Mother than has the man who repeatedly flees from the threat of independence back into her arms. The aggressively independent misogynist fears that, if he relaxes his guard, he will be swallowed up by the Mother. For the passively dependent man, the realm of the Father threatens to destroy him should he venture out of the Mother's protective, suffocating embrace. Neither man knows the wholeness of the embrace in which both parents, and their domains, join to become one.

The Great Mother is, in developmental terms, the omnipotent mother of early childhood upon whom an infant is utterly dependent. She devotes herself totally to the child who as yet lacks the ability to either care for himself or effectively resist her. In turn, his attention centers on her as his literal source of life. In a healthy maternal-child pair, the relationship of helpless child and all powerful mother is gradually modified as the child becomes more able to care for himself.

Every child, as it grows, both rebels against maternal dependency and longs to return to the time when mother could magically make everything right. While both sexes experience this conflict as a generalized ambivalence towards women, the insistent definition of men as beings radically distinct from the feminine virtually guarantees that there will be some degree of confusion, some mixture of longing and fear, love and hate, in a man's every encounter with women. The man who avoids women due to some mysterious and terrible anxiety he experiences in their presence, the man who dares not openly oppose his mother or wife, and the man who violently dominates women to prove himself a man, all alike confuse flesh and blood women with the archetypal Great Mother.

Schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder characterized by dissolution of ego in the sea of the unconscious, often offers direct glimpses into the archetypal patterns underlying human behavior. I have known a number of schizophrenic adult men whose symbiotic relationship with their mothers strikingly resembled that of the Great Mother and her son-lover. Every step, no matter how minor, taken by the son away from the chronically dependent state to which his mental illness had seemingly sentenced him was met by a countermove in the mother-son relationship. Usually the net result was a worsening of the son's condition with his dependent status becoming all the more firmly fixed.

As a sort of living death, schizophrenia often results in a permanent disintegration of the self that precludes the possibility of an independent life. In effect and timing, if not cause, schizophrenia can be viewed as a catastrophic derailment of the process of leaving home. Typically it first becomes apparent during late adolescence or early adulthood, a time when most people are establishing a life apart from that of their family of origin.

While schizophrenia appears to involve a biological predisposition, individuals lacking such an inherent proclivity may experience a similar disintegration of self when subjected to severe stress. Almost everyone has at some time felt a sudden sense of vulnerability, intense anxiety, distorted sensory perceptions, or disorientation in response to some unexpected event or stress. Most people quickly regain their equilibrium as the crisis passes. But persistent and severe trauma, as experienced by abused children or in battlefield and disaster conditions, can result in long lasting, gross distortions of reality. Extreme gaps between experience and expectations, such as are sometimes encountered in moving from a sheltered environment out into the world, can seriously impair one's ability to function there.

The psyche is basically conservative - rather than changing its beliefs it prefers to bend perceptions to fit preconceptions. The resulting distortions can range from the relatively minor to full-blown psychosis. The potential for recovery from psychic disintegration of whatever degree and, beyond mere recovery, integration of the experience into expanded awareness is directly related to one's willingness to challenge the psyche's conservative bent. Acknowledging how little we actually know makes space for those parts of reality that, for better or worse, do not neatly fit our preconceived notions. Only as we are willing to examine and, if need be, change our beliefs do we learn from our failures to be as we had sought, the disasters that occur despite our best efforts to avoid them, and the successes that seem to come regardless of all our self-defeating behaviors. And when we are open to the possibility, we find that there is somewhere deep within ourselves, in the midst of all the confusion, vaguely distant, yet near and familiar, a powerful resource ready and able to help if we will only let it.

As he left the forest for parts unknown, the boy in the Grimms' tale seemed to be utterly alone, with no means whatsoever of directing his course in the world. But somewhere, hidden and perhaps even forgotten for the time being, he took with him the promise of Iron Hans' help should he ever need it. By the tale's end, all that belonged to Iron Hans, all of his immense strength, wealth, and wisdom, would be the boy's. But the process of internalization, the work of taking in and making our own what we value in others, is a lengthy one. The boy had a long, very hard road to go down before he could be a worthy heir to his mentor.

So far the boy's adventures had brought him nothing but trouble. In the course of only a few days, the royal child had been reduced to a homeless wanderer. He had managed to lose even the dubious privilege of living in the forest with a wild man. Totally alone in a world about which he knew nothing, the boy's future seemed anything but promising.

There are times in life when it is hard to avoid the belief that we have been condemned by some terrible fate to helplessly stumble along from one disaster to another. Lost and alone, there seems to be no way out of our hopeless situation and no one to whom we can turn for help. St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic whose own life had more than its share of darkness, coined the term, "dark night of the soul," to describe this sort of experience.

While the dark night of the soul experience can certainly be described as depression, it is not "just depression." At least it is not the sort of depression that readily yields to treatment based on the idea that such dark feelings result from cognitive errors that can be remedied through behavior modification techniques. Detailed objective examination, as is done in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, of habitual thought patterns and behaviors as reinforcers of depression can, in fact, be quite useful. But the difficult existential questions that well up from the dark depths of depression also demand and deserve recognition.