Essay: How To Save Young Men.
You might be asking yourself, well, what would this guy know? What qualifies him to provide answers for such a topic.. Well, frankly, because I was a young man that needed saving. I suffered for many years with anxiety, depression and was suicidal too. And at 26, having pulled myself through that high-risk stage, I feel like I might have a few answers, or at least some direction I can point you in. These days, the prevailing winds push young men into a state of arrested development, preventing them from grappling with the real problems and experiences of life which lead to maturity and meaning. I will present the reasons why this is happening, and what the solutions are which I believe can get us out:
1). Psychological inertia and the lack of initiation: psychological inertia is the resistance to change that is important or significant. Psychologists encounter a growing population of individuals these days whose development into maturity is neither easy, engendered, nor predictable. In the state of confusion, many people cling to the comfortable assurances of childhood, hoping to escape adulthood’s ordeals; I was one of them. The problem of psychological inertia accounts for the need for rites of initiation to mark the passage from one stage to another, boy to man, which has been present in all ancient cultures. An Initiation is necessary because an individual willingness to submit to the demands and disciplines of outer reality is not something that occurs automatically. As Anthony Stevens, psychologist and analyst, writes, an initiation must be imposed with sufficient determination to overcome the ‘the renegade tendency,’ in a boy. The combination of inertia, fear, and resistance to change which categorises the trickster mentality. This trickster clings to the status quo and
‘knows no difference between right and wrong and accepts no discipline other than his own experimental attitude to life…” God was this me, and it nearly killed me. The trickster is the dark side of intelligence and creativity which education fosters in young people. The more intelligent we are, the greater the gift we have for lying to ourselves and others, concocting detailed ‘rational’ stories to prevent us from facing up to our own shortcomings and responsibilities. By submitting to the initiation, the boy relinquishes the trickster’s way and his own damaged rationality. He demonstrates his willingness to accept teachers, traditions, and training and subjugates his will to a higher purpose. In summary, mental health can be distorted by the fear of taking the next path on the journey, and overcoming the deceitful and rationalising aspect of the mind is a step toward achieving this maturity. It might help to think of this process as moving past the trickster.
2). Pathologizing social status: The hatred of strength and pathology of power and status is very prevalent for young people - I had this really bad. The people who are rich and at the top of society are there because they are bad people. They are at the top of the triangle because they robbed or fluked their way there; however, you now have a problem - to progress in life would mean to become a worse person? A paradox, to be successful in the outer world is to be a moral failure. My values and my healthy progress in life were at odds with one another. The belief that people in positions of power are bad boxes you in, so you can’t move upward toward them and become mature because you have acquainted conventional success and maturity with moral failure; it is a bone of contention so to speak. Therefore to be a failure is a moral achievement. You get to have your cake and eat it too, exert no effort and be morally superior for not taking part, since everybody that does is ‘corrupt’, ‘brainwashed’ or ‘zombies’; very trickster-ish indeed.
3). The steep hierarchy: In the male dominance hierarchy, men compete for mates and status. Our nervous system is attuned to our position in the social hierarchy, and thus, being low status, at the bottom, you will experience much more negative emotion. At the bottom, you are in danger. Your body thinks you are nearly dead and so ramps up your panic, anxiety, and sensitivity to threat. The problem is that all young people start at the bottom of the hierarchy, obviously because you have had more time to compete and learn the ropes if you are older. The dominance hierarchy in our society is massively steep due to globalisation and our connection via the internet. I mean, who is the top - Donald trump? Fifty Cent? Who exactly am I competing with? It is so steep that for many young men, they see no point in even trying. They just drop out of the race. Instead of competing in the social sphere, they get positive emotions from progressing in video games, which uses the same dopamine reward system. Video games are fine and swell, but if that is where you are getting all your positive emotion, outside is not going to feel like a friendly place anymore. The further you retreat, the more anxiety the challenge outdoors will present to you. This is the danger of remaining uninvolved in life during your youth and avoiding any initiation situation that would get you involved; the challenge gets bigger the more you retreat. On the flipside, this problem of the ‘vertigo’ of becoming socially competent and dominant for young men can lead to hedonism and status battles in violent and non-socially sanctioned competition methods, not just withdrawal.
4). A walk on the wildside: When young men see no good path forward to social status, they would often rather join violent and unstable hierarchies based on cruelty, violence, and power rather than competence and ability. The murder statistics in a city like Chicago indicate that, as life expectancy in these cities goes down, the homicide rate goes up. Many evolutionary theorists would argue that this is because, as the future becomes more uncertain (you might be killed at any time), violent status-seeking games that boost your social ranking now become more likely - Why would you sacrifice for a future which you aren’t going to have? Have the reward now, rather than a later which might never come. Disenfranchised young men can also turn to criminal gangs and political extremism to feel that sense of belonging and purpose through the rites of initiation which are missing in the mainstream and to catalyse a new adult identity. The media tacitly encourages this badness by glorifying Gangster culture, school shooters and having a new Netflix serial killer documentary every fortnight about the latest grisly murderer. This is the basic plot of breaking bad, probably the most popular TV show of the twentieth century: A nerdy teacher who gets no respect would rather be a killer and a drug lord than a doormat, and we all cheer because a merciless killer is better than a coward. Status seeking young men are rewarded for being violent killers and simultaneously discouraged from undertaking socially conventional trials and disciplines, which would allow this aggressive temperament a healthy outlet. A tough pill to swallow, but the natural path of sacrificing childhood comforts can become tainted with endless tests of strength, heroic fantasies, drugs, pursuits of women, or worse; the desire for initiation into manhood and respect turns into a toxic path of destruction. How do we stop this from happening?
5). The future and meaning: The only thing that can sustain you through the pain and suffering of maturing is meaning. Your life only has meaning if it has significance across time. This is why those meaningless/nihilistic types always chose such an unrealistic time context like,
“In a million years, none of this will matter!”
Of course it won’t, nothing will, but the parameters of your statement are wrong. You have at best, maybe 80/90 years depending on how the cards are dealt, and the most meaningful activities will impact the largest portions of this time. You have to sit down and plan out what your life will look like; 5 years, 10 years, 30 years. What is it going to look like? What is your ideal life? Then take on the responsibility of making it happen. Taking on responsibility is meaningful, this is Jordan Peterson’s great discovery, because all responsibility is responsibility for the future. If what you are doing now will matter later, and matter not just to you, but for future generations, your kids, their kids, and the world, your life will be imbued with meaning but you have to take on a heavy burden to do so. An absence of meaning is caused by not taking on a future of any real substance, drinking, womanising, playing video games, and will not have a great bearing on the future, and you know it. To ensure your life is meaningful, you need big goals that are worth pursuing and the discipline to pursue them. It is not obvious to me that you can live a life of trivial distraction and still have a meaningful existence.
6). Take every opportunity no matter how humble: oftentimes, as a young fella your mind is filled with dreams of the highest order, and you turn your nose up at things like work, discipline, extracurricular activities. In your mind, you have fantasies of being a hero, and these just don’t align with being a deli-counter boy making chicken fillet rolls. So much of my time as a young fella was spent in a bubble of arrogance and conceit that was basically a state of denial. Nothing mattered. The school play was stupid, jobs were to be avoided, girls were too much trouble, nothing was ever good enough, and as a result, I felt entitled to waste my time playing video games and being a menace. There were many opportunities that swam by, which I just ignored because I thought I was too good. It makes me shudder to think how much better I could be now if I’d take those opportunities more seriously because they don’t come again. Even now, years later, this same arrogant and churlish propensity is still within me, which is actually fear - fear of not being good enough, fear of letting people down, fear of being a phony. The truth is failure is a part of success, so good wisdom is to embrace any opportunity that comes your way when the chips are down, no matter how humble and see it through. My real definition of failure is when you stop trying, when you give up, and that is something which is under your control.
7). Increasing conscientiousness: Conscientiousness is the ability to plan and implement strategies, and it is the second biggest predictor of long term success after intelligence. If you are low in conscientiousness, you procrastinate and struggle to achieve basic goals. Conscientiousness is essential to taking on the challenges of maturity - the opposite of which is being ineffective, and this is how we all start out. You can increase your conscientiousness by using a schedule and doing what is on the schedule at specific times. In my case, increasing conscientiousness was a matter of going further than I would previously, so raising the standard. The bar in my head was set at a certain height and to develop my conscientiousness I had to constantly raise the standard, like a bar that had to be raised. Half an hour was a good 5k. Then the bar had to move to 25 minutes, and then on to 20. You increased conscientiousness incrementally in this way. The good news is improving conscientiousness in one area, exercise, increases it in all areas of your life. Discipline is a near-universal skill. So you only need to pick one thing to really dedicate yourself to and work on to get good, not everything under the sun.
8). Loneliness: This is a big one. There is a period of time between 18-25 when you start to move away from your social group to a place of greater independence when the pain starts. It’s a kind of FOMO, loneliness, nostalgia for a place you don’t quite remember and it hurts, it hurts a lot of the time. Most won’t tolerate the pain. The feelings of isolation and loneliness, purposelessness can lead to depression and anxiety and oftentimes a return to self-destructive behaviour or bad relationships to stop it. But as with most things, the solution to the pain lies over the mountain, not at the bottom. The loneliness is not caused by being alone. The loneliness is caused by the loss of the carefree childhood, a death of sorts, the death of your childish self. The pain of the transition period between childhood and adulthood is where most people lose the battle for independence but if you go back you end up in a whole other sort of kettle of fish. Carl Jung has an idea called retroactive regression into the persona. Basically, this is when a young person fails in their struggles to catalyse their new identity as an adult and instead retreats back into who they used to be. While this might offer some temporary comfort, it also involves a psychological mutilation in which you must cut off the new parts of your personality which have grown in your independence to try and fit back into the box from which you just came. This is why most people become depressed when they move into their parent’s house. You aren’t just moving into your childhood bedroom. You are moving back into the person you once were, which is displeasing to your internal locus of maturation, an internal sense you are in the right place, place being a combination of time and space.
9) The fight with the dragon: This loneliness, this longing for returning to the carefree and responsibility-free time of childhood, is the mythological fight with the dragon. The gold the hero wins is maturity. This is the time when you sacrifice childhood to enter into the independence of adulthood. All the therapy in the world won’t save you if you can’t summon the courage to keep going forward. It is like in fighting; the most dangerous place to be is in the middle. You are in range of the opponent. You need to get in close or get back out of range, halfway in-halfway out is the danger zone. This time should be taken seriously in a young man’s life, you are doing something important, yet most of the time, it is just party central or misery, instead of a great opportunity, an adventure. Most male suicides in the UK are between the ages of 20-24. After 25, this statistic eases off; coincidentally, testosterone production also decreases, and this is a time when most have catalysed an adult role in life. So your job in the meantime then is to get away from your parents, learn to live on your own and not in complete chaos, have a stable relationship, a long term goal, and regulate your relationship to drugs, alcohol and other intoxicating substances that make you dependent and incapacitated. No one ever told me this! Twenty-six of my life, nobody ever sat me down and sat: this is what life is, this is what you do! That could have been pretty useful; maybe I wouldn’t have listened anyway. Maybe I had to learn these lessons the hard way, but my advice is, when the time comes to grow up and the bell tolls for you, don’t look back, keep going.
10). Becoming a man: the mysterious, the forbidden, the essential, going from a boy to a man? I always wanted to know when I’d know when this would occur, or what that would be like, what did the distinction mean? Was it arbitrary? Socially conditioned? A trick? Why even pursue becoming a man? Did it just happen to you? The truth is it’s your destiny, but it’s not going to be given to you. Think about a Pokemon. When do they evolve? When they get enough experience. The same is true of the transition from boy to man. The mental change is the real difference between a boy and a man, a change in attitude. A boy is oriented towards ‘getting away with things’, like the trickster. Success is avoiding hard work, responsibility, and remaining ‘free’ in a state of childlike avoidance. The man is oriented towards what he is afraid of, the challenge, the responsibility. That, for me, is the fundamental difference, the fundamental transition from childhood to adulthood. One aims away from responsibility, the other aims toward, and we all do both, at times; we are one and the other, but the path of maturity requires this transformation of values from childish escapism to discipline and on toward the man. You can initiate yourself into the ways of manhood. You initiate yourself by going to where the forest is darkest for you. This is the story of the knights of the roundtable and their hunt for the holy grail. Each knight entered on his quest where the forest was darkest for HIM, where he was most reluctant to go, how do you know you have changed? It’s a bit like Simba’s roar in the Lion King, people will see something different in you, and they will celebrate it and then you will know. We don’t often celebrate being a man, yet the men that I see, fathers, warriors, and everything else are definitely worth celebrating. I guess that’s the point of this argument. The world would be a better place with more of them in it, and I think that all that is needed is some more common sense and encouragement. To all the men, young men, boys out there struggling, not giving up, finding a way, you are an inspiration. I see your struggle; and the world needs you.