The Male Road Map by Al Polito
When I was a teenager and college student, I would be visited on occasion by a nagging thought: “When am I officially a man? When am I no longer a boy?”
I paid attention to that question over time, getting involved in a terrific men’s group and reading a lot about the subject. Relying on intellect and being an essentially risk-averse person at first, my knowledge of the subject remained primarily theoretical. But as I grappled with “what was missing” in my life—namely, risk and experience, I began to sense and see for myself the kind of man I was becoming—the self that I inherited and the Self I discovered and created.
Rites of Passage We know that there was a time in our own culture’s history when the passage to manhood was unambiguous. It was marked by ritual and witnessed by the company of men who had walked the same path. The initiate was honored for his unique contribution to the community, knowing from that time forward who he was and why he was important.
It’s clear that there are no meaningful rites of passage in Western culture anymore. Many mistakenly identify the passage as the purchase of a car, the first sexual experience, graduation from some school, or getting a tattoo. We have a few remnant religious ceremonies, such as Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation, that hint at the passage to manhood, but there is no authentic substance, no true cultural agreement and no expectation that the initiate’s life is transformed by the ritual. Sadly, the only meaningful rites of passage celebrated anymore may occur for some at christening, marriage and death.
Our society assumes knowledge of the difference between a boy and a man; and the difference between a young, a middle-aged, and an old man. But men themselves often lack context to know exactly where they are in life. As men develop from boyhood to seniority, their values and priorities, as well as what they find fulfilling in their relationships change.
Typically somewhat isolated emotionally from other men, today’s man may go through life wondering if he’s crazy for feeling certain things, or if other men have experienced what he’s experiencing. He looks around at his peers and doesn’t necessarily find them living out the same story, or if they are, they don’t often feel great about what they’re going through.
Literature and mythology, and now psychoanalytic theory and the self-help industry have contributed much to show men a basic “road map” so that they can at the very least know that they’re not alone and that they’re not the first one to experience a particular triumph, failure or frustration.
However, every man’s story is also unique; his gifts and talents are distinctive and if one were to plot his life as a heroic journey, all the allies and villains, trials and triumphs would appear as a unique arrangement of familiar themes.
A Model One road map that I like was developed by Alison Armstrong, whose “Celebrating Men/Satisfying Women” courses teach women how to honor and relate to men. Alison uses the classic medieval male heroic roles to describe how men develop from boyhood to seniority.
The Page According to Armstrong, men begin their development as “pages.” Pages are young boys who attended to knights. They look up to the knights, polish the swords, feed the horses, fantasize about the knights’ adventures and get into all kinds of trouble. They drive their mothers crazy.
The Knight As a page enters late teen years, he becomes a knight. The knight charges off in search of adventure, rescues damsels, pursues treasure, and slays dragons whenever possible. Men in their late teens, through their late 20s or early 30s, are today’s “knights.” They live for the challenge, which in modern life looks like sports, adventure, women, travel, and jobs that promise new challenges and problems that need to be solved. If it’s an adventure, a knight will show up.
You’ll notice that much advertising is tailored to knights—a demographic that often has lots of money, and the freedom to enjoy that money. In their relationships with women, knights enjoy the pursuit or challenge, and often prefer a woman who will enjoy accompanying him on his adventure.
Some knights express their knighthood via the quest. (In history and mythology this is represented by the crusader or the search for the Holy Grail.) Questing knights often align with a spiritual, social or political cause, and put great energy into it. Such “questors” may join the Peace Corps, get active in politics, or enter the ministry. In their love lives, questing knights often turn their attention to the “damsel in distress.” Questing on behalf of a woman whom he sees as needing “rescue,” the knight gets drawn in by both eros and his heightened sense of purpose. As knights mature, they learn that rescuing the damsel is an exercise in futility.
The Prince After a knight has had his share of adventure or quest, often in his late 20s or early 30s, he typically feels the need to “build his kingdom.” He may live in a disorganized apartment with a few roommates, a refrigerator with beer, leftover pizza, jar of mustard and some dodgy Thai food takeout. He may be in love, feeling the urge to start a household, or he may just want to “grow up” and make something more of himself. He gets serious about his career or education, and enters a long phase of focusing intently on creating his “castle.”
It is at this point the knight typically assumes the mantle of the prince, a time of his life where his life is about something other than his own pleasure. Princes developing careers are often found working long hours, much to the chagrin of their girlfriends or spouses. They don’t have as much time for beer with their buddies, although the time they do get with friends can be precious. During this time, the prince’s significant other may begrudge him his singular focus on his career or education, but he has no choice. His identity quite often rides on what he is creating.
After a prince has been at it for awhile (typically late 30s to 40s), he finds that his kingdom is “just about there.” He may have a family if not a home, and an established business or career. He looks back on what he created, all he has worked for, and something doesn’t feel quite right. Like Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey’s character in “American Beauty,” he finds himself questioning all the things he took for granted—what makes him happy, who or what he’s attracted to, what he stands for, what he believes. He finds himself at a most uncomfortable crossroads, at the threshold of a tunnel that only he can enter.
Enter the Tunnel Sometimes this phase is regrettably disregarded as “a midlife crisis.” However, this “tunnel” or existential reckoning must be viewed as the time a man begins to live life for himself in a way that he hasn’t done since he was a knight. If his youth was sheltered, he might have an uncontainable urge to begin experimenting with his fascinations. Sometimes, the prince will find that the kingdom he built was not the kingdom he wanted at all. In the process, various aspects of a man’s life may be shed: his career, his practical car, his significant other, his pretense, his inhibitions, whatever worked in the past that no longer serves—ultimately his inauthenticity. It may be a rough time. The magnitude of the changes called for may cause some men to shut down and settle back into their lives without making any changes. Such a man’s mind, heart, soul and body will rebel against him. His kingdom will be poisoned.
At this point it’s helpful to mention that for any archetypes like these, there are “high” and “low” forms, as Jungian psychologists point out. With respect to the male archetype set, the healthy or high archetype has a trajectory that moves from sacred infant to mature elder, from boy to man. All archetypes, high and low, have their proper place in every man, but for healthy men, the boyish, self-centered ego (which governs the low archetypes) will, in the end, be set aside (not banished) in order for the man’s sense of purpose and duty to prevail. This is the theme of true adulthood.
So, standing at the entrance and facing his tunnel, a man has the great opportunity to examine which archetypes have been running the show, and why, even if he doesn’t use this Jungian language. Maybe a boy has been running the show, medicating with drugs or alcohol to avoid grief, or running a parade of women through his life in search of power or validation. Or conversely, a man who spent his life being a “caretaker” personality may find that the boy within him never got to play, and demands a good time.
The King Whatever the challenge of his tunnel, after he has been through his, a man will have emerged with a stronger sense of self. He will know what interests him and what does not. His tolerance for things he has left behind will evaporate. He has determined who he is and what he serves. He now bears the crown of the king.
Having figured out the hard way what he’s all about, the king lives to serve. Having been tested and proven by the trials of life, the king has authority, power, and strength. He walks taller, and cares less about what other people think. This doesn’t mean that his feelings can’t be hurt; on the contrary, if a king’s contributions are not valued, he feels not valued. Witness the father who wishes to help his daughter fix up her new house. He is eager to help with his hammer and level, and if she tells him she can take care of herself now, he will feel sad and slighted. A king wishes to serve and to have his contributions appreciated.
Certainly, it is the King Archetype (present in every man, young or old) that has him want to make a difference. But as a man grows into the fullness of his king energy, he will not suffer people who don’t appreciate what he provides for his kingdom. He doesn’t have time for that anymore.
There are other important archetypal energies alive in every man in different ways. There is a warrior, a magician, a monk, an eternal boy, a lover, a trickster, all in high and low forms. Women have their own archetypes, and I think it would be accurate to state that some if not all of these archetypes are present in both men and women alike.
Navigating the Map and the Men Who Are On It Since we lack formal rites of passage, it is helpful for men today to recognize and honor where they are on the male road map. If you are a knight, enjoy your adventures. Know that there will be a time when your priorities will shift, even though you should always make time for some adventure when it calls out to you. If you are a prince, know that it’s OK to work hard and focus intently, but don’t forget to stop and smell the occasional rose. Take a vacation, and make it a good one. When your world no longer works for you, realize that you might be in the tunnel, that it’s OK, and that you can only enter and emerge by yourself. Find supportive friends. If you are a king… well, enjoy it! It is good to be king!
Women who recognize the shifting needs of their male companions will adjust their expectations accordingly. Don’t expect your prince boyfriend to have the amount of time he did for you (or for anyone) when he was a footloose-and-fancy-free knight. Your companion who is in the tunnel may need more space one day, then want to spend lots of time with you the next. Or not. He doesn’t even know. Your king husband wants to be of service. He needs to do it his way.
As I became aware of my own location on the male road map, I was able to give myself license to honor my archetypes more passionately. I began to take risks, to have knightly adventures I had denied myself, even though I had already entered my Prince phase. After more than 10 years of creating both physical and spiritual adventures, I began to see that my princely ambitions of homeownership and career no longer served me. The woman I had hoped to meet and marry never materialized, the career I had devoted myself to meant nothing to me, and my home became a burden to me. I entered my own tunnel, sold my home, moved to Peru for a few months where I did some environmental activism, and moved to Portland to do work that mattered to me.
As Hercules’ journey was different from Odysseus’, and William Wallace’s journey was different from Abraham Lincoln’s, each man’s journey is unique, and has the potential to be heroic. A man’s job is to be Knight when adventure beckons, Warrior when the realm must be defended, Lover when he gives himself to a woman, and King when he needs to stand for something larger than himself.
No two men are alike in the way they express their archetypes; every man brings his own values, taste, knowledge, talent and humor to each role. We can take one more lesson from the medieval model—namely, that men whose names live on in myth and story were the ones who served king and kingdom in community.
What is the name of the kingdom you serve? What values, ideals, and passions inspire you to get on your horse and ride? Successful heroes are the ones who ride together, with sidekicks or soul friends, when that is right to do. Spend regular time with your buddies, join a men’s group, or do what it takes to find companionship for your journey. Whether you are going to battle with a competing company, struggling with an addiction, or just figuring out what’s really important to you, find the support you need from others. But when it’s time to go out into the wilderness to be alone with your heart, don’t let anyone stop you. You are a unique expression of the Eternal Man and ultimately, your choices and values are themes of your personal epic.
Al Polito is a spiritual director, ordained minister, writer and performing songwriter based in Portland, OR. His spiritual background has touched on Buddhism, Taoism, Tantra, Shamanism, Native American spirituality, Catholicism and even evangelical Christianity, as well as men’s work, transformational work and co-counseling. Al provides spiritual support and mentoring for those of all faiths and spiritual styles and is available for ceremonies, workshops and retreats. Currently at work on his first book, Al is accepting new clients at The Awakenings Wellness Center in Southeast Portland. He can be reached at 503-708-9394 or from his website, www.LifeLuster.com.