“By the time a man is 35 he knows that the images of the right man, the tough man, the true man which he received in high school do not work in life... I know a lot of men who are healthier at age 50 than they have ever been before, because a lot of their fear is gone.”
—Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men
When I first approached Iron John: A Book About Men it was a slap across the face—I, like possibly all men who read it, read it in isolation. But such a baptism of fire for my ego wasn’t wasted, because it reinforced all the more the need for men like me—all men actually—to be connected with, and encouraged and empowered by other men—particularly older men.
The lessons contained in this book about men are as confronting as they are eternal.
The Problem Highlighted by Iron John
Industrialisation, amongst other Western ideas, including modern approaches to war, has meant that boys have been separated from their fathers psychologically.
This has caused boys to grow up fearful, angry and submissive, confused as to what manhood truly looks like. It may have been typical for boys and young men to have received more of their fathers’ temper than his teaching; after all, the workplace has isolated boys from their fathers and the father may be far too tired at the end of a long workday to do what fathers should do.
But fathers, alone, cannot progress their boys through the process to manhood. Other men need to be involved. The communal model, based on the rites of passage schema, an initiatory model, is used. This is where indigenous cultures—for instance, aboriginal culture—are far more effective in traversing a boy toward manhood.
A big part of the problem, also, is society’s view of men.
Men are typically to be ridiculed and not trusted, and our media supports these views. All of these negative stereotypes do—and they have been around for nearly 100 years—is make men feel even more isolated than they already are. And without connection to other men, men become lonely, depressed and angry.
Iron John Is About Male Initiation
Perhaps it’s a concept lost in our culture, but a very good reason why tribal cultures seem to have strong (read “safe”) male identity is they take care to ensure their young males are initiated into manhood.
This process typically takes place about 12 years of age.
What can seem abhorrent in our culture—the initiation of boys—is a psychologically sound process. Boys becoming men (yes, at age 12) learn to connect with their Inner King—the inner warrior. And although Iron John is not a biblical text, it does line-up within a biblical frame—indeed, in biblical times such initiatory practices, including the involvement of the community in the development of the child into adulthood, would have been crucial.
When boys are initiated into manhood by other older men—not their father—they develop their emotional intelligence within a male frame. Other older men become for these younger men the “male mother.” And the male mother it is that teaches the young man how to relate emotionally with his world.
The result is he is less angry and less timid; he is able to grieve; he is able to be honest with himself and others; he is therefore trusted and respected. He experiences less fear.
When a boy is shown how to connect with his Inner King he has access to courage, humility, and a safe sense of himself. This is a thing many young men these days struggle to connect with. Indeed, we may find ourselves reeling at the prospect.
But there is hope through narratives like Iron John.
What Iron John Is Really Telling Us
It seems clear to us that women are relational beings. Why is it so that men aren’t? This is a critical question. If men are connected with their emotions they have no problem relating with other men. But if men are disconnected emotionally they distance themselves from the relational realm; they do not connect with themselves or others very well. The increasing sense of isolation damages them.
The challenge ahead, especially for us somewhat disconnected men, is to get connected.
Through connection, and through sharing life, our experiences, our sinfulness, our experiences of guilt and shame, we become liberated—just as God wishes us to be liberated.
As we share our lives we get to discover we are not that different from other men. This encourages us. We gather strength in our unity.
When we are liberated we become better leaders in our families; we are happier because we are fulfilling our roles; we are more courageous and more truthful; we have far less to lose when we realise that other men have the same burdens as us; confusion and anger and resentment become more and more battles won—and we don’t need to return there so much.
The key in being men is being connected authentically with other men.
© 2012 S. J. Wickham.
Key Reference: Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (Boston, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1990).