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Call of The Wildman

"We are so proud of you, our Wildman son" has probably never been voiced by parents! A more likely parental phrase towards their sons has been, “Quiet down, be still. Can’t you be more like your sister? Why do you have to get so dirty? Can’t you be a good boy?” Because of our families and the culture we live in, men and boys are not supported or encouraged to be self- aware, nor self-expressed, which leaves many men isolated, strangers to their feelings and their authentic internal guides. This results in many young men engaging in highly risky, what I call uninitiated behaviors in the unconscious hope that the adrenaline will be their rite-of-passage into manhood. I recently lead a workshop on Beyond the Hero's Journey at the CT Men's Gathering, where I asked men to share about their risky behaviors, creating gasps in the room with the realization that there were a number of men lucky to be alive! Cut off from their bodies, and thus their intuitive nature, boys and men don’t hear the call of their inner Wildman, or if they do, will often ignore it. This contributes to many men being passive or what Robert Bly* called "life preserving, but not life generating."

Culturally the Wildman has a negative connotation, as in, being brutal, barbaric, a killer… Women have suffered for centuries from abuses of the brutality of angry, disempowered men, which is not the Wildman energy, but rather behavior of the uninitiated man, leading to the unfortunate phrase- toxic masculinity. Masculinity is not toxic. Behavior that is violent, arrogant, demeaning , or disrespectful is toxic. Counterintuitively, it is the lack of initiated Wildman energy that leads to bullying and violence. The Wildman energy expresses: blessing, power, passion and freedom. Robin Williams had a lot of the Wildman energy, as did Thoreau and the Sufi poet, Rumi.

Robert Bly describes this energy as:

  • a voice free to be spontaneous

  • a love of nature, especially its silence

  • the exuberance to love life

Many of Rumi’s poems speak to the wild ecstasy that unites people and encourages them to “be thrown into the fire” of life.

Two strong impulses: One to drink long and deep,

The other, not to sober up too soon. Rumi

It's not surprising that that both men and women are suspect of the Wildman.

It’s dangerous to embrace the Wildman’s call without guidance. Author Martin Shaw wrote, “Wildness to be sustained, to mature, needs: elders, boundaries, and a community to provide grounding.”That is why initiation was always done by the community elders providing the initiates rituals that connect them to their mind, body, nature, spirit, and the cosmos. The wonderful myth, Iron John, that Robert Bly made famous, details this aspect beautifully.

When the Wildman is finally captured and placed in a cage in the middle of the courtyard- notice the first move in response to the Wildman is to contain it. Nearby, the king’s son is playing with his golden ball which rolls into the Wildman’s cage. At this stage the boy pretends this doesn’t happen and without talking to the Wildman, walks away. The next day (remember this is mythic time, so the boy may now be thirty-five years old) his ball again rolls into the Wildman’s cage. This time the boy speaks to the Wildman, and asks for his ball back, to which the Wildman responds, "yes, if you let me out of the cage.” The boy again ignores the answer. The third day this happens again, but now the boy has enough courage to actually speak to the Wildman, and says, yes, but I don’t know where the key is, to which the Wildman responds, “It’s under your mother’s pillow.” (The mother complex for men is powerful and will be address in a future Blog) With this knowledge, the boy gets the key and lets the Wildman out, and goes with him out into the forest. This begins the boy’s initiation into manhood with a guide.

The story is quite clear, many men will ignore their power, intuition and inner callings, which produces tremendous grief in men. It takes tremendous courage to speak to the Wildman. How many of us had parents that supported our wildness? Did your parents want you to grow up to be the Wildman? I certainly didn’t, nor did most of the men I've worked with for over 40 years. We received messages about being: quiet, be a good boy, be nice, don't show emotions, especially: sadness, greif, vulnerability... don’t be too loud, messy or get dirty…

Out of the hostility I felt and saw within my family of origin, particularly the presence of my mother’s rage, I adopted the “Good Boy” Compliant stance- stay out of the fray. I was quiet, and nice – read not expressing my wants and needs. These are not negative attributes by themselves, however, problematic when they are expressed at the betrayal of my authentic self, which creates a false identify and a deep isolation from self and others. I developed the false belief that I was responsible for other’s feelings. This was a recipe for a tremendous amount of self-betrayal. I would bury my needs, my voice, and self in order to please others in the misplaced hope that I would receive the unconditional love I sought.

According to psychologist Karen Horney, there are three universal responses developed when our needs were not met as an infant. 1. Rebel- act out, - 2. Compliance-I’ll be good , avoid conflict or 3. Withdrawal- I'll take myself away, withhold. Each of these universal responses are an attempt to receive the unconditional care / love we all seek. Horney suggests that all humans adopted one of these three strategies as their primary, infantile defense against the immensity of the world, while using the others at various stages in life.

What is your primary strategy?

These early mechanisms served the purpose of survival at our early-usually preverbal- and vulnerable stage, however, it becomes problematic when these early coping mechanisms get integrated and then carried into adulthood. Because of this early belief and self-destructive pattern, not only did I lose myself but it negatively impacted my relationships. Without my sense of self and lack of personal power, I was often not present or fully expressed, therefore disempowering to myself and my relationships- not very attractive for women. I was clearly not in touch with my Wildman energy.

When I went to my first men’s weekend workshop in 1984, I discovered not only this pattern of self-betrayal was common, but the Wildman energy held my voice, thoughts, feelings and creativity. I also found men and mentors who invited, supported and welcomed me home to myself.

After that initial men's workshop, my relationships changed immediately, as my aliveness and expression was awakened. I was now more present, engaged and loving. Regardless of misconceptions Wildness carries authenticity and the capacity to fully express: joy, sorrow, anger and love. As Robert Bly said, " You can only experience as much joy as you can sorrow."

Within this energy was a calling that I hadn’t been aware of before, that of leading men’s work. I have been highly devoted to this calling since that weekend, founding Return to the Fire in 1984. Imbedded into the Wildman energy was the keen awareness that to continue to access this energy would require me to seek guidance and support. Elders, mentors, and guides continue to support me on my path. Without them, I risk being lulled back into the trance of the culture. I have been blessed to have mentors along my journey: Robert Hillman, Doug Pryke, Robert Bly, Michael Madden, and Paul Dunion.

One of the key teachings of Iron John and the Wildman is that at the end of the story, Iron John- The Wildman- appears as a Lord to bless the young man at his wedding. The Lord is equated to the King or Sovereign archetype. This energy holds the order, vision and blessing energies that guide healthy men to embody powerful, humble, vulnerable and generative behaviors. These are the true energies of the mature Wildman!

What have you done with your Wildman energy?

How often and to whom do you give your power away?

What has the cost been to you and your relationships because of self-betrayal?

How are you at setting healthy boundaries?

What action will you take to reclaim your Wildman?

What situations do you betray your authentic self?

What action will you take to find: guides, mentors, elders in support of your Wildman journey?

Your people need you. Your loved ones need you. Your life needs you. What are you waiting for?

*Sadly, I want to mention that Robert Bly died last November. He was and continues to be a mentor for me. I have much gratitude for his courage, wisdom, and Wildness that blazed the trail for me and so many other men.

Heart of the Matter Counseling


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