I wrote previously about the father-son archetype in therapy, with my views that men need to exorcise their demons and embrace their gods through meaningful conversation with other men. My thoughts on this originated through my ongoing work in a group of men, witnessing how they were affected by other men’s accounts of their relationships to their fathers – as if they were their own – regardless of what their actual relationship to their father was. This is how I began to discern the working of archetypes. Standing behind our lived experience is an ‘ideal’ of how we think – or perhaps it’s a preconscious knowing – this relationship could be or should be. The Father, we feel, should bring out the highest in the Son. The gap between ideal and reality creates a well of grief, a common feeling amongst men.
Carl Jung was the main man in the area of archetypes. In brief, an archetype is a pattern of experience derived from the collective unconscious, accumulated by thousands of years of human history. An archetype is bigger than one’s experience. For example, there is an archetypal mother role, or husband role. When we become mothers or husbands, we may experience a conflict between how things are for us and how we think they’re supposed to be. The ‘supposed to’ is an expression of the archetype. Many a potentially good marriage hits the skids early because the hitherto smitten young man suddenly becomes ‘the protector’, or some other dominant aspect of the archetype of ‘husband’.
Our task, according to Jung, is to differentiate ourselves from these patterned ways of being. This is what he calls the process of individuation. We need to grow our ‘self’ enough to be the determiner of our thoughts, feelings and actions when we occupy a traditional role which is already occupied by a big domineering archetype.
When you begin to speak in academic circles of ‘archetypes’, people will automatically speak of Jung’s ideas. And when you begin to explore specifics – say the father-son archetype – you will encounter the idea, espoused and developed my many others who followed Jung, about the struggle for dominance between the father and son, whereby the father seeks to retain his power over, and the son begins to assert his. It’s rife in the animal kingdom amongst those herds where one male needs to shove the other aside to get the goodies. It’s not to be scoffed at. But I’d like to open the textbook again and ask if there might be other archetypes to work from which would further enhance the development of the 21st century male.
I think the father-son archetype as described above has reached its use-by date. I know it’s not that simple and I know I’m not important enough to declare this and thereby have it thus, but I’d like to pretend for a moment that I have some inner authority to declare my thoughts. I think the father-son-struggle-for-dominance was important once. Until fairly recently, actually. A father had to harden his sons to be warriors, protectors, breadwinners – in short, to be strong enough to shelter a brood of their own one day. It wasn’t long ago when the British Empire sent their sons to boarding schools where morning showers were in cold water, year round. Bullying was part of the program. These young men were being hardened for their future roles as empire builders, at home and abroad.
But no longer. What once made men strong is now often their undoing. The things we were conditioned for no longer exist. Wars, when they occur, are now fought primarily by remote control. We have laws to protect us from wrongdoing. And women have shaken off the traditional female roles and are more than able to be breadwinners and the leaders of families – because they have so often had to be. Too many men have crumbled trying to live up to what they think they’re supposed to be, in opposition to who they really are.
By not stepping out of the patterns which engulf us when we decline to become conscious and courageous beings, we risk grooming our young men for lives that are relevant to a bygone era, and now often damaging to self and others. It is no longer our task to harden our sons and deaden their sensitivities. It is our task to allow them to be vulnerable, to be creative and loving, warm and generous people, partners in every way to their partners.
We can do this by distancing ourselves from the archetype which buys into the struggle for power with our growing young men. It’s an old and well used archetype, so we will have to check ourselves every time we want to shout, or blame, or belittle. Our sons can become self-correcting and self-managing if we make some investment in their sense of self.
I hesitate to cite scripture in closing, but I’d like to suggest that we could look to the New Testament for a worthy conception of an archetype that we could reinforce as we grow our boys into healthy young men: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3.17) What our growing young men need is recognition and acceptance for who they are, not what we think they should be.