Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shame, Anger, and the Hero Myth in Teen Boys

Here's a clip from a British TV show - The Inbetweeners - that is a bit funny, but not so much when you think about it.

via videosift.com

If you are a guy, you no doubt have memories of having to go to the blackboard or stand up in class at the most inopportune time. Most of us weren't shamed by our peers -- our supposed friends -- the way Simon was in this clip. But there still was some sense of shame involved, especially for those of us who lacked good fathers who normalized such events as part of growing up.

As adults we now know that it was all about hormones, and that it didn't take a blond knockout flirting with us to create an erection -- our own natural levels of testosterone took care of things without any effort on our part.

It's easy to laugh at the events in the clip. Boys will be boys. And surely, many people believe that living through such teasing builds the thick skin needed to survive in the adult world. I'm sure that is partially true. And I am also sure that such shaming is damaging to a boy's self esteem. Let me explain, by taking a detour into myth.

The Parcival Myth of the Hero

I mentioned in a recent post that I was reading Moore and Gillette's (1990), King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. They list four archetypes that boys move through (I'll blog more on this later), with the final stage being the Hero archetype. Teen boys need to see themselves as a hero of sorts, but the underlying process is the separation from the mother.

Joseph Campbell described the hero's journey as the monomyth. It is the essential initiation from boy psychology to mature masculinity.

Campbell held that numerous myths, from disparate times and regions seem to share a fundamental structure. This fundamental structure contains a number of stages, which include:

  1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline
  2. A road of trials, which the hero must fail or overcome
  3. Achieving the goal or "boon", which often results in important self-knowledge
  4. A return to the ordinary world, again which the hero can succeed or fail in achieving
  5. Applying the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world

In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell wrote:[4]

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The classic examples of the monomyth relied upon by Campbell and other scholars include the Buddha, Moses, and Christ stories, although Campbell cites many other classic myths from many cultures which rely upon this basic structure.

One of the classic examples of the monomyth is Parcival. Following his father's death, the boy is raised by his mother. So already we have the hint of his quest, a search for the masculine within his psyche that the absent father was not there to mentor in him. Many of us have grown up with absent fathers, either literally (mine died) or figuratively in that they worked so much they were seldom present.

As he becomes an adult, Parcival kills the Red Knight and takes the knight's woman as his own. But adventure calls and he leaves her to chase down the Holy Grail. This is a form of immature masculinity. It is not until much later, in King Arthur's Court that he receives the mentoring he needs to enter into mature masculinity.

In an older version of the myth, Parcival is unable to heal the wound of The Fisher King because he was still under the influence of his mother, and he lacked the power of his own masculine assertiveness.

Many teen boys are struggling with similar issues at an unconscious level. They are at a pivotal point in their development. They need to break free from the realm of the mother so that they can enter into their own manhood, but many lack the father figure to help them make that transition. Without that mentoring, there is shame about those things we don't understand, fear about who we are, and doubts about our own powers as men.

This lack of guidance has immediate and long-term impacts on young men.

Angry Young Men

What we are seeing a lot more of these days is what Time Magazine calls Angry Young Men.
[Psychologist] Michael Currie has worked with adolescent boys and their families for 20 years. Much of his attention has centered on the anger that can consume boys during their high school years. Manifesting in the home as sullenness, disobedience and fierce assertions of independence, teen rage confuses and distresses parents, who often make matters worse with their clumsy, if well-meaning, attempts to address it.
Currie explains a little about how he defines adolescent anger.
Anger is made of two components: one is an idea that there's something wrong, two is that someone else is to blame. The difference in adolescence is the struggle behind the anger. The teenager is trying to grasp the responsibilities and freedoms that come with entering the second epoch of life — that between childhood and adulthood. His identity is fragile, and it can be inevitable that anger comes with that.
Without the crucial and difficult container that a strong masculine father can create, boys end up feeling lost and that sense of fear becomes anger. I don't blame men for being bad fathers. Most men with kids these days lacked adequate fathering themselves, so they did not have the needed model to learn from.

If we can view the teen years in boys as a kind of heroic quest (for mature masculinity), it becomes a little easier to see how we need to assist them in this quest. They need mentoring; they need permission to make mistakes; and they need boundaries that cannot be violated. While it may be difficult to watch a son pull away and become more independent, the important thing to realize is that when his quest is completed he will return, as a man.

If our boys lack the father-figure they need, there will be shame that damages self-esteem and there will be anger that covers over their sense of being lost and afraid. I went through a lot of this in my own life, and I acted out in every way imaginable.

I think I may have rambled here a bit, but I hope I made a little bit of sense.

1 comment:

follwnkj said...

I like what you are saying here. When you mention "shame," are you linking that to "making mistakes" as they search for their identify as a man and not as an adolescent anymore? Just clarifying. Again, good thoughts!