The New Manhood: The 20th Anniversary Edition

Steve Biddulph

Created on Saturday, February 21, 2015.
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I first read this book when I was maybe 15. It was so achingly honest and hopeful and true, and it had a huge effect on me and it informed much of what I did from then on.


Women are still not where they want to be, and that may be for one important reason — men have not changed too. Wherever men and women mix, you will notice a very odd thing: men and women seem unevenly matched. You see it everywhere, from bedroom to boardroom — the vibrant and articulate woman with the self-conscious, stiff and angry man. The men seem unequal, struggling, and it makes everyone unhappy. To transform our society into a truly free one, we need both genders to be fully alive. The world is waiting for men — it needs the activated and fully awakened male to confront everything from the fossil-fuel industry that is baking our planet to our children’s needs to play happily with Dad in the backyard after work.


Today, unless a boy is very good at sport, joins the Scouts or encounters a really special schoolteacher, he may not know any men closely at all. This creates a huge vacuum in a growing boy. He does not have a model to base his own manhood on. This is why we have the phenomenon of men ‘acting’. Not able to know the inner world of real men, each boy is forced to base his idea of self on a thinly-drawn image gleaned from externals — TV, movies, his peers — which he then acts out, hoping to ‘prove’ he is a man. Each boy does his best to live using this one-dimensional façade, which does not really work in any of life’s more personal arenas — friendship, closeness to a woman, raising kids of his own. These intimate tasks require a sense of self, of a warm, beating heart that others can feel close to. So the young dad becomes like the old dad, and the damage continues into another generation.


But denial is meant to be a short-term strategy, not a way of life. Older and wiser cultures knew this, and deliberately built in ways to help men let go of pain and move on. Near Taupo in New Zealand, hidden away from the tourist traps and fancy hotels, a small Maori-owned hot spring lies at the head of a small valley. A creek runs over a scalding, bubbling area of volcanic mud and rocks, then re-enters the forest. There, in a leafy glade, a hot, steaming waterfall dives over a small cliff. This was a sacred place, where warriors, returning from battle, washed away the hate, fear, and bloodiness of war, and became human again. As they did so, they grieved for dead comrades, for the pain and awfulness of killing. They wept and cried out under the torrent of heated water. The women sang to them, and welcomed them back into the peaceful world of the community and the family. The gods had taken away their pain, rage, and grief.


Scientists have found that trauma that has not been shared or properly processed is held in the primitive limbic system of our brain, and is frozen there for later processing. The problem with this part of the brain is that it has no sense of time: the traumatic memory feels as if it is still happening. Once it is talked about, and the feelings properly expressed, the trauma shifts across to the neocortex, where it becomes just memory, ‘something that once happened’, a story in our bigger life. This is why, when we survive a near-miss in a car or have a horrible encounter with danger or death, the urge to tell someone about it is almost uncontainable. That’s how humans disperse intense stress, and at the same time learn from it. We deal with a crisis first, and deal with the feelings later, when there’s time.


Grief — the allowing of such feelings to flow — doesn’t feel good at the time, but it feels better than being deadened and numb. Grief is a sign that we are becoming alive again. It serves as both a renewal and a compass, since it starts us yearning for what we have lost, so that we can begin the journey to recover it. It readies us to accept what we have tried to pretend we didn’t need: closeness, trust, friendship, love. Much of the time, when men seem angry, they are actually hiding grief. Anger never resolves the grief, though, since it drives people further away — when we really need them to stay close.


When we are children, we see people as either good or bad — a simple rule of thumb that protects us in that vulnerable time of life when we are weak and small. But a huge part of growing up is seeing that other people are both good and bad, or are good but with bad aspects or faults. We can respect them in part, and take responsibility for what we take in and what we set aside. Having no admiration for others, being totally cynical, is the refuge of a wounded person. As we heal from these wounds, we are more receptive to the nuggets of goodness around us. We aren’t blinded to the dross and garbage of the world, but it’s not all we see.


Having these conversations [with your father] may challenge you to the core. You may fear that you will make things worse. (In a few pages’ time, we will look at how to make the process safer, although it is never completely safe.) For now, though, you need to know that if you are a man and you do not confront this dragon, then your father will die hurting, and a part of you will die as well. Robert Bly writes in Iron John, ‘Many men go to their graves convinced that they have been an inadequate human being.’ They do this because of the lack of respect that has developed with those they love — not the least of these being their sons, their primary connection with masculine life. The pain of this cannot be overstated.


If love is what we hunger for and it is not forthcoming, then a warp in our life sets in. When our natural need for love is fulfilled, it settles into the background and we can get on with our life. Unfulfilled, the need drives us like an obsession. So many men become workaholics or burned-out failures, driven by this unfulfilled hunger.


Human beings have needs (beyond food and shelter) that are necessary to our wellbeing. Here is a rough list:

  • To be loved
  • To be appreciated
  • To have time to oneself
  • To socialise with friends
  • To exercise
  • To be creative
  • To do useful work
  • To have a sexual life, and
  • To have a spiritual life.

Each is an ‘essential vitamin’; leaving even one of these out will bring you unstuck in time. If you are interested, go back over the list and choose which is missing for you at the moment. Can you feel how that may be harming you? How could you do something about that?


Young and newly formed couples get close by almost melting into each other. They are a tangle of arms and legs, breathing each other’s breath. Refugees from loneliness, they cling together in relief at having found someone who cares. The odd thing is that, at this stage, they don’t really know each other at all, but they make up for that with imagination. It’s as if each provides a blank screen onto which the other projects all their hopes and dreams. The problem is that, being so linked, their happiness totally depends on the other. Deeply insecure, they watch intently for any sign of diminished love. Then, as the hours and days together start to add up, the real relationship begins, the long struggle to birth the real person behind the fantasy. Gradually, each partner becomes more real and more delineated — they act more like themselves. Over time, if they don’t panic, but allow the relationship to contain differences of preference and direction — if they respect the other person’s separateness — then something good happens. They both strengthen as people; they become more whole. People in healthy relationships will notice this and comment on it — ‘I am a better person around her’, ‘He makes me feel more able to be myself.’


Gordon Dalbey tells of a woman who phoned him after he had counselled her husband. ‘It’s obvious Sam’s getting stronger, speaking up for himself and letting me know how he feels,’ she said, hesitating. ‘I know I’ve always wanted him to be that way but I guess there’s a part of me that kind of enjoyed having the upper hand and being able to manipulate him into doing what I wanted. I want to be strong enough myself so that I don’t do that any more.’ It’s a great tribute to this woman that she is willing to give up some power in order to experience a really equal relationship, based on intimacy and negotiation, not on emotional dominance.


When I work with sexually abused clients, a final step in the healing is to help them become so angry and experience such burning rage that they mobilise all their physical and mental energy. They have never breathed so deeply, yelled so loud, focused so clearly. Once this energy has started to flow, I have no fear that they will ever be abused again.


Andrew told me, when we met for breakfast in an Adelaide cafe, that he had grown concerned about the boys he was teaching, noticing their behaviour in the school and in the streets, and the attitudes in their written work. Their heroes were rock stars, sportsmen and others who showed poor treatment of women and girls, excessive drug and alcohol use, and self-destructive and stupid behaviour. The boys’ attitudes, at least the ones they projected, were often racist, sexist, violent and stereotyped. Andrew suspected a root cause behind these boys’ poor idea of manhood: in most cases there was simply no respected male figure in their lives who could teach them to be fine men. How could they be expected to turn out well? He also noted another trend in the boys’ lives: that much of their waking time was spent looking at screens. They were being educated about life by sources that had no interest in their welfare.


You have to make a choice. If ‘easy’ is your criterion, expect to be bored. If full and rich living is your goal, expect some pain. You can prepare for this, and triumph over it — not all at once, but as you accumulate more wisdom and experience. You can do this by taking your sense of yourself beyond these ups and downs. By resting in the ultimate joy of being alive, and not following the ins and outs/ups and downs with your whole heart, you will be able to step back from even your own heartbreaks.


Get used to the idea that effort, disappointment, suffering and loss all are equal parts of human existence. Then you will not be shocked or disillusioned. You will get on with it in the hard times, look forward to the good times, and enjoy them when they come. Underneath it all, a quiet joy will grow, that to be alive is glorious, whichever way the wind is blowing.


The five truths of manhood:

  1. You are going to die.
  2. Life is hard.
  3. You are not that important.
  4. Your life is not about you.
  5. You are not in control of the outcome.

The five truths can easily be misconstrued as merely saying, ‘Life sucks. Get over it.’ The only rational answer to this, which many people take, is to dig oneself a hole somewhere and crawl into it — a response that doesn’t help you or anyone else. The purpose of initiation was to carry a young man or woman into the adult community, and the process presumes that community to be a cohesive, strong and lifelong network that will support you until one day you are an elder, too. Initiation is a welcome to the world of the adults who love you and value you, and will be there for your whole life. It’s this and only this that makes the hard messages bearable. Building the community is the most important step, otherwise young people will never trust enough to leap over the gap. The five truths are bearable, because we are never alone, even if we have a totally secular view of the world. Living for each other, setting aside self-importance, embracing mortality, we can make it. It’s not about us, it’s not in our control, it will involve suffering, and we are going to die! This is truly a joyful message!


A while back, a toy company wanted to market a family of dolls called ‘The Heart Family’. They trialled the sets, which comprised (naturally!) a mother, father and three children. The test children, in numerous samples, took the father doll and set him aside. Then they played with the mother and children. When asked, ‘What about the father doll?’, they replied, ‘He’s at work’, and left the doll untouched in a corner. Father’s work had no substance or meaning, and he was rarely used in the make-believe play. (Eventually, of course, the problem was solved: the father dolls were sold separately with big muscles, armour and a gun!)


When a man feels guilty, he has to be listened to: he is the one most aware of the circumstances, and of his own inner processes. Feedback from objective sources may help, but ultimately we judge ourselves. No intervention that did not take this into account could have been credible with the person involved. The starting point has to be, not ‘You weren’t to blame’, but ‘If you blame yourself, what does that mean?’ The teacher [whose students and colleague died during a school excursion] might have felt that he owed the world three precious lives. If that was true, then would killing himself re-pay that? The answer has to be no. Dying just adds to the circles of grief: it wastes his life, and sends a message to young people that if life gets too hard, give up. The degree of emotional support and close-up contact needed to help a man stand with such remorse would be immense, though it has been done over and over throughout history. Redemption — earning forgiveness for past errors — is among the most ancient of our stories.

The logical answer must lie in living one’s life to try and re-pay what has been lost. And, in fact, people do this all the time. It’s not hard to save lives in the world we live in: you can donate a kidney or bone marrow. Thirty dollars will restore someone’s sight. Imagine what a lifetime spent redemptively might give to the world. Tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, pilots and truck drivers live and work in tough places; they risk their lives because they can save lives by doing so.


This is the heart of manhood, the reason we are on this earth: to care for the lives around us in wider and wider circles as our ability grows. To do this humbly in brotherhood and sisterhood with others. To die knowing you built the future.


Men, you see, don’t have friends — at least not in those countries cursed with an Anglo-Saxon heritage. In Australia we have ‘mates’, with whom we share a straitjacket agreement on which subjects we never discuss. A subtle and elaborate code governs the ways in which serious feeling or vulnerability is deflected.

When I wrote the paragraphs above in Manhood’s first edition in 1994, they described an Australian man and an Australian style of friendship that had been constant for 100 years. In the time since, men here have undergone a quiet revolution in emotional openness. Today, politicians on TV talk about their struggles with depression. Soldiers and policemen on the evening news show real grief over events they are reporting first-hand. Men hug each other at airports and use the word ‘love’ without embarrassment, even about their mates. Younger men have deep and frank conversations with their friends.


Competition is a scourge because it discourages us from having a go or being happy with ourselves. In the end, we don’t participate, we just consume.


There are only four primary emotions, and just as with primary colours, all the others are made up of these four in different combinations. They are:

  • Anger — the feeling we get when we are boxed in, ignored or trampled on.
  • Fear — the feeling we get when things change too much or too fast and we feel unsafe.
  • Sorrow — the feeling we get when a piece of our life, a person or object that matters to us, is ripped away.
  • Happiness — the feeling we get when things are going right.


Nothing sets us up for problems quite as much as the idea that life is an upward journey. We are taught to expect constant improvement, so it’s easy to feel a terrible failure when setbacks occur, in career, health, family or finances. The older traditions take a different view. They teach that, in an authentic man’s life, we need to be defeated by greater and greater forces, because we are trying to do greater and greater things.


Erikson set out a map of life that was coherent, purposeful and easy to understand. He saw each stage of life (he counted eight) as a dilemma to be solved. There was a natural tension built into being a baby, toddler, teenager, married man, old man, etc., which had to be figured out before you could move on. His stages were: Babyhood — trust vs. mistrust (do my parents love me?) Toddlerhood — autonomy vs. shame (can I do things independently but still accept limits?) Preschool age — initiative vs. guilt (can I do things independently but still get help when I need it?) School age — industry vs. inferiority (can I feel capable even if I am not good at everything?) Adolescence — identity vs. confusion (what kind of person am I going to be?) Young adulthood — intimacy vs. isolation (can I make a good relationship with someone?) Adulthood — generativity vs. stagnation (will my life be purposeful and creative?) Old age — integrity vs. despair (can I keep and develop my values while physically falling apart?) It’s a fantastic map because it tells you what should be happening when. (For example, a seventeen-year-old is probably still finding out who he is and what his direction is in life. This would be a bad time to pair up with a partner, because he has not yet discovered himself.)


You will never have respect until you can give respect. Not blindly, but recognising leadership and experience when you see it.

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.