The Crisis of Masculinity

On a recent episode of The Art of Charm Podcast, Craig Wilkinson shared an illuminating story about his native South Africa. In some areas, he explained, elephant populations grow too large. So park rangers have two options: They can start shooting the elephants, or they can move some elephants to another location. In one case, rangers opted for the latter, relocating a population of young elephants across the country.

Not long after, the young male elephants began running riot. They killed lots of other animals, not for food or protection, but for the sheer thrill of it. No one could figure out what the problem was. Finally, someone decided that the adolescent elephants needed some male role models. Rangers introduced older male elephants into the population, and within two weeks, the problems cleared up. The killing stopped, and the population grew tame. The older elephants both policed the younger ones and modeled good behavior.

So what can we learn from this tale of elephantine teen rebellion?

Put simply, no one is born knowing how to be a man. We learn the right ways from good men around us. In the past, that meant a literal father. But as Wilkinson points out, the crisis of masculinity is the crisis of fatherhood. In fact, UNICEF cites absentee fathers as the main driver behind the biggest social issues of our time. And “‘fatherless’ doesn’t just mean a father who isn’t there,” he explains. “It’s a father who’s not engaged.”

So how do we, as men, deal with masculinity in crisis?

According to Wilkinson, it starts with identifying what we really need in our lives to feel like men. Next, we must realize that society is trying to sell us a bill of goods as false substitutes for true masculinity. Then we have to explore how we’re counterproductively trying to fill that hole in maladaptive ways. Finally, we can begin repairing ourselves by realizing that we’re already all the man we need to be — and helping other men to do the same.

Three Things Drive the Masculine Soul

Wilkinson believes three things ultimately lie at the core of masculinity:

  • A battle to fight. According to Wilkinson, battle is at the core of what it means to be a man. This can mean being a literal warrior. Most men, however, have a more metaphorical battle to fight. That battle can be anything from feeding the homeless to building a business to creating a killer product to climbing the tallest mountain on every continent. The battle to fight is a striving toward some “impossible” ideal that will defeat most men before they even start. Your battle is your reason to get out of bed in the morning, your reason to keep on living, the purpose that drives you in life.
  • An adventure to live. The adventure is more about process than end result. It’s the thrill you get out of doing. Wilkinson talks about this in terms that any man can understand. Think back to when you were a kid. It wasn’t enough to just have a bicycle You had to ride it off of ramps, run it into walls and get some kind of adrenaline charge out of having the bike. Some guys find their adventure in driving fast cars, others in closing sales, still others in traveling to places that make most men shudder. These are the stories you’ll tell your grandkids — or the ones you’ll skip until they’re old enough.
  • A beauty to pursue. Of course, a beauty to pursue is a woman. Every man wants a beautiful woman in his life, and for more than just sexual reasons. Wilkinson notes that, especially in an era devoid of good fathers and male role models, men seek validation from beautiful women. This is natural, but as we will see in a moment, it can also be pathological.

There’s a lot of overlap between all three parts of the masculine core. Your battle, your adventure and your beauty all feed on and draw meaning from one another. But you have each one of these driving you. Still, because of this masculinity in crisis, you’re being sold a bill of false goods in place of true masculinity. This is what Wilkinson calls “the four big lies.”

Masculinity in Crisis | The 4 Big Lies

The four big lies are common substitutes that society — in the form of advertisers, corporations, employers and even family members and your best friends — try to sell you in place of the three things that actually drive the masculine soul. These forces associate those substitutes with masculinity, and so men, understandably falling for the bait and switch, aspire to those substitutes instead of the true calls of battle, adventure and beauty. While there is a connection between these substitutes and the masculine core, none of them will truly make you feel complete as a man.

  • Sex. To state an obvious but important point: Sex feels good. Not just the act itself, but the feeling of knowing a woman intimately. But sex is something we do, not something we are. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but we must recognize that sex isn’t what makes us men. So chasing after sex, “conquering” women and having a deep bench of booty calls isn’t going to make you any better of a human. More to the point, it’s not even going to make you feel like a better man in a long-term, sustainable manner.
  • Power. It’s easy to see why we confuse power with masculinity. But power is a characteristic of masculinity, not a substitute for it. Power over other people won’t, in and of itself, make you a better man (even if it sometimes — and it’s always only sometimes — makes you feel like one). The apparent respect and attention that comes with power (true or false) is a tempting proxy for the real authority of being a passionate, influential person.
  • Money. As David Lee Roth once said, money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a yacht big enough to ride right up next to it. Still, most men who chase money ultimately find it to be an empty substitute for what they’re actually looking for. At best, they discover that it’s just a means to explore the true masculine core. But many men chase money in an attempt to get power and sex (both short-lived and illusory), or sometimes as an end in and of itself (which always proves empty). Many wealthy men I’ve spoken to will tell you they have more money than they know what to do with and they’re still not fulfilled. It’s not that there’s anything great about poverty. It’s just that money, by itself, doesn’t give you what you’re looking for.
  • “Boys don’t cry.” Wilkinson points out that chasing after these three “big lies” is inherently stressful, as is the general crisis of masculinity. But it only becomes more difficult because we, as men, also feel that we’re not supposed to talk about it, or express how difficult, stressful and painful it can be. This is the toxic cherry on the fabricated sundae.

So is Wilkinson recommending that you become a celibate, powerless, poor crybaby? Of course not. There’s nothing masculine about that, and it’s certainly not going to fix any of the problems that come from the crisis of masculinity.

Still, you need to identify how and why you’re chasing these substitutes instead of truly fulfilling masculine values.

The Three Responses to the Crisis

The four big lies create debilitating stress in the lives of contemporary man. Wilkinson notices three main ways that men respond to this stress — ways that are highly destructive, and only compound the overall crisis of masculinity.

  • Passive withdrawal. This frequently takes the form of compulsive porn watching, drug addiction, alcoholism or obsessive gaming. Passive withdrawal is an abdication of the quest for battle, adventure and beauty. You’re instead substituting simulated adventure and struggle.
  • Aggressive strength. Other men go in the opposite direction, trying to bully and control everyone and everything (again, by chasing a semblance of power). They think of themselves as “alphas,” but everyone else thinks of them as another “a” word. These men overcompensate for their feelings of inadequacy and emptiness and alienate everyone around them.
  • Posing. Wilkinson admits that every man does this to some degree. He recalls getting a knee injury while running, limping along to compensate… until he saw some women. Then he went back to running, even though it killed him. Still, for the man maladjusted because of the crisis of masculinity, posing can become pathological. He can be all artifice and no reality. And that’s only going to make him feel worse, because he knows he’s all show.

Rather than succumbing to the four big lies and the three poor responses, how can men successfully meet the challenge that the crisis of masculinity presents?

Meeting the Challenge

Wilkinson believes two things sit at the core of overcoming the crisis and fully embracing a healthy masculinity. First, accepting responsibility. This can be terrifying, because it means facing down destructive behaviors and mindsets you’ve become very attached to. But it’s also empowering precisely because it’s the first and most important step toward becoming a fully self-realized man.

When you begin stripping away your maladaptive behavior patterns, you can then start accepting yourself as good enough. Wilkinson points out that in the West, we generally acknowledge men for what they do, not for who they are. This can leave younger men chasing after validation from unhealthy sources, such as a constant parade of new bedmates.

“You don’t have to play the man to be the man,” Wilkinson says. This is because you already are the man.

There’s a positive feedback loop that gets set into motion when you decide to start accepting yourself as good enough already. Just a small step in that direction becomes powerfully reinforcing. You can then, in turn, lead other men to the same realization. This makes you even more secure as someone who is already good enough, who is already what he needs to be, who is already “enough of a man.”

Every man could use a little bit of that in his life. And when you unlock it, you’re not just unlocking a better, more fulfilling life for yourself. You’re unlocking a better world for everyone around you.