When Is A Man, A Man?

Men don’t change (much) along the solidity axis, but they can mature. Let’s take a look at the stages of maturity, the main characteristics of each, and a man’s journey through them.

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 imperative 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 others 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 emotional responses, that their men demonstrate. Such men tend to be like boys, putting 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.

You’ll see that the first two stages are represented by the colours red and white. As mentioned, those colours originated in ancient mythology. If we were to stay with the mythology sequence, there would only be one more colour, or shade, to come, and that would be black, to represent old age and wisdom. However, Carl Jung identified four stages in the development of the anima—four stages in the development of a man’s inner voice, in other words. It’s also clear that it’s quite a leap from the stage of white (the white knight) to the stage of black (wisdom). Surely, something has to happen in between. Surely, the cake of wisdom has to be baked first. Aha! Maybe that’s what the midlife crisis is all about!

Based on the above reasoning, we’re going to go with Jung’s notion that there are four stages of maturity for men. And we’re going to agree with the muthological sequence that has the last stage being represented by the colour black. What we’re going to do to bring the two together is we’re going to insert a third stage, and allocate the colour grey to that stage.

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The Red Stage

Theme: Rebelling; 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 deliberately do the opposite. Therefore, the initiation is usually followed by a rebellious 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 behaviourist 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 sportsmen 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 exertion 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 Process of Individuation

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced the idea of “individuation”. It applies 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 before you had tried it out. It knew what you needed, and it knew that the answer 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 Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced the idea of “individuation”. It applies 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 before you had tried it out. It knew what you needed, and it knew that the answer 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, demanding 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 unreliable 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 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, demanding 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 unreliable 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.

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The Red Stage

Theme: Rebelling

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 deliberately do the opposite. Therefore, the initiation is usually followed by a rebellious 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 behaviourist 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 sportsmen 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 exertion 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 Process of Individuation

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung introduced the idea of “individuation”. It applies 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 before you had tried it out. It knew what you needed, and it knew that the answer 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, demanding 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 unreliable 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.

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The White Stage

Theme: Compliance; Appropriate ages: 26-35

The movement towards being more grounded, and towards a greater absorption into the collective, continues in the stage that follows the “red” stage. Those young men have now hopefully learned a craft, and some culture, and are ready and mature enough to marry and raise children. And 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 enter 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 immoral 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 yesterday, 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. Of course, being morally upright is just an example. Each person has their “thing” that they get really upset about if someone points it out to them.

The irony is that when you’re doing this, when you’re denying your “thing”, 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.

man matrix ego shadowYou 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 reason. 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.

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 immoral 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 yesterday, 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. Of course, being morally upright is just an example. Each person has their “thing” that they get really upset about if someone points it out to them.

The irony is that when you’re doing this, when you’re denying your “thing”, 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.

man matrix ego shadowYou 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 reason. 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 Robert 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, Bly 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 opposite), 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 mature 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.

Firstly, as Robert 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, Bly 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 opposite), 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 mature 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.

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The White Stage

Theme: Compliance

Appropriate ages: 26-35

The movement towards being more grounded, and towards a greater absorption into the collective, continues in the stage that follows the “red” stage. Those young men have now hopefully learned a craft, and some culture, and are ready and mature enough to marry and raise children. And 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 enter 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 immoral 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 yesterday, 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. Of course, being morally upright is just an example. Each person has their “thing” that they get really upset about if someone points it out to them.

The irony is that when you’re doing this, when you’re denying your “thing”, 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.

man matrix ego shadowYou 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 reason. 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 Robert 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, Bly 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 opposite), 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 mature 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.

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The Grey Stage

Theme: Integration; Appropriate ages: 36-55

Following after white is grey, the stage of integrating. This will be the stage of the classic midlife crisis, and its aftermath. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a crisis. I prefer to use the term midlife transition. Basically what’s happening is that the shadow—that storehouse of data about himself that the white knight denies—is starting to break through and make its presence known.

Let’s go back to the example of the man who insists that he never tells little white lies. Despite his many denials, eventually some part of that man’s brain will have started to register that, actually, he does, just like everybody else, tell those little white lies. The part of him that tries to deny that—his ego—starts to feel pushed into a corner.

In addition, and especially for those who prefer a behaviourist point of view, some other part of the man has been gathering evidence of his successes. It’s starting to feel OK about itself. It’s starting to see that his parents weren’t right about everything, that the world doesn’t punish him for the same things that they punished him for, or in the same way.

He’s starting to make up his own mind, not just at the level of his ego, but at a deeper level. The picture probably looks more like this one now. As you can see, the white knight has expanded—and so has the shadow. In fact, the shadow data is almost becoming as visible to him, the white knight, as it is to the rest of the world!

His response can be one of two things. The first is to try to shut it all down. He denies everything and goes harder at it. His wife and children despair. Perhaps she leaves him, or threatens to. Or he leaves her, saying she is unfairly critical, unjust, and he just can’t go on like this. He starts again, this time with an even “better” wife, an even “better” car. Oh, and he’s going to do all those things that he never did the first time around, like play guitar, or own a motorcycle. That’s the classic midlife crisis scenario, and it happens because of a refusal to move forward into grey, which is the acceptance of the shadow data and allowing it into full view. Instead, he wants to stay in white or even go back to red.

The question may arise, why does this happen for men more than for women. The first thing to consider is that male ego is set up to assert itself rather than surrender. Therefore, when it starts to receive data from the shadow, its first response is to fight back and assert itself. A man is not going to do what women do and listen, reflect and talk about it. As the Jungian analyst and prolific author James Hollis has pointed out: “Women are more likely to grieve necessary losses openly and therefore with a measure of psychological honesty while men, I’m sad to say, usually attempt to bury or deflect, but as we know, whatever’s pushed under invariably surfaces elsewhere.”

The Return of the Shadow

If a man resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”.

Therefore, a man will struggle to accept and integrate the data from his shadow. If he does, he’ll experience a less bumpy ride through the midlife transition which is the main feature of the grey stage, and into the black stage of wisdom. If he resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”. If he resists that too, he’ll either remain stuck in the white stage, or regress into red.

Remember, the Self sees the bigger picture. It knows what you need, which is often at odds with what your ego wants. In the scenario above, the Self wants him to see himself as he really is, to become more honest: more honest with himself, and more honest with the world about himself, about who he is, what he’s done and not done, what he’s capable of and not capable of.

At this stage, there may also be a creeping realisation that he gave up his dreams to start and support a family. That hasn’t turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped. So was it all worth it? And, about those dreams that he gave up: is he still going to make a go of them? What part of them can he still achieve, or in what way? For example, if he can’t be Bono, perhaps he can at least join Toastmasters and learn public speaking.

Here’s Jung’s take on the subject: “Every new phase of development throughout an individual’s life is accompanied by a repetition of the original conflict between the claims of the Self and the claims of the ego. In fact, this conflict may be expressed more powerfully at the period of transition from early maturity to middle age (between 35 to 40 in our society) than at any other time in life.”

The midlife transition is tough. Usually, during his white stage, a man was so busy being a father and husband that he gave up most of his friendships. So now he’s on his own. Even if that’s not true, there’s the saying that, “When days are dark, friends are few.” Many men will come to know this during this phase. 

If a man resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”.

Therefore, a man will struggle to accept and integrate the data from his shadow. If he does, he’ll experience a less bumpy ride through the midlife transition which is the main feature of the grey stage, and into the black stage of wisdom. If he resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”. If he resists that too, he’ll either remain stuck in the white stage, or regress into red.

Remember, the Self sees the bigger picture. It knows what you need, which is often at odds with what your ego wants. In the scenario above, the Self wants him to see himself as he really is, to become more honest: more honest with himself, and more honest with the world about himself, about who he is, what he’s done and not done, what he’s capable of and not capable of.

At this stage, there may also be a creeping realisation that he gave up his dreams to start and support a family. That hasn’t turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped. So was it all worth it? And, about those dreams that he gave up: is he still going to make a go of them? What part of them can he still achieve, or in what way? For example, if he can’t be Bono, perhaps he can at least join Toastmasters and learn public speaking.

Here’s Jung’s take on the subject: “Every new phase of development throughout an individual’s life is accompanied by a repetition of the original conflict between the claims of the Self and the claims of the ego. In fact, this conflict may be expressed more powerfully at the period of transition from early maturity to middle age (between 35 to 40 in our society) than at any other time in life.”

The midlife transition is tough. Usually, during his white stage, a man was so busy being a father and husband that he gave up most of his friendships. So now he’s on his own. Even if that’s not true, there’s the saying that, “When days are dark, friends are few.” Many men will come to know this during this phase. 

Man, You Are Not Alone

The most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff.

Of course, the most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff. Because that’s what men assume and that’s what keeps them stuck. Anyone who’s had experience with men’s groups will know that when you bring men together into a group, they’ll naturally present their best side; they’ll pretend everything’s OK and they’ll act with bravado and bonhomie. However, if you can provide a context for them to get serious just for a few minutes and you can get each one to tell a deeper truth about themselves, then magic happens. It’s as if each man recognises, with relief, that he’s not alone, that he’s not the only one with problems and challenges. Then they begin to open up and share and, with sharing, the healing can begin.

The other belief that a man needs to let go of in order to successfully negotiate the grey stage is the belief that he can, and should, fix things—including himself—by himself. That’s not true. They need to find support in order to grow and change.

A man who moves successfully through grey will finally be the man you can be with, and tolerate. The edges will be rounded off. He’ll be less one-sided. He’ll be more open and honest about himself, better able to talk about himself—although he may still not really have the inclination to and that’s OK. More detailed examples of what this looks like will be provided elsewhere in this content.

When a man has moved through grey, and if he does it with real conscious attention, he’ll be ready for black.

The most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff.

Of course, the most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff. Because that’s what men assume and that’s what keeps them stuck. Anyone who’s had experience with men’s groups will know that when you bring men together into a group, they’ll naturally present their best side; they’ll pretend everything’s OK and they’ll act with bravado and bonhomie. However, if you can provide a context for them to get serious just for a few minutes and you can get each one to tell a deeper truth about themselves, then magic happens. It’s as if each man recognises, with relief, that he’s not alone, that he’s not the only one with problems and challenges. Then they begin to open up and share and, with sharing, the healing can begin.

The other belief that a man needs to let go of in order to successfully negotiate the grey stage is the belief that he can, and should, fix things—including himself—by himself. That’s not true. They need to find support in order to grow and change.

A man who moves successfully through grey will finally be the man you can be with, and tolerate. The edges will be rounded off. He’ll be less one-sided. He’ll be more open and honest about himself, better able to talk about himself—although he may still not really have the inclination to and that’s OK. More detailed examples of what this looks like will be provided elsewhere in this content.

When a man has moved through grey, and if he does it with real conscious attention, he’ll be ready for black.

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The Grey Stage

Theme: Integration

Appropriate ages: 36-55

Following after white is grey, the stage of integrating. This will be the stage of the classic midlife crisis, and its aftermath. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a crisis. I prefer to use the term midlife transition. Basically what’s happening is that the shadow—that storehouse of data about himself that the white knight denies—is starting to break through and make its presence known.

Let’s go back to the example of the man who insists that he never tells little white lies. Despite his many denials, eventually some part of that man’s brain will have started to register that, actually, he does, just like everybody else, tell those little white lies. The part of him that tries to deny that—his ego—starts to feel pushed into a corner.

In addition, and especially for those who prefer a behaviourist point of view, some other part of the man has been gathering evidence of his successes. It’s starting to feel OK about itself. It’s starting to see that his parents weren’t right about everything, that the world doesn’t punish him for the same things that they punished him for, or in the same way.

He’s starting to make up his own mind, not just at the level of his ego, but at a deeper level. The picture probably looks more like this one now. As you can see, the white knight has expanded—and so has the shadow. In fact, the shadow data is almost becoming as visible to him, the white knight, as it is to the rest of the world!

His response can be one of two things. The first is to try to shut it all down. He denies everything and goes harder at it. His wife and children despair. Perhaps she leaves him, or threatens to. Or he leaves her, saying she is unfairly critical, unjust, and he just can’t go on like this. He starts again, this time with an even “better” wife, an even “better” car. Oh, and he’s going to do all those things that he never did the first time around, like play guitar, or own a motorcycle. That’s the classic midlife crisis scenario, and it happens because of a refusal to move forward into grey, which is the acceptance of the shadow data and allowing it into full view. Instead, he wants to stay in white or even go back to red.

The question may arise, why does this happen for men more than for women. The first thing to consider is that male ego is set up to assert itself rather than surrender. Therefore, when it starts to receive data from the shadow, its first response is to fight back and assert itself. A man is not going to do what women do and listen, reflect and talk about it. As the Jungian analyst and prolific author James Hollis has pointed out: “Women are more likely to grieve necessary losses openly and therefore with a measure of psychological honesty while men, I’m sad to say, usually attempt to bury or deflect, but as we know, whatever’s pushed under invariably surfaces elsewhere.”

The Return of the Shadow

If a man resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”.

Therefore, a man will struggle to accept and integrate the data from his shadow. If he does, he’ll experience a less bumpy ride through the midlife transition which is the main feature of the grey stage, and into the black stage of wisdom. If he resists the shadow data, it will be thrust upon him in the form of a midlife “crisis”. If he resists that too, he’ll either remain stuck in the white stage, or regress into red.

Remember, the Self sees the bigger picture. It knows what you need, which is often at odds with what your ego wants. In the scenario above, the Self wants him to see himself as he really is, to become more honest: more honest with himself, and more honest with the world about himself, about who he is, what he’s done and not done, what he’s capable of and not capable of.

At this stage, there may also be a creeping realisation that he gave up his dreams to start and support a family. That hasn’t turned out as perfectly as he’d hoped. So was it all worth it? And, about those dreams that he gave up: is he still going to make a go of them? What part of them can he still achieve, or in what way? For example, if he can’t be Bono, perhaps he can at least join Toastmasters and learn public speaking.

Here’s Jung’s take on the subject: “Every new phase of development throughout an individual’s life is accompanied by a repetition of the original conflict between the claims of the Self and the claims of the ego. In fact, this conflict may be expressed more powerfully at the period of transition from early maturity to middle age (between 35 to 40 in our society) than at any other time in life.”

The midlife transition is tough. Usually, during his white stage, a man was so busy being a father and husband that he gave up most of his friendships. So now he’s on his own. Even if that’s not true, there’s the saying that, “When days are dark, friends are few.” Many men will come to know this during this phase. 

Man, You Are Not Alone

The most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff.

Of course, the most important thing that men need to know at this time is that they’re not alone—that they’re not the only ones “failing”, or going through stuff. Because that’s what men assume and that’s what keeps them stuck. Anyone who’s had experience with men’s groups will know that when you bring men together into a group, they’ll naturally present their best side; they’ll pretend everything’s OK and they’ll act with bravado and bonhomie. However, if you can provide a context for them to get serious just for a few minutes and you can get each one to tell a deeper truth about themselves, then magic happens. It’s as if each man recognises, with relief, that he’s not alone, that he’s not the only one with problems and challenges. Then they begin to open up and share and, with sharing, the healing can begin.

The other belief that a man needs to let go of in order to successfully negotiate the grey stage is the belief that he can, and should, fix things—including himself—by himself. That’s not true. They need to find support in order to grow and change.

A man who moves successfully through grey will finally be the man you can be with, and tolerate. The edges will be rounded off. He’ll be less one-sided. He’ll be more open and honest about himself, better able to talk about himself—although he may still not really have the inclination to and that’s OK. More detailed examples of what this looks like will be provided elsewhere in this content.

When a man has moved through grey, and if he does it with real conscious attention, he’ll be ready for black.

Get your FREE report today!

The Black Stage

Theme: Transcendence; Appropriate ages: 56+

According to Jung, “…the transition from middle age to old age creates again the need for affirmation of the difference between the ego and the Self.” Basically, the ego wants to live, and the Self knows it’s going to die and wants to prepare for it. So the man “receives his last call to action in defence of ego-consciousness against the approaching dissolution of life in death.”

At this time, a man’s Self will hand him some experiences that will create a more meaningful transition, one that “offers something more spiritually satisfying than the adolescent rites”. The adolescent rites are typically earth-bound and secular. They’re about bringing a boy down, preparing him for life on earth. He learns to fight, drink, have sex. At the threshold to black, on the other hand, a man’s ego will need—even though it may not want—something more religious, or at least spiritual, in nature, and his all-knowing Self is bound to provide it—usually in the form of loss.

This is why the initiation into black is often about loss, and usually it’s a big loss. This could mean the man’s recognition and acceptance of paths not taken, and of how his life has turned out. It could mean the loss of his children as they leave home, or the loss of his hopes for them as they turn out differently from how he’d hoped or expected.

Men in the black phase admit and allow back into themselves all the flaws they’ve previously denied, plus all their unsavoury thoughts and secret misdeeds.

Ten or so years into this stage will come the loss of his career when he retires. (This is changing somewhat, as people “rewire instead of retire”.) If he’s an entrepreneur, it may mean the loss of control over his business as he’s forced to hand over to the next generation. (In the popular TV series Succession, we see how hard that is for a man, as Logan Roy, the octogenarian founder of a media empire steadfastly delays appointing a successor.) Then will come the loss of people around him as they pass on. Perhaps the loss of his own spouse—although women tend to outlast men, which is a noteworthy fact in itself, since women are more prone to seek and give each other emotional support, to share, and thereby to integrate their shadow data.

The way that loss does its work is well illustrated by men who become politically imprisoned. In Iron John, Robert Bly reckons that, “Anwar Sadat undoubtedly got to the black while in prison.” He adds that, “More politicians probably should be put in prison.” His comments were made before Mandela’s release, so he could not have known how that would turn out, but he was clearly prescient on that score. Gandhi, too, knew the inside of a prison cell, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter was a prodigy who seemed to operate with great maturity and wisdom in his twenties and thirties already. Interestingly, after he was assassinated at age 39, the autopsy revealed that King’s heart was in the condition typical of a 60-year-old. The coroner ascribed this to stress, but it takes on a kind of transcendent symbolism when considered in this context.

When Bly says that “prison is good for politicians”, what he’s really saying is that the sudden and complete loss of power, plus what is most likely a strong sense of injustice, thrusts the man into that place where life no longer makes no sense. He discovers that people don’t want what he thought they wanted, and that life is bigger than him, even though he’s such a powerful man. In addition, prison will give him time to reflect and, being a man of conscience—because a man without conscience will not reach black—he’ll admit that he has made mistakes, that he has done things he shouldn’t have done, and that he has his own flaws. Therefore, those men may realise that, at some philosophical level, they even deserve some form of punishment, as does every man.

Bly expressed this by saying that men who go through that kind of imprisonment bring “all of the shadow material […] back inside”. In other words, they admit and allow back into themselves all the flaws they’ve previously denied, plus all their unsavoury thoughts and secret misdeeds. The picture now looks like this, where both ego and shadow have expanded, and the person is expressing both at the same time. They are able to live with paradox—that of themselves and of the world. Bly acknowledges that, prison aside, it “takes a long time to move into the black”.

Bly calls black the stage of “humanity”, of “giving up blame”, of wisdom, of humour in the face of adversity. A man in black is able to see that every person, including himself, has both good and bad within them. He becomes less judgemental. He develops a sense of humour around things that younger, less mature people take very seriously. He’s able to act with a wisdom that includes forgiveness, as Mandela did when he allowed the sport of rugby in South Africa to maintain its Springbok emblem, which was strongly associated with white Afrikaner authority. The team went on to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995, and that victory did a great deal to develop racial tolerance and unity in the country. It was a masterstroke by Mandela and would not have come about if he hadn’t been in black, if he had been fighting like the “red” soldier he had once been, or all about “right” and wrong” as a man who was still a “white knight” would have been.

Currently in South Africa are the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a populist political party led by a man named Julius Malema who is very much in the red. His age indicates he should be in white by now, but he seems stuck in red. He and the members of his party even wear red overalls and red berets in parliament. All his rhetoric uses military terms. He styles himself the Commander-In-Chief, or CIC. There are no subtleties, no nuances, in his approach. When the rest of South Africa was united by their team’s Rugby World Cup victory of 2019, his cadres issued statements that tried, unsuccessfully, to find ways to undermine that unity. They cause havoc in that parliament whenever they don’t get their way, sometimes being involved in physical scuffles. Malema thinks of himself as some kind of Che Guevara. You would not want a man like that, with so much red, so few signs of ever reaching black, to lead a country.

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The Black Stage

Theme: Transcendence

Appropriate ages: 56+

According to Jung, “…the transition from middle age to old age creates again the need for affirmation of the difference between the ego and the Self.” Basically, the ego wants to live, and the Self knows it’s going to die and wants to prepare for it. So the man “receives his last call to action in defence of ego-consciousness against the approaching dissolution of life in death.”

At this time, a man’s Self will hand him some experiences that will create a more meaningful transition, one that “offers something more spiritually satisfying than the adolescent rites”. The adolescent rites are typically earth-bound and secular. They’re about bringing a boy down, preparing him for life on earth. He learns to fight, drink, have sex. At the threshold to black, on the other hand, a man’s ego will need—even though it may not want—something more religious, or at least spiritual, in nature, and his all-knowing Self is bound to provide it—usually in the form of loss.

This is why the initiation into black is often about loss, and usually it’s a big loss. This could mean the man’s recognition and acceptance of paths not taken, and of how his life has turned out. It could mean the loss of his children as they leave home, or the loss of his hopes for them as they turn out differently from how he’d hoped or expected.

Men in the black phase admit and allow back into themselves all the flaws they’ve previously denied, plus all their unsavoury thoughts and secret misdeeds.

Ten or so years into this stage will come the loss of his career when he retires. (This is changing somewhat, as people “rewire instead of retire”.) If he’s an entrepreneur, it may mean the loss of control over his business as he’s forced to hand over to the next generation. (In the popular TV series Succession, we see how hard that is for a man, as Logan Roy, the octogenarian founder of a media empire steadfastly delays appointing a successor.) Then will come the loss of people around him as they pass on. Perhaps the loss of his own spouse—although women tend to outlast men, which is a noteworthy fact in itself, since women are more prone to seek and give each other emotional support, to share, and thereby to integrate their shadow data.

The way that loss does its work is well illustrated by men who become politically imprisoned. In Iron John, Robert Bly reckons that, “Anwar Sadat undoubtedly got to the black while in prison.” He adds that, “More politicians probably should be put in prison.” His comments were made before Mandela’s release, so he could not have known how that would turn out, but he was clearly prescient on that score. Gandhi, too, knew the inside of a prison cell, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter was a prodigy who seemed to operate with great maturity and wisdom in his twenties and thirties already. Interestingly, after he was assassinated at age 39, the autopsy revealed that King’s heart was in the condition typical of a 60-year-old. The coroner ascribed this to stress, but it takes on a kind of transcendent symbolism when considered in this context.

When Bly says that “prison is good for politicians”, what he’s really saying is that the sudden and complete loss of power, plus what is most likely a strong sense of injustice, thrusts the man into that place where life no longer makes no sense. He discovers that people don’t want what he thought they wanted, and that life is bigger than him, even though he’s such a powerful man. In addition, prison will give him time to reflect and, being a man of conscience—because a man without conscience will not reach black—he’ll admit that he has made mistakes, that he has done things he shouldn’t have done, and that he has his own flaws. Therefore, those men may realise that, at some philosophical level, they even deserve some form of punishment, as does every man.

Bly expressed this by saying that men who go through that kind of imprisonment bring “all of the shadow material […] back inside”. In other words, they admit and allow back into themselves all the flaws they’ve previously denied, plus all their unsavoury thoughts and secret misdeeds. The picture now looks like this, where both ego and shadow have expanded, and the person is expressing both at the same time. They are able to live with paradox—that of themselves and of the world. Bly acknowledges that, prison aside, it “takes a long time to move into the black”.

Bly calls black the stage of “humanity”, of “giving up blame”, of wisdom, of humour in the face of adversity. A man in black is able to see that every person, including himself, has both good and bad within them. He becomes less judgemental. He develops a sense of humour around things that younger, less mature people take very seriously. He’s able to act with a wisdom that includes forgiveness, as Mandela did when he allowed the sport of rugby in South Africa to maintain its Springbok emblem, which was strongly associated with white Afrikaner authority. The team went on to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995, and that victory did a great deal to develop racial tolerance and unity in the country. It was a masterstroke by Mandela and would not have come about if he hadn’t been in black, if he had been fighting like the “red” soldier he had once been, or all about “right” and wrong” as a man who was still a “white knight” would have been.

Currently in South Africa are the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a populist political party led by a man named Julius Malema who is very much in the red. His age indicates he should be in white by now, but he seems stuck in red. He and the members of his party even wear red overalls and red berets in parliament. All his rhetoric uses military terms. He styles himself the Commander-In-Chief, or CIC. There are no subtleties, no nuances, in his approach. When the rest of South Africa was united by their team’s Rugby World Cup victory of 2019, his cadres issued statements that tried, unsuccessfully, to find ways to undermine that unity. They cause havoc in that parliament whenever they don’t get their way, sometimes being involved in physical scuffles. Malema thinks of himself as some kind of Che Guevara. You would not want a man like that, with so much red, so few signs of ever reaching black, to lead a country.

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