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

At first glance depression might seem to be more of a problem for women than men, with the reported incidence of major depression for women twice that of men. But social expectations and stereotypes make it more difficult for men to admit to being depressed. Men are supposed to be in control rather than be controlled. A man lost in a dark mood he can neither understand nor change, unable to take charge of himself much less anyone or anything else, is apt to be regarded by both himself and others as a poor excuse for a man.

A major characteristic of depression is an overwhelming sense of utter helplessness. From the perspective of a seriously depressed individual, there may seem to be absolutely no way to make things better. John of the Cross recognized this in his description of the dark night in which the soul is "purged from all help, consolation, and natural apprehension with respect to all things (p. 122)." As in the spiritual dark night, there may be nothing a depressed individual can do except accept the fact of the terrible mood that seems to have swallowed him up.

Acknowledging that one is in the grip of a mood greater than one's willful self creates the possibility of establishing a relationship to it, of following its lead down into darkness to find out where it comes from and what it might mean. In such surrender there is more than an element of faith that something greater than one's personal self is in charge of the process, directing it towards an eventual emergence of meaning from what seems to be utterly meaningless.

Surrender as a positive act is a difficult concept to grasp in our culture, especially for a man. After all, how many mythic heroes are so honored because they surrendered? To give up, to acknowledge a power greater than himself supposedly diminishes a man. But, at least in the realm of psychology, recognition of one's limits is often the first step towards regaining control.

When things are not going well, the psyche naturally tends to withdraw from the world. The low energy and subdued mood associated with depression force one to take time out. Socially, we recognize this in allowing a period of mourning, during which one is not expected to be as usual, to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. And at the core of depression, whether recognized or not, is a loss of some kind.

Sometimes the loss and its connection to the depression is clear. But things that cannot be seen or touched, but are nonetheless very real, can also be lost, in which case recognition of the loss, much less its resolution is much more difficult. This is especially true when the loss involves an aspect of one's self, something that, even in the best of circumstances, is usually more than a little vague.

Despite his almost total ignorance of his origins or identity, Parzival before his exposure as a failure gave little thought to who he was. As do many men, he apparently assumed that he was more or less what he did. But then he was denounced as a knightly fraud. Suddenly everything that he had done, all that he had thought himself to be, was empty and meaningless. Prior to his encounter with the wild man, the boy in our story was a royal child whose every wish was undoubtedly a command for a multitude of people whose duty it was to serve him. But away from his father's palace, alone in a world which had no regard for him, he was a total nobody.

Depression that follows the collapse of core beliefs about oneself and the world can be a long time in healing. After his disgraceful exist from the Court of Arthur, Parzival spent five years aimlessly wandering through "the Waste Land of his own disoriented life " (Campbell, 1976, p. 460), letting his horse, a representative of the instinctual life force that carries us onward even when we have no idea of which way to turn and no will to continue, take him wherever it wanted to go. Traveling at random "over paths beaten and unbeaten," the exiled hero of the Grimms' story learned well "what it is to be poor" in spirits as well as goods. At last he came to a city where he hoped to find some means for changing his so far dismal luck.

For as long as there have been stories, the tale has been told of the youth who sets out for some distant place anticipating a better life there. And almost as often, the story tells of shattered dreams as the youth becomes just one more unknown, lost soul awash in a sea of uncaring strangers. In such an impersonal, perhaps even hostile world a young man can easily go astray, losing sight of his ideals and even his identity. In the biblical story, the Prodigal Son, having wasted all his inheritance, became a keeper of pigs, a most shameful occupation for a Jewish man. The Hymn of the Pearl, a beautiful Gnostic poem about as old as the parable of the Prodigal Son, tells of a young prince who set out from the house of his parents to seek "The One Pearl." But, alone in an alien land, he forgot both his mission and his royal origins. More recently an idealistic young man, penniless in the city where he had expected to find fame and fortune, instead found himself in a seedy section of town working as a doorman for a strip joint.

So the wandering boy in "Iron Hans" came into town in a most unprincely situation. As a child in his father's palace, assured of having his every need met, he had no reason for acquiring practical skills. But alone in a place where he was just another stranger down on his luck, he could find no one willing to take on such a useless boy as he was. Finally he made his way to the palace of the king who ruled the city. Luckily for the boy, he was likable. As Iron Hans said, there was no wickedness in his heart and his naivete helped win over those who he approached at the palace. He was given a menial position in the palace kitchen. So the prince, once destined to rule a kingdom, became a cook's boy, his real identity lost and hidden from everyone, including apparently even himself.

Many a young man who has coasted along under the impression that everything he wants will come to him without the need for effort on his part has, much to his surprise, suddenly been confronted by the necessity of making his own way in the world. He discovers too late a most distressing gap between his expectations and reality, especially in what seems to be the shocking indifference of the world to him and his dreams.

Somewhere along the road to manhood, sometime during the course of his initiation (whatever form it takes), every boy will of necessity compromise his dreams as he is finds neither himself nor the world to be exactly as expected. Of the infinite number of possibilities that seemly lie just over the horizon in childhood, only a very few become adult realities, and fewer still realize anything like their full potential. Maturation is a in part process of disillusionment as one discovers the difference between life as imagined and life as lived.

While dreams often fall victim to the struggle for survival, some individuals settle into a position well below their actual abilities as a way of protecting their golden fantasies. Attempted realization of a dream entails the possible loss of both the dream and the possibility it holds. So long as grand plans and dreams remain pristine, uncompromised by concessions to unyielding actualities, they can continue to live on as possibilities which may someday, somehow come true. But one can cling to hopes of "someday" indefinitely.

Little boys often play at being superheroes, complete with mask and cape to conceal their real identity. Although they might be reluctant to admit to such "childish nonsense," many grown men continue to imagine themselves in such a role. Like Superman/Clark Kent, a man may split his life into inner and outer, heroic fantasy and mundane reality, with an impenetrable barrier erected between the two parts of himself. Such a life, split into halves that must be carefully kept apart and even secret from each another, is not a life to be envied. Each half is misunderstood and neither, without the other, will ever be whole.

The man whose specialness, the unique possibilities he has to offer the world by simple virtue of being who he is, is hidden by fears that he will be unable to live up to his fantasized potential is caught in a double bind. He feels secretly proud of what he might be, but at the same time is ashamed of his impossibly grandiose visions. He fears exposure, and at the same time longs for someone who will recognize and activate his hidden potential. Driven to conceal his true self, his secret hope that someone will someday penetrate his disguise is likely to go unfulfilled.