“The more fragile a man feels internally, the more likely he is to try building an outer shell to hide this fragility.” ~ Guy Corneau (Absent Fathers Lost Sons)
Throughout my life I have been plagued by the enduring fear that I’m never quite successful enough, whatever my actual successes.
Which has been at times a kind of torture for every woman I ever tried to love.
For I have tragically sacrificed love, over and over again, on the raging pyres of an endless (and futile) pursuit of some “ultimate success” that nonetheless refuses to reveal itself. No matter how bright the burn of my sacrificial fires, that final success I’ve hunted has only ever persisted to lurk stubborn in the dark shadows just beyond light’s edge.
I know now it wasn’t some ultimate external success I was seeking, but rather the enduring and unassailable peace-of-mind I hoped it would bring.
Since diving deep into Men’s (Inner Growth) Work a decade ago, and through coaching hundreds of other men along the way, I’ve discovered a profound connection between the enduring absence of a man’s peace-of-mind and the enduring absence of praise from a father – or any male-elder’s praise.
A Boy Without A Man’s Presence
My dad mostly stopped paying attention to me when I was 4 years old.
Not because he was somehow a bad father. That was simply my age when he and my mom ended their turbulent marriage, and he moved out, and mostly on, forever.
Though he stayed in touch and I saw him occasionally throughout my youth, the immense void of his daily presence brought with it an immense absence of masculine-energy guidance and praise from an elder man – the very thing a boy requires to become a man, himself.
“A man who ‘cannot get it together’ is a man who has probably not had the opportunity to undergo ritual initiation into the deep structures of manhood. He remains a boy – not because he wants to, but because no one has shown him the way to transform his boy energies into man energies.” ~ Moore & Gillette (King Warrior Lover Magician)
Like so many grown men who remain psychologically adolescent well into adulthood, throughout my 20s, 30s, even into my 40s, I ached deeply for a wise elder man’s guidance, for his blessing and benediction into my own manhood.
I just never knew it. I wouldn’t have admitted it, anyway, so angry was I at being left alone (by men) to find my own way.
For when a boy grows up without the consistent presence of an elder male father-like figure, he grows up believing he’s on his own (a physically present but emotionally distant or abusive man is not “present” for the boy).
A wise elder woman (e.g. mom), no matter how loving, can’t show a boy the way into becoming a mature man. She can surely teach him many essential things – like how a woman expects to be treated by a man – but she can’t model manhood for him, not in the body, where he most needs to learn about “Being Man.”
When I was 10, two curious events happened that clearly reveal the affect of his absence on me, emotionally, physically, mentally, and the life-long consequences that followed.
The first event happened at a soccer game.
While I played in hundreds of organized sports league games throughout my youth, my dad only came to two.
Both were disasters.
In soccer, I’d been a star forward, one of the highest scorers in the league.
Until the day my dad showed up.
On that day, acutely aware my absent father was watching me from the sidelines, I suddenly felt as though my body had been unplugged from some cosmic electrical socket, as all the energy had been drained from my 10-year old body.
During a climactic moment on the field, with the ball at my feet, the goal suddenly opened up before me. Instead of striking a decisive rocket-shot into the back of the net, my limp little legs could barely muster a weak toe-tap to the ball, which sent it rolling gently, timidly, along the ground towards the goalie, who scooped it up easily, like he was simply picking up his pet.
I’d never felt so viscerally incapacitated, physically incapable of “success.”
The second disaster happened at a baseball game.
I was the starting pitcher that day. Dad showed up and volunteered to be homeplate umpire, as dads may do at their kids’ games.
I took the mound and looked towards home plate, where I saw my absent father’s eyes staring directly back at me from behind the shadowy black grill of the umpire’s mask.
This time he was no mere spectator. He was specifically charged with judging my every toss of the ball in his direction: Did I throw a good pitch (success) or a bad one (failure)? My dad alone would decide, and the game (and my fragile masculine-worthiness) would hang in his balance.
Again I felt paralyzed, the electrical umbilical cord supplying energy to my boy-body ripped from its source. Instead of fastballs straight over the plate, my listless pitching arm could only offer soft, high arcing lobs that soared high over the heads of both batter and father-judge.
A few pitches in, dad stopped the game, flipped up his mask of menace and asked for help from both coaches. He didn’t know how to call my softball pitches in this baseball game.
I don’t recall whether my dad reassured and praised me at either game. He may have. What I do recall, viscerally, was my shame at failing to perform. I also recall an overwhelming sadness at knowing he wouldn’t likely attend any more games.
I didn’t openly express my emotions on either day. I didn’t know how. Yet my impotent performance revealed it all.
It’s just … no one was present enough to notice.
Since then there was never a convincing voice in my head reassuring me I’m a successful man, a worthy man. Women would often reassure me I’m a “good man,” yet that was never suitable substitute for the blessing of a wise, trustable elder man.
A boy can only receive meaningful affirmation of his Manhood from the Men already wholly living inside their own.
Thus was my journey, like so many men, that in the absence of an elder man’s wisdom and guidance I too often felt rudderless, powerless, lost adrift in the vast oceans of my life, unable to feel deeply successful for more than rare fleeting moments.
Without a better model of manhood, I naturally defaulted to popular culture’s half-baked ideals: A “Real Man” is a money-maker who dominates on the field, in the bedroom and the boardroom, whose only permissible emotion is anger, which he uses to get his way.
But I didn’t trust these shallow ideals. Few men genuinely do. Most of us see them as faint shadows, at best, of far more profound and expansive truths about our nature.
So while I looked outwardly successful – money, woman, impact – I felt utterly unworthy of it all, endlessly hungry, always craving for more.
Without a wise elder man (that I trusted) regularly reassuring me that I’m inherently successful – good enough, loved, worthy as I am, regardless the size of my bank account or number of notches on my bedpost or whether I win or lose – I only knew to keep seeking fulfillment by exploiting the world around me.
Which is the best way to never finding fulfilment.
For when one can’t feel successful within their own being, no external accomplishment would ever satisfy.
When one can’t generate true generosity within their own thoughts, they’ll always see strings attached to the generosity of others.
When one can’t connect to the profound love in their own heart, they won’t trust the love of anyone else.
Lack of Masculine Fulfillment Destroys Intimacy
Without the capacity to feel deeply successful, loved, and worthy of love, my intimate partnerships suffered greatly.
For when a woman dared express upset towards me in some moment of her hurting, she was rarely met with my empathy and understanding.
Instead, she would suddenly find herself pressed right up against the cold stone walls of my indifference and anger, built strong and sky-high to keep hidden (mostly from myself) my deep reservoirs of confusion, sadness, and shame.
I also regularly subjected every woman I ever loved – including my current partner at our start – to the inevitable suffering that comes with loving a man whose insatiable need for external success can drive him to pursue “opportunities” that don’t serve the relationship, and may outright harm it.
Yet how could it have been any other way?
I was living in the near-complete absence of an elder man’s voice reassuring me that I’m inherently a success in his eyes.
No woman or accomplishment can ever substitute for the blessing into manhood that can only come from wiser, elder men. It isn’t an intimate partner’s role to bestow upon a man the measure of his internal worth.
It is an elder’s guidance and praise that can put his mind at ease, whatever his circumstances.
Even if that elder be dead, or not his actual father, it’s the praising, encouraging words of a trustable elder man’s voice resounding through his head that can finally calm his otherwise restless spirit.
(note: You may find it curious, as I do, that the “God” of many modern religions, while generally seen as a loving “Father,” nonetheless demands “his children” daily prove their worthiness to be with him, and forever casts those who “fail” into some awful abyss of perpetual suffering. … sounds a lot like many human fathers.)
At age 38 I attended a weekend initiatory rite of passage experience for men. Shortly after arriving, I was led to a chair at the edge of a woods, where I sat before a white-haired elder man I’d never met.
He looked me in the eyes and said only these words:
“Welcome. We have been waiting for you a long time.”
Now, for all I knew of this mystery man, he could have been an absolute wreck of a human.
Nonetheless, I began to weep.
His simple, heartfelt words were gently whispering to a great yearning in my soul. Whoever he be, this elder was giving witness to my profound exhaustion at carrying a terrible burden of aloneness for a lifetime. His words reassured me I was no longer alone, that I was being embraced, welcomed home, even though I’d never been to these woods before.
This stranger man pierced me with a sentence I hadn’t even known I needed to hear.
My own father seems incapable of offering me this gift. We speak from time to time, and I know him as a good-hearted man. But I wouldn’t even trust such words from his mouth, for I realized (decided) long ago he was simply as lost as a Man as I was. He didn’t grow up feeling supported and encouraged by men, either.
The Essential (Paradoxical) Role of Father
The essential role of “father” in a child’s life – particularly a boy’s – is a paradox. He must challenge him such that he learns to stand his own ground and find his own place in the world, yet also simultaneously guide and reassure him such that he lives in the direction of ideals worthy of his heart, his being as a Man.
It’s a delicate dance few of our fathers ever did well (though I believe this is changing).
Many of us are intimately familiar with the challenges laid down by a father (or by other boys/men), through competition, comparison, criticism. Which is why we endlessly strive to achieve, to win, to exploit the world around us, whatever the cost.
In that world, winning is our only shot at safety.
Few of us also regularly received reassurance and genuinely helpful wisdom from our fathers.
Thus we wear our masks of invincibility, insisting we know what we’re doing, despite feeling painfully lost all the while.
I believe humanity will be transformed by fathers learning to say more often to their children (whatever their gender), “I love you. You are already a magnificent success in my eyes.”
For those of us men (and women) who are destined to live essentially without that voice in this lifetime, it falls upon us then to find that voice within ourselves all the same – to re-parent ourselves, you could say.
The crux of my own deepest, most difficult (internal) work for the last two decades has been “switching on” my own internal voice of reassurance and worthiness.
By confronting my hidden rage, my enduring sadness, I’ve allowed myself to grieve my absent father. Through years of inner mindset work, I’ve learned to overthrow the ignorant critic within when he rises to insist nothing I do is enough.
I’ve finally initiated my own wise, inner elder who daily reassures me I am “walking success,” and my simple presence is the greatest gift I can ever give to anyone. Hearing these words, even if only in my own head, calms me in a way little else ever can.
Every man must discover for himself that there’s no form of external success – not money, career, sex, or relationship – that can fill the father-sized hole in his heart.
He must undertake the (inner) journey of learning how to lift and fill himself up in ways that don’t merely depend on his external circumstances.
The depth and quality of his life, and his relationships to others, to his intimate partner and especially to himself, fully depends on it.
** What does this inspire in you? Please tell me in the comments below. (I read ’em all)