THE QUESTION of maturity lies at the heart of masculinity. A boy is not a man, but must become one. Traditionally, this was associated with taking on a role, like becoming an apprentice, a labourer, a white-collar worker, or a soldier. It meant earning money and being a provider. Most often, it also meant losing his unique identity for the sake of the collective, and becoming a number.
The phrase, “Man up,” has been used by both genders to express the impera-tive in any situation to put aside your personal complaints, whims and fancies, accept the reality of the situation, and do what needs to be done. At its core, being able to do this willingly and readily, and being able lead and inspire oth-ers to do the same, is one of the most fundamental expressions of being a man. Which is probably why getting teenage boys out of their lazy gaming mode and getting them to become disciplined and make a contribution to the household— in the form of doing chores—is the most obvious and immediate challenge of most modern-day parents.
However, just getting a boy to an adult age, getting him qualified and into a job is no guarantee of maturity, or of being a man. Many women will testify to their frustration at the lack of responsibility, or the narrow range of emotion-al responses, that their men demonstrate. Such men tend to be like boys, put-ting their own needs first, and showing very little self-awareness, temperance or leadership. Ironically, this situation is not helped by those same women nursing their sons, defending their every whim, and protecting them from strong discipline.
Let’s look at the path by which a boy turns into a man.
The process of individuation
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced the idea of “individuation”. It ap-plies to all genders, and it is the “slow, imperceptible process of psychic growth”, which happens “involuntarily and naturally”. At the centre of this process is the “Self”, which is different from the ego. The Self, which in this instance gets a capital S, can be seen as both the source and the container of the whole psyche. Kind of the way that a person who believes in God would see Him, or Her, as the source and the container of the whole universe. So perhaps you could see the Self as the “god within”. The ego, on the other hand, is just a portion of the Self.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate the difference between the Self and the ego. Think of driving a car on a long journey. At any point along that journey, you can only see to the horizon. That’s like your ego. It can only see part of the whole picture of who you are at any one time. Which is all you need to be able to drive the car and get to your destination.
The Self, on the other hand, is the one that knew in the first place that you needed to make that journey. It could simply be seen is that part of you that knew what career you wanted to follow, or who you wanted to be, even be-fore you had tried it out. It knew what you needed, and it knew that the an-swer lay at the other destination. It therefore planted the idea for you to make the journey. And, in case you haven’t noticed, what you need—and get—is not always what you want. Well, the Self will always take you to what you need; the ego will take you to what you want. Yet, the Self needs the ego in order to be able to operate in the world, just as the driver needs a vehicle.
Therefore, the ego and the Self have to talk to each other. According to Jung, one of the main ways that the Self tries to talk to you is through your dreams and your intuition or “inner voice”. In men, this intuition, or “inner voice” has long been recognised as the “woman within”. Jung placed great importance on this “female component of the male psyche”. He called it the anima and, according to him, it’s strongly shaped by a man’s relationship to his mother.
He reckoned that both the anima and your dreams send messages that point out the path to individuation. In other words, the path that the Self wants you to take in order to become that unique person that you have the potential to become. Of course, this means that the Self also seems to know the end goal. You could even see the Self as the finished product, the real you, hiding somewhere in the future and sending postcards back in time to guide you towards it.
If you’re a more hard-science oriented person who believes that people are purely the result of cause (punishment or reward) and effect, you can still get a sense of the Self. Think about a time when somebody tried to condition you to do something big and important, say follow a career path, or believe in a religion, that you simply knew you weren’t interested in. That part of you that was able to see the bigger picture and evaluate whether it was right for you, and which resisted the attempts at conditioning, you could see that as the Self.
The need for initiation
The thing about the ego is that it very often doesn’t want to go where the Self wants it to go. Perhaps you can remember yourself as a teenager who didn’t want to get out of bed to go to school, or who didn’t really want to go and study at all, no matter what career path you had chosen, but you had to.
That’s why, in times past, teenage boys were plucked—by men—from the comforts of their mother’s home and taken through an ordeal, or what we’ve come to know as initiation. The main objective of that ordeal, or initiation, was to sever the boys’ connection to and reliance upon the soft, nurturing comforts provided by their individual mother and get them to connect to the broader tribe, and to accept their responsibilities towards that tribe.
Usually, those responsibilities would thrust the boys into the tough, demand-ing roles like being a hunter, a soldier, a farmer, a husband and father. In all of those roles, there was risk and danger, and also self-sacrifice. That self-sacrifice meant, on the physical level, being willing to risk your life to serve and protect the tribe. It also applied on an emotional level. If the boy had dreams of being an artist, he would very likely have to give those up.
In fact, this kind of sacrifice and grounding was one of the most important functions of the initiation process. Young boys are full of bravado. They can easily imagine themselves to be superheroes. If they carry too much of that into adult life, they become irresponsible dreamers and are likely to be unreli-able and to make reckless decisions. Men like that are not useful to a village, a tribe, or a society. In fact, quite the opposite, they waste of lot of the society’s time and energy in trying to manage them, bring them down to earth, and get them to be responsible.
The first stage: red (rebellion); appropriate ages 16-25
So, the first stage in the maturation of men is to bring them into the society as useful men. That means men who will do what’s asked of them instead of always or only serving their own agenda, who will keep their word and be reliable, who will serve and protect the women and children and the greater whole. There are two movements that happen here: the first is a grounding, away from impossible dreams; the second is an absorption into the collective, the society, and away from the protection of the individual mother.
Young boys’ first response is to resist that movement. Their individual ego wants to retain a sense of its own identity. If you’ve ever been a parent and tried to tell a teenage boy what to do, you’ll know all about this. He’ll deliber-ately do the opposite. Therefore, the initiation is usually followed by a rebel-lious stage. In mythology, this stage is symbolised by the colour red.
The poet and author Robert Bly, doyen of what’s known as the mythopoetic men’s movement, describes the characteristics of a man in this “red” stage in his best-selling book Iron John. “When a young man is in red,” says Bly, “he shows his anger, shouts at people, flares up like a match with a sulphur tip, flushes red with anger, fights for what is his, stops being passive, walks on the balls of his feet, is a red hawk, is fierce. Of course, no one trusts a red man very far.” Other characteristics of the “red” stage are rudeness, arrogance and antisocial behaviour. Once again, if you choose too look at it from a be-haviourist point of view, these young men are rebelling strongly against the conditioning they’ve received.
Despite its downside, and despite their rebellion, young men in red have served the greater society. They’ve been soldiers, and sailors; they’ve been labourers and apprentices; these days many of them are professional sports-men who provide entertainment and, through that, inspiration as well as emotional release for large portions of society.
So, we’re happy for them to be in red, however, we can’t tolerate all the men being in red for their entire lives. The society needs some cool heads as well. Plus, those wild “red” men will inevitably take a few knocks. Their own bodies will change and become less energetic, less quickly able to recover from exer-tion or injury. Most importantly, their minds will mature. They’ll start to feel embarrassed about some of those things they were doing and want to stop doing them. The Self delivers messages to the ego that it’s time to grow up and move into the next stage.
The second stage: white (compliance); appropriate ages 26-35
The movement towards being more grounded, and towards a greater ab-sorption into the collective, continues in the stage that follows the “red” stage. Those young men have now hopefully learned a craft, and some cul-ture, and are ready and mature enough to marry and raise children.
As anybody who has had children will tell you, there’s nothing that shifts you faster or more powerfully into having a sense of responsibility. You find your-self representing all the values, norms and rules that you once rebelled against. You might even find yourself becoming a bit of a crusader for those things. After all, you’re determined to bring your kids up right and make sure they live in a stable, organised society that can provide them the same, or better, than what you’ve received. Yes, you even stop being ungrateful!
This stage has been symbolised mythologically by the colour white. The most obvious and familiar symbol of this is the white knight. Here’s Robert Bly on the subject: “A white knight is gleaming and shining. We usually make fun of that, but a white knight is also engaged. He fights for the good and he is no longer randomly antisocial. […] we could say that some precision and skill en-ter with white.”
So we can say that white is a stage of complying. We could say conforming, however, many modern men who are still holding onto red would rebel against the notion of conforming. They can live with having to comply, but conform? Never!
The problem of the shadow
The problem with the white, however, is the presence of the shadow. The shadow is another term coined by Carl Jung and it represents everything you don’t like about yourself and therefore reject or suppress. For example, if you were brought up to be very moralistic, you’ll tend to ignore or deny any im-moral thought or tendency or behaviour. Let’s say you catch your teenage son telling a white lie. You tell him not to, and he points out a time—just yester-day, in fact—when you did the same. You’ll be likely to deny it strongly. You may even get angry and go into a tirade about how important honesty is for you.
In doing that, you’ve denied and perhaps even cut off that part of yourself that is less than perfect. You think that by sheer constant assertion of your belief that you’re morally intact you can make it so and convince everybody else that it is so.
The irony is that when you’re doing this, everybody else can see it, except you. It’s like when you have a politician lying on television. Everyone else can see it, but them. Also, the thing matters more to you than it does to everyone else around you. They just want you to admit it and move on, but you continue to make a big thing of it. Eventually you exhaust everybody around you with your harping and insisting.
You could illustrate it with this graphic. The circle is the totality, the Self. Your ego is only a part of the Self. When you’re in white, it’s the segment on the right. The middle section is untouched and unknown to you yet. The shadow, which basically contains all that data about yourself that you’re denying, is the dark segment on the left.
What you’ll tend to do is to project the contents of your shadow onto the world. In the above example, you’d be on a crusade against people who tell white lies. You might refuse to hire people who you catch doing that during the interview phase. You might fire people who you see doing that. You’d then give a talk to your staff about the importance of honesty. All the while, they’d notice you doing it, and they’d notice that you overlook it in certain particular people who do it all the time.
The important thing to get here is that there will always be a way in which you’re breaking your own rules—or doing something that you don’t like in others and believe you don’t do—yet not recognising it. That’s all the data that you shove in your shadow, that makes up your shadow. And the theme of that data is what you’ll crusade against in the world, especially while you’re in white, being a white knight. White knights can be very annoying for this rea-son. A lot of energy gets wasted, and bad decisions made, by white knights attempting to force their view of themselves onto the world, and deny the content of their shadow.
It’s clear then, that there needs to be a stage beyond white, one of greater maturity. Naturally, as you can see, those stages must involve some kind of integration of the shadow data. Indeed, there are four stages in total and we’ll get to the next two in a while, but let’s pause here for a moment. There are a few important points to consider.
A note for mothers, daughters and feminists
Firstly, as Bly points out, there are no good or bad stages. What’s important is to complete the stages. “Men must stay in red for ten or fifteen years. During that time girls will make love with them but never marry such a man, because he is still unfinished; he has no respect, the elders say, he is too red.”
Even more importantly, he insists that “without the red, no white!” In other words, you can’t skip red, and that’s one of the biggest problems in our society today. “We try these days to move young men by compulsory education directly from childhood into the White Knight,” says Bly. “And we could say that sometimes a mother wants her son to be white when he is […] in red.”
In other words, mothers—and, these days, their daughters too—are horrified by every “red” male behaviour that they see emerging and which they fear might lead to their sons one day committing any of the major social crimes that have emerged, such as being too assertive with a women. And this is not to condone violent and aggressive or toxic masculine behaviour. It’s just to point out the problem.
Bly continues: “Teachers and parents often tell us to skip the red [stage]. Some men did not live through the red in adolescence. Such a man will then have to go back to red later, learn to flare up, and be obnoxious when he is forty.” He also points out how people like church ministers have to be in the white stage and are not allowed (by their congregations) to go back to red. But, because they never complete red, then they can’t go forward into the next stage.
Finally, Bly adds: “The danger with the white knight stage in our culture is that he is often insufferable because he has not lived through the red. […] If a man hasn’t lived through the red stage, he is a struck white knight who will … set up a false war with some concretized dragon, such as Poverty or Drugs.” Or, as in our earlier example, the Telling of White Lies. A lot of men who are caught up in the left-wing versus right-wing polarity in contemporary society are behaving in this way. In fact, if you think about how men respond to being told what to do (some obey obsequiously; most rebel and do the exact oppo-site), you can see why a lot of that polarisation is happening. If women are insisting that men skip red and leapfrog into a particular version of the white knight, well, what do you think those men are going to do?
So, whether you’re a woman seeking to understand men, or a man seeking to understand himself, it may be valuable to consider the possibility that this is where a lot of men—individually and collectively—are getting stuck. They’re not being allowed to move through the stages properly. In many instances, they’re not moving through them at all. They’re either skipping red and going straight to white, in which case they can’t progress further into the more ma-ture stages. Or they’re resisting what they feel as a pressure to skip red, and so they’re digging in their heels and getting stuck there.
The third stage (grey: integrating; appropriate ages 36-55) and the fourth stage (black: integrated, appropriate ages 56+)
Click here to read about the grey and black stages of maturity…