Beautiful Masculine Soul by Rev. Anthony Makar
The other day, a man I love told me about a men’s group meeting he had gone to, for the first time. It was a Bly group, he said, named after the great American poet, Robert Bly, who is also renowned for his work on men’s psychological and spiritual wholeness.
My friend said there were four rounds to the group session. Each part was meant to call forth a certain kind of deep, positive masculine energy out of the participants.
Round one was the Lover round. Lover energy is about sensuality but more than that. What gets you excited, what makes you passionate. Each man was asked to share how they were feeling lately, what was triggering emotion and passion in them.
This led to round two, the Warrior round. Warrior energy is about strength and resolve tied to a higher cause. So each man was asked to name a place in his life where he was falling short, where he was out of integrity and needed to come clean and get back on track. This was also a time to ask for help—to ask another man to be in an accountability relationship with him, check in on him to see how he’s doing, to offer encouragement.
Then came round three, the Magician round. Magician energy is about creative imagination and then dedication to a craft that enables a man to take what he imagines and make it real. Accordingly, each man might be asked to share something that he was feeling curious about lately and wanted to explore in more depth. Other times the men might use this round to practice a nonviolent communication skill, or some other kind of skill.
Finally, round four, the King round. King energy is aliveness in the moment, groundedness in the moment, it’s what structures the space, it’s what protects and defends, it’s what blesses. The Bly group concluded in this way, with every man offering a blessing to the others.
I was completely moved to hear that my friend had had this experience, or that such a kind of group even existed. It also tweaked a vague memory I had about a book with the title King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, who both draw from the Jungian tradition in modern psychology.
I got the book, and there I read about the crisis of masculine identity we face today. A crisis in which men can’t seem to get themselves together. There is fragmentation, divergent inner impulses that clash and result in toxic behaviors. “It can be said,” the book points out, “that life’s perhaps most fundamental dynamic is the attempt to move from a lower form of experience and consciousness to a higher (or deeper) level of consciousness, from a diffuse identity to a more consolidated and structured identity.” The crisis of masculinity is precisely about this: a blockage of this dynamic: boys nurtured into forms of masculinity that are skewed and stunted and toxic. Boys not able to move from lower to higher, because no one shows them the way “to transform boy energies into [healthy and lifegiving] man energies.”
That’s what I want to talk about today. The journey a man must take, to get to a higher level in his masculinity so that he’s giving life rather than taking it.
And I want to do this by retelling a beloved story, a story most of us return to again and again at Christmas: the story of George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I promise you, we lose so much if we insist on seeing this movie as belonging to only one season of the year.
Begin when George is in his teenage years. Among the four archetypes of the deep masculine, Lover energy usually develops first. So George, as a teenager, fantasized about being a world traveler, going to Tahiti, sailing the Emerald Sea—exploring all these exotic locations and more, far away from Bedford Falls, the boring town of his birth, the opposite of exciting. As he grew older, the hope only grew more ambitious. In the movie, when he’s 21, we see him buying luggage for his trip to Europe. He’s got his life all figured out. First he’ll go to Europe, and then he’ll go to college, and then he’s going to build things: skyscrapers hundreds of feet high, bridges a mile long.
He’s going to be a millionaire.
It’s around this time that his father asks him a question that channels pure King energy. Would George be interested in returning home after college to run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Company. Hearing this, George goes quiet. Right before, he was deep in his Lover energy, laughing and joking raucously with everyone in the house, but when his father asked him this question point blank, and Lover came face to face with King, George got real quiet. Said, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a stuffy little office. I want to do something big, something important with my life!”
Men, think back to a time when we were like George and totally caught up in Lover energy and Lover priorities, but then you came face to face with the King, and King priorities felt boring and unimportant. On the other hand, for some men, we grew up having to express King energy far too early in our lives, so much so that Lover energy felt unworthy of us, ridiculous, a waste of precious time…
Lover and King both make their claim upon a man, and the claims can clash and turn toxic.
Back to the story. George is caught up in his Lover fantasy of skyscrapers and bridges and lots of money. And I’ll tell you what: this is aided and abetted by middle class values. As a member of the middle class, George has naturally been brought up believing that people are free to control their own destinies. No limits. Just do it. The only person stopping you from climbing the success ladder … is you. This is what adds fuel to the fire of George’s inner Lover. This forms the core of his youth.
But sometimes, you can’t just do it. Sometimes, there are limits. Learning to live vitally within limits is what Kings do.
And now George is going to learn this the hard way.
His father dies, and he must give up his trip to Europe so he can settle his father’s business affairs. He does it, and then, just as he’s handing off important papers to the Building and Loan’s Board of Trustees, moments before he’s out the door on the way to college, and the inner Lover is about to burst with excitement, the other shoe drops. His father’s arch-enemy, Scrooge-like Henry F. Potter, makes a motion that the Building and Loan dissolve. Potter, who is wealthy beyond measure and could easily afford to give, asks, “Are we running a business or a charity ward?”
Hearing this, something snaps in George. He finds himself saying to Potter: “You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. […] But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? […] Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? […] Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”
Inspired by this speech, the Building and Loan Board rejects the motion to dissolve but only if George takes over his father’s job as leader. He does, and this is his inner King, stepping forward decisively. Decisively, but at the cost of wounding the inner Lover. From this point forward, the inner Lover becomes a magnet for regrets and resentments. The inner Lover becomes a zone of rumination over all the lost opportunities to pursue the impassioned dreams of youth.
How many of you know this magnet for regrets and resentments I’m talking about?
George finds himself where he thought he’d never be: working in his Dad’s stuffy little office, stuck in Bedford Falls. He gets to continue his father’s work of economic justice in the community, and while this beautiful King energy is important, still, his heart is at war with itself. Regret upon regret piles up. He’s just a mess of contradictions. He marries a beautiful caring wife, he has wonderful children, he is loved and respected throughout Bedford Falls, but all the wild wonderful Lover energy and humor of his youth drain away.
He grows cynical.
He complains, “I want to do what I want to do,” but no one’s listening.
The bounce in his soul is gone. And it’s like this with so many men today. The adversity of conflicted selves, heavy with regret. Thinking and feeling they are failures even as they are doing great work in the world.
In fact, I would suggest that a lack of bounce in a man’s life—the presence of inner conflict that saps away his vitality and makes him feel like he’s only skimming the surface of his days—is a symptom of the sort of thing that Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette talk about in their book, when they talk about life’s most fundamental dynamic—the “attempt to move from a lower form of experience and consciousness to a higher (or deeper) level of consciousness.” That’s what’s trying to happen in George Bailey. He’s trying to get to the higher level, but he doesn’t know that, and he doesn’t know how. He’s flailing about and he sees it as evidence of wrongness, as opposed to evidence that life has a higher plan for him and his pushing him.
George is not alone in this. In this, I am his brother, and maybe you too.
And the problems just escalate. Absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces the $8,000 which was supposed to have been deposited in the Building and Loan funds. George faces bankruptcy, scandal, prison. In complete desperation, he sees no alternative but to turn to his enemy Henry F. Potter and do something that is utterly humiliating: ask for help. Ask for a loan. And Potter, who sits in the cat bird’s seat now, says to George, “Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going out to conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated, old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees, begging for help.”
It’s horrible. The movie may be called It’s a Wonderful Life, but when it gets down to this part, I’m watching through my fingers, like it’s not a Christmas movie but a horror movie like The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Especially when the scene shifts to him going home and basically terrorizing the wife and the children who adore him.
He is a very good man who is behaving very, very badly.
George eventually wanders out onto a bridge near Bedford Falls. It’s night and snow falls in large sticky flakes. George’s face is screwed up in pain. Potter’s words ring in his mind -“you’re worth more dead than alive.” Below him—the raging torrent of a river. He looks down at that dark river.
He’s thinking very dark thoughts.
Please hear me now. For a man to get to a higher level in his masculinity, something has to die. Moore and Gillette are explicit about this: “Death—symbolic, psychological, or spiritual—is always a vital part of any initiation ritual. In psychological terms, the boy Ego must ‘die.’ The old ways of being and doing and thinking and feeling must ritually ‘die,’ before the new man can emerge.”
George Bailey is on that bridge, and he’s thinking about dying, and there’s a sense in which this is the absolutely appropriate thing for him to be doing, because deep down he knows that his life is not working. He never phrases it in terms of an internal clash between King and Lover energies (or, I will add, in terms of an insufficient presence of Warrior and Magician energies), but that doesn’t matter.
Instinctively, he knows. Things are broken.
But the absolute tragedy is that he is about to make a major mistake. If he throws himself of that bridge, he extinguishes himself. He offs himself. But Life, the fundamental dynamic of life, wants him to keep living, it’s just that it wants him to live on at a higher level.
The brokenness made whole.
The reason why all people need to add the word “initiation” to their vocabulary is that it helps people harness the death instinct to serve the larger cause of life. It prevents people from mistaking a desire to be shattered in one’s Ego with a desire to commit suicide.
I still grieve Robin Williams. I grieve Anthony Bourdain. So many others, to grieve.
Life wanted something larger from them, and no one was there to show them the better way.
I am thankful that “It’s A Wonderful Life” throws us a curve-ball, on that score.
There he is, George Bailey, a man who’s lost the bounce in his soul and it’s so flat, it can’t cope with the loss of $8,000. He just can’t take it any more. He finds himself alone, beaten, standing on a snowy bridge in the night, raging river below. Suicide seems the only way. And then—splash! Someone else has taken a dive! And suddenly, instinct takes over. Takes him two seconds to grasp the situation, and he jumps right in to save that person who’s drowning. He risks his life to save another.
This is Warrior energy. To do the hard thing, in service to Love and Justice.
It’s incredible. Adversity has broken George down completely, and yet, in the midst of direst weakness, he discovers that strength still remains. And so can we. You know, often we can find ourselves saying, as we contemplate horrible possibilities, “If such-and-such happened, I could never survive it.” Or, “If such-and-so happened, I wouldn’t know what to do.” And yet when the worst happens, and we go numb with shock, we discover persistence within simply to take things one step at a time, one moment at a time. Events rush and swirl past us. The broken pieces of life overwhelm, but for a time we let things be. It is enough just to keep moving, and somehow we do. Somehow we just keep going.
This is the Warrior. This is the confidence in ourselves that starts to grow, and we learn that, whatever else the future may bring, we have stood in the fire before, and we can stand in the fire again. We can.
We are stronger than we know.
But, now, what about the Magician? Where is that in George’s story?
It comes into play with the person George saved from “drowning”: none other than Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class. He’s an angel, and he comes to earth to give George a great gift: direct experience of what Bedford Falls would have become had he never been born.
Magician energy is imagination in a big way. It’s getting up on the balcony and seeing how all the pieces come together. It’s walking away from the daily clamor so you can refocus your imagination and see straight again. It’s what poet Rainer Maria Rilke was writing about, when he said
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.
Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class, releases George from staying stuck in his own house, inside the dishes and inside the glasses. Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class sends him way out there, on a vision quest. And it’s terrible. Horrible. Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls turns out to be a hellish place.
It blows his mind. It opens it up.
He comes to know. He was living a wonderful life already. Everything he honestly and truly needed for happiness, he already had. Even with all the bad luck circumstances that seemed, time and again, to prevent him from pursuing his youthful hopes—even though he never became a world traveler, or went to college; even though he never built a skyscraper hundreds of feet high or a bridge a mile long—even so: the worth of his life was diminished not one whit. Worthy dreams can happen, even in a stuffy small office, in boring Bedford Falls. A hero journey, right there in the everyday. Being there for people in need, again and again, even when it put him at risk. Standing up for the little guy against bullies like Henry F. Potter.
There only thing missing is him getting his inner life right. His inner masculine energies, learning to dance together.
And the vision of Bedford Falls without him does the trick.
He cries out, “Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again.”
This is pure Warrior energy, because, as far as he knows, he’s still out $8,000. Coming back to life means facing bankruptcy, scandal, prison. But he will move heaven and earth to achieve the life that he’s always wanted, which is the life he’s always been living but only now realizes.
He rushes home. Bank examiners are there to question him. The police are there, ready to take him in. All he wants is to see Mary. “Where is Mary?” “Where is Mary?” There she is, and he looks at her in a way that leaves no doubt in the viewer: he is madly in love. His inner Lover is healed. His inner Lover is back.
And that’s the journey of his life. From innocence, to woundedness, but not getting stuck there. The whole Phoenix process instead.
From ashes, to new life.
So, men, what about your journey?
What masculine archetype aches within you, because its dreams have been denied?
What does the clash in your soul look like? Are you a good man behaving badly? How?
Are you hungering for initiation and a kind of death that allows you to find a better way to live?
How might your Warrior energies help you to keep showing up, no matter what?
Where is the Magician active in your life, with a desire to help you see your world from a completely different perspective?
Every man has deep depths, energies wanting to be known, and the journey of a man’s life is about expressing these primal energies in an integrated way.
The solution to today’s masculinity crisis is not less masculinity but more: more of the Lover, more of the King, more of the Warrior, and more of the Magician: all four coming fully to life within the man, in unity, and in peace.