When John Sowers' twin girls were born he faced a crushing fear: he realized he didn’t know how to be a dad because he still didn’t really feel like a man. Sowers, the President of The Mentoring Project, an organization which works with fatherless youth, started writing, and the result is his new book, “The Heroic Path: In Search of the Masculine Heart,” a deeply personal exploration of what it is to be a man today.
Sowers’ search begins with a candid examination of his own life: his lack of “stereotypical man-skills,” his passiveness in the face of abusive bosses, and his relationship with his wife.
But his quest for the “wild masculine” also takes him away from the comfortable confines of his life, to the wilds of Alaska, where a confrontation with a bear on Kodiak Island results in a “threshold moment,” and a realization that the path to masculinity is rooted in rites of initiation, rites which modern men lack.
For Sowers, the masculine journey is ultimately a mythic one, but it’s also deeply spiritual, although he intends his book to be for all men regardless of whether they share his faith. And though he often summons visceral images of strength in his writing, he’s also quick to clarify that his book is not some macho man call to fisticuffs.
“To me, there’s a balance to masculinity,” says Sowers. “I don’t really pinpoint it on purpose because I’m not quite sure where it is, but I do know that it requires us to stand up. We have to fight for a woman’s heart. We have to stand up in our jobs. And we have to stand up for our families. And so in terms of standing up and fighting, that’s more what I’m getting at.”
Here, Sowers declares himself a feminist, shares his thoughts on the role of mothers, and delves into mens' deep fear of failure and inadequacy.
Men face a lot of complex, often competing ideas of masculinity in our culture. How do you think most men would answer the question: What is a man?
I think that question would be met with 10,000 answers because we have no elders -- the men who are calling us into rites of passage -- we have a few, but they are a rare breed, and so because we don’t have elders, in some ways we don’t have language for it, we don’t have definitions for it.
And so as you begin to talk to men and ask the question: What is a man? What makes a man? You’re going to have a 10,000 answers. Is it when he makes a million dollars? Is it when he loses his virginity? Is it when he gets his first job? What is it like? When do we find that definition? I think the stereotypes exist because we don’t have elders and so the stereotypes in some ways are all that we have.
You point to the impact of living in a sanitized, modern world. Most would say that’s to our collective benefit but you see a cost for men in all the comfort.
There is a cost. Look, I love technology, I love air-conditioning, I love the internet -- they’re beautiful things. But what we miss is maybe an older way. I love, at least in my mind, the pre-industrial revolution man, the man who worked with his leathery hands and put food on the table and also invited his family into it. And so what you saw was boys and girls becoming men and women faster because they were in the fields and they were working. So there were 14 year-old boys who were fully responsible adults, whereas sometimes now what we have is this extended perpetual “adult-lesence,” where there are 20-somethings who are still trying to answer the question: What is a man? So, I think some of the things we miss from being indoors is that we miss working with our hands, we miss the body activity which is innate with us.
You talk about being a thoughtful husband - doing dishes, buying flowers for your wife -- but that something was missing from your marriage on a “deep soul level.” A recent study showed men who do more chores have less intimacy in their marriages. How is all this related?
The Maasai tribe would call boys out and teach them to hunt and teach them to become warriors. Then they would go back to the village having found themselves and they would be ready to take a wife. But we have no elders.
We’ve been raised by women, and heroic women like my mom and my grandmother. In a lot of ways, women are our life and our sustenance. So there’s a real change that a man has to make when he moves away from this idea that the woman -- all he does is receive from her -- into this idea that he can initiate. Not always, obviously, women can initiate too.
When we’ve been handed things and nurtured by women our whole lives, there’s a real shift that has to take place where we go from receiver to activator and the initiator kind of role.
But it’s moving from this moment where mom has been my salvation, she’s been my life, she’s been my nurturer, she’s been everything, my protector; to now, as a man, when we wobble out like Bambi onto the ice into manhood. We wobble out and we don’t know how to initiate. When we’ve been handed things and nurtured by women our whole lives, there’s a real shift that has to take place where we go from receiver to activator and the initiator kind of role.
With the growing equality between the sexes, both at work and at home, comes discussion about the pull of primal gender instincts, and how that can create subconscious tensions. How does this all get reconciled?
I’m a feminist. I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. I will defend women, probably with a bias, before I would defend my own sex a lot of times. And I’m not sure how to make it work...I don’t know how to reconcile it all.
I’m a feminist. I was raised by my mom and my grandmother. I will defend women, probably with a bias, before I would defend my own sex a lot of times.
But one of the things that happened, which was really enlightening and really an awakening for me that led to what I say is a “soul insurrection,” is what happened on Kodiak in Alaska. That was a kind of a picture of this initiation thing that was birthed in me, this idea of this mythic path that I talk about. I reference this argument between the then atheist C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Tolkien and they were talking about how myth informs us, and Lewis said, “Well, they’re just lies,” and Tolkien said, “They’re not lies. They may not be fully true, but they steer us to the true harbor.” And so I began to look at myth, and to say can myth really inform our masculine journey? Can myth inform my steps as a man who is washing dishes a lot and who maybe is missing the soul of his wife right in front of him?
I began to look at myth, and to say can myth really inform our masculine journey? Can myth inform my steps as a man who is washing dishes a lot and who maybe is missing the soul of his wife right in front of him?
So I began to look at these mythic steps. And there are others who have talked about this -- Joseph Campbell inspired George Lucas to write “Star Wars” -- and so some of these guys have been digging in these wells for a while. But I really kind of looked back at it just in terms of masculine initiation and then applied it to what Tolkien called the “true myth,” which is the myth of Christ. And so I began to look at what is true about this mythic path which I can apply to my actual life. I began to look at this idea of severance: leaving the village, leaving mom’s house. Then confrontation, which is really a confrontation with yourself, and then transformation, and coming back to the village.
You talk a lot about fear, this sense of dread that men have that “Something Awful” is going to happen either at home, at work, financially. Where is that coming from?
This fear lives, I think, in every man. This fear of failure, this fear of inadequacy and that really cropped up for me when my girls were born...I was afraid. My parents got divorced when I was two. Everything was good until the kids came along. I had these built in layers of fear about children. The fear just loomed up and it was so tangible I gave it a name and that was “Something Awful.” And as I opened up to other friends of mine, I found they felt the exact same way. I mean “terrified” is a true word, it’s not an exaggeration. But the counter-balance to that was this overwhelming love that I had and it kind of eclipsed that fear...
There’s something that happens to a man when you genuinely look death in the face...when you confront something like that...you’re not as worried about the tax guy when you just killed a lion with a spear...
There’s something that happens to a man when you genuinely look death in the face. The Maasai would kill a lion with a spear, I know we’re talking kind of a little bit of bravado right now, but this is what they did, they would have to confront their fear and in doing so confront themselves.
And so when you confront something like that, you go back into the village and you’re not as worried about the tax guy when you just killed a lion with a spear, you’re not as worried about the person who honks at you, you don’t have to prove yourself so much. I had a small experience of that on Kodiak with that bear and it was terrifying but then it was really enlivening.
I feel like if we can recreate a language for initiation, and if we can somehow find elders, then we can begin to see some of that change. Because I think it’s elders that steel us, that kind of anchor us, and when they offer things to us we can actually hold onto them and they’re tangible, and when we have those initiation moments it’s something that can truly steel us against that fear and against that Something Awful.
You say fear makes us live defensively, that men often choose to pre-fail just to get the failing over and done with. How did you arrive at that insight?
I think it was just from my own experience of living that way and seeing the temptations of the failing option, whether that’s to leave a family, have an affair, run off and leave everything, throw it all away, quit your job, anything that has to do with responsibility.
When those ideas came into my mind, it felt like relief. It’s actually not because you’re just making a big muck of things, but it feels like relief because you have this pressure, you have this fear of failure, and if you can just let yourself fail it almost kind of blows it up. It’s a really weird thing but I’ve seen men do that, I’ve seen men make terrible decisions and a lot of them have lived in fear for a long time. I think in that way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, that when you’re living under that burden of fear, and you don’t know what to do with it, and you don’t have anyone helping you through that, or navigating you through that, it can really mess with you...
I think when men don’t have place, when men don’t have elders, we’re more vulnerable to the fear, to the Something Awful. But that love casts out that fear, it roots us in place so that when Something Awful comes, we’re not as afraid.
For more information and inspiration visit MariaShriver.com