What Aging Men Want: The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging

What Aging Men Want: The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging

by John C. Robinson
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What Aging Men Want: The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging by John C. Robinson

Two decades ago the poet Robert Bly published a book that stayed on the New York Times Bestseller list for sixty-two weeks and changed a generation of men. Based on an ancient fairy tale, Iron John became an allegory for midlife men in search of an authentic life. I was part of the men s movement launched by this poet and the book I wrote at that time, Death of a Hero, Birth of the Soul, became one of its bibles. This same army of 38 million men is now marching into their retirement years largely unprepared for what aging really entails or what to do with the next twenty-five years of unprecedented longevity gifted them by science and medicine. Boomers, of course, believe that they will conquer this stage with exercise, attitude, and nutrition. As their problems and defeats multiply, however, aging men and I am one of them now discover that they are lost once again in an unknown land longing for another great story to guide them home. I have found that story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780999814
Publisher: Psyche Books
Publication date: 04/16/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 169
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Dr. John Robinson holds doctorates in clinical psychology and ministry and is an ordained interfaith minister. Along with three decades of clinical practice, he has taught extensively and published four previous books. He lives in the USA.

Read an Excerpt

What Aging Men Want

The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging

By John C. Robinson

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2012 John C. Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78099-981-4



The War Years

Our story really begins with the mythical Trojan War, a prolonged battle between two fierce and determined armies that dragged on for ten awful years. Described by Homer in his previous epic, The Iliad, this contest displays masculinity in its most vain, violent, and arrogant forms, and the reason for this war is so trivial and yet, in the world of men, so incendiary. I briefly summarize this background story because it is part of a larger human struggle we desperately need to understand and someday resolve.

The Story. Zeus, the king of gods, has arranged a wedding high on Mt. Olympus between a goddess and a mortal. When Discord, another goddess, is excluded from this wedding (for obvious reasons!), she tosses a golden apple over the fence into the celebration inscribed with the words, "For the Fairest". A hand grenade would have been less explosive, for suddenly each goddess in attendance desperately wants this choice nickname. The field is finally reduced to three - Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena – and each claim the title. They ask Zeus to be the final judge. Wisely declining such a risky job, he refers them instead to Paris, a man known for his honesty.

When Paris cannot reach a decision, the goddesses try their best to bribe him. Hera offers riches and power, Athena promises wisdom and military success, and Aphrodite bids the love of the most beautiful woman on Earth, Helen of Sparta. Paris chooses Helen, making Aphrodite the winner, and in the process makes enemies of Hera and Athena. Unfortunately Helen is already married to the king of Sparta, Menelaus, an inconvenient matter Aphrodite forgot to mention. Undiscouraged, Paris kidnaps Helen and brings her to Troy.

Menelaus is not the only one upset by this abduction. Because of Helen's great beauty, Odysseus (whom we will meet very soon) had wisely advised Menelaus to require an oath from all competing suitors to support and defend the eventual winner of her hand. When Helen vanishes, Menelaus invokes this oath and soon Greece mobilizes for war. Paris' outrageous act also affronts the pride of all Greeks who now rally to avenge it.

The Iliad begins in the tenth year of the Trojan War, when conflict breaks out among the ranks of Greek military leaders. Their greatest warrior, Achilles, refuses to go on fighting. Once again, this turning point is based on a personal affront, for Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, has stolen Achilles' mistress. To make a long story short, Agamemnon eventually apologizes and Achilles returns to battle. Then, driven by enormous rage triggered by the murder of his best friend, Patroklos, Achilles exacts a many-fold revenge on the Trojan army, eventually killing and humiliating Hector, Troy's greatest warrior. In the end, the Greeks win. Ironically, Paris, who ignited this war, now strikes Achilles' heel with a divinely guided arrow, taking his life.

Interpretation. Like a long-running soap opera, The Iliad thrives on intrigue, surprise, cowardice, heroism, sex, violence, and hard-won lessons. Women compete in a rigged beauty contest, one man publicly humiliates another, a country inflames in patriotic fervor, war is declared, warriors compete for leadership and glory, and an Armageddon ensues taking thousands of lives in a seemingly endless bloodbath. What does this remind you of? Sounds a lot like the "modern" world to me (think: reality shows, political campaigns, business practices, professional sports, video games, block-buster action thrillers, porn, bar-room fights, endless wars ...). It's so pervasive we take it for granted. Sex and aggression – Freud wasn't far off the mark.

The Iliad dramatizes the timeless and unfortunate fact that, despite our amazing intelligence, we men are still hardwired to be pack animals driven by deeply ingrained instincts to compete for the alpha male position (and the sexual dominance that comes with it). Add ego, money, power, and some awesome military weaponry, and the human species has become dangerous to all living things, and the Earth herself. Honor, glory, defeat, revenge, power, violence, secrecy, insult, war, revenge, honor – these recycling themes describe the same never-ending story of testosterone and ego. That Paris, who started this conflagration with his affront to Menelaus and the Greeks, takes the life of the nearly-immortal Achilles, Troy's greatest warrior, underscores the utter futility of this whole enterprise, and its irony – Achilles name is now primarily associated with his weakness.

But the thrill of battle is powerful for men – the sound and fury, power and ritual, spectacle and pageantry, suspense and adrenaline. It's intoxicating: hand-to-hand, body-to-body, man-to-man, in the trenches, fields, and airplanes, down and dirty, all-out, eardrum-busting bomb-exploding action. It's the heroism young men imagine, it's what they long for, it's who they are, it's what makes us men. In the end, this witch's brew of ego and instinct foments the endless clash of nations, civilizations and ideologies, of my god versus your god, my team versus your team, and the thrill and excitement of the next big contest. This opiate of powerful chemicals awash in male physiology is hypnotic, seductive, sexy, and addictive, infusing men with energy, purpose, and self-importance.

The Iliad, however, symbolizes more than actual warfare. It's about the battles men fight everyday at school, work, and in life. It's still war, only now sublimated in the workplace and driven by the invidious comparisons in income, status, power, appearance, wealth, achievement, cars, and women. This is the war of competitive masculinity; only in "civilized" society we kill each other with clever words and job-stealing manipulations. Has our nature really changed in the past twenty-five hundred years?

Discussion. You don't have to look hard for examples of this everyday war. Beyond the Super Bowl and Mixed Martial Arts, our aggressive behavior includes inner city gang members killing each other over perceived disrespect; CEO's demanding obscene bonuses while line workers barely make a living wage; workers at all levels competing for promotions and wages; stressful relationships with difficult bosses and scheming co-workers; politicians seeking election for ego, money, and power instead of service; and demagogues demeaning other nationalities, ethnic groups, or political positions for personal gain. Even in the most sophisticated settings – the university, the Vatican, the boardroom, the ruthless climb to the top infects everyone.

Every man has his own story of when he went to war, where this war took him, the wounds he sustained, and how he eventually stopped caring about winning. Men recall early war experiences in junior or senior high school – bullying, hazing, drinking, fighting, risk-taking, rule breaking, or chasing women – all to fit into the emerging social hierarchy. They remember the life-long game of comparison and competition over grades, athletic ability, clothes, looks, girls, cars, colleges, jobs, advancement, income and material wealth. Later they describe brutal bosses, competition for status, and salary on the job, and the awful reality that any time you "win" someone else had to "lose". Others, feeling they were losing in this game anyway, tried to become invisible or hid out in isolating non-competitive activities.

I remember being painfully puzzled in junior high as I watched elementary school friends regroup around the invisible new agenda of "coolness", swagger, and bravado. What happened to our old friendships? I remember the comparisons of high school – who were your friends, what were your grades, where were you going to college? When did I become a commodity? Then came the competition for graduate school admission, the need to impress faculty and peers, the competition for internships, jobs and success – I was running an endless gauntlet. By midlife, I felt exhausted and betrayed by the compromises I made to succeed. Like Odysseus, I longed to come home, I just didn't know how.

Can you identify this war in your life? If you're still working, how has it affected your work life? Do you push yourself on-the-job, tensing your body like a fist to enter the fray of bosses, problems, conflicts, meetings, phone calls, goals, obstacles, frustrations, failures, and decisions? Do you see others as enemies competing for the same limited spoils? When you're sufficiently cranked up, do you experience this tension as enlivening, fun, challenging – male hormones like drugs exciting new battles, goals and heroic adventures? Does it affect your friendships, limiting how much you like and trust co-workers or causing you to judge them with standards that make you feel superior by comparison or, just as often, inferior? If you're at the top of the heap, do you secretly feel like a conqueror? Or do you feel more like a soldier fighting together with comrades in the same unit? If you are retired, do you feel even worse now that you have nothing to show for yourself – no job title, income, power, or status?

It's a matter of age. High on testosterone, young men experience this war montage as exciting, adventurous, and challenging as they compete for valor and glory. As the middle years drag on, we may try to become inured to it, seeking comfort in lower expectations at work or the emotional bonds of family - if we have found a safe and pleasant haven. Later in life, we often find ourselves growing weary of this endless battle, believe we will never reach our original goals, and dream more and more of retirement, freedom, and peace. Hormone levels drop, physical strength declines, senses weaken, and older bodies no longer feel the same aggressive energies. In this context of increasing vulnerability and declining warrior ambition, aging men long to come home from the war.

At its highest levels, The Odyssey describes mankind's journey home from the universal male battleground symbolically depicted in The Iliad to the wisdom of age. It is a story of man's long slow struggle to achieve a mature awareness of self, world, and divinity, and a story of western culture's slow transition from a war-based value system to the enlightened consciousness of the immanent divine as the world itself. This cultural myth, depicting our transformation from violent animals to enlightened elders, is a gift from the collective unconscious that asks us to understand ourselves and save the world before it is too late.

The Challenge: Understanding the Male Psyche. With incredible intelligence and highly refined killing powers, we humans are gods with pack animal instincts. We war with each other just as the mythical Greek gods did, crazed by glory, power, jealousy, and revenge. Yes, there are more noble motives available – love, family, generosity, creativity, soul, and service – but most of us, when threatened or provoked, fall back instantly on our 10,000 year-old penchant for warfare. Can this hardwiring be changed or is it the very essence of our humanity without which we would not be human? We will carry this great riddle with us as we move forward and see what The Odyssey has to tell us in the end.

Growth Questions

1 Describe your own life-long experience of male warfare. What were your victories? Who did you defeat and who defeated you? What warrior behaviors are you most proud of? Least proud of?

2 Where were you wounded most deeply? How do you still carry this wound? What re-opens it?

3 When did you grow tired of the battle? Has it been difficult for you to give up the war and come home? If so, how?

4 Step back into this story as if it were your own dream.

What detail draws your attention? For example, what do you see at Zeus' wedding? What do you think of these goddesses? Which bribe would you take? Does your choice also lead to war? What is your "Achilles Heel"?


Longing for Home

Every workday for thirty, forty, or even fifty years, we go off to war – at the office, factory, clinic, business, or farm. Every day we put on our armor, tense up, leave home and family, do things we don't always enjoy (sometimes forgetting what we once did enjoy), and fight the good fight, often coming home too tired to share much of what happened that day. We soldier steadily across the never-ending landscape of war, with its heady peaks of victory and valleys of failure and despair. While good times with the kids, vacations, home improvement projects, hobbies and dreams keep us going, they do not end the war.

In the daily grind of the compulsive warrior, distance grows between spouses, between father and children, between ego and soul. Our partner gets tired of asking how things were today and the children know better than to bother Dad when he's stressed out. In the early years, we still communicate about our lives, hopes, and dreams. Ten years later, the dust storm of daily demands and pressures obscures real sharing; twenty years later, everyone is too busy, distracted, or numb to ask; thirty years later, the kids have left to pursue their own wars, and our marriage can sometimes feel distant or mute. When was the last time you talked together about how you really feel about your life, your relationship, or your dreams? Do you even know how you really feel? Do you know how your partner feels? Is there too much water under the bridge to even ask?

As men weary of war, as it loses its meaning and luster, we begin to long for home. We search our daily experience for something long gone – feelings of happiness, hope, and love. Where are they now?We remember the early days when meaning and purpose inspired our lives. Where is that inspiration now? We may feel lost, unmotivated, alone, even depressed. For some, this dilemma seems like a huge and fathomless problem; for others a background hum of boredom, doubt, and discouragement. But for most men in their late sixties, status and responsibility have morphed into chains. Moreover, we often find ourselves tangled up in relationship problems that we did not see developing, or did not want to see – buried hurts, disappointments, and power struggles that increasingly smother communication.

The weary heart now searches the horizon for home, but where is home and how do we get there? I carried this poignant question with me for years even after formally leaving the war. The family of my childhood and adult years had changed so dramatically – there was no going back to it. The old work no longer called to me and I could not bring myself to settle for the customary volunteer activities as a solution. I longed for something I couldn't identify and sensed that this longing would not be resolved simply – it was going to require a major transformational journey.

Odysseus, too, struggles valiantly with this question, his struggles symbolized in each of the amazing adventures he encounters on his journey home. Like all of us, Odysseus abandons love in the pursuit of ego – the essence of war! – and the painful physical distance separating him from his wife, son, and homeland symbolizes this estrangement of heart. As we accompany Odysseus on his journey home, we will understand the tasks and stages of aging, and perhaps find our own way home as well. But this journey of healing and understanding will take time – it took Odysseus ten years. It took me ten years as well. We must be patient with matters of the heart and remember that the symbolism of homecoming is best understood in the language of our own lives. And because the collective psyche does not yet understand this new phase of life, we must be its pioneers.

Come with me now into the magical life and times of Odysseus traveling home from the war. By the end of this tale, you will discover that he is you.

The Story. The Odyssey begins with the goddess Calypso holding Odysseus captive on her island. He fell in love with this beautiful sea nymph on his journey home and she promised him immortality if he would be her husband. After several years of apparent happiness, however, Odysseus begins to ache painfully for his wife and homeland. He is tired, sad, and homesick. Homer tells us that the gods ordained his homecoming, but it was Athena, Zeus' daughter, concerned about Odysseus' growing depression, who finally begs her father to set him free.

Excerpted from What Aging Men Want by John C. Robinson. Copyright © 2012 by John C. Robinson. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Preface Why I Wrote this Book....................     1     

Introduction The Odyssey: DNA of Aging Men....................     6     

Chapter 1 The War Years....................     13     

Chapter 2 Longing for Home....................     20     

Chapter 3 Early Mistakes....................     28     

Chapter 4 Transformational Experiences....................     45     

Chapter 5 Reaching Home....................     70     

Chapter 6 Final Challenges....................     99     

Chapter 7 Review and Final Lessons....................     110     

Chapter 8 Spiritual Realizations....................     119     

Chapter 9 Men Mentoring Men: Turning Growth into New Life.................     124     

Chapter 10 Rekindling Passion....................     135     

Chapter 11 So What Do Aging Men Really Want?....................     142     

Chapter 12 Poems for Aging Odysseans....................     146     

Appendices Starting an Older Men's Mentoring Group....................     151     

Ritual for an Elder's Initiation....................     153     

References....................     161     

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ReadersFavorite More than 1 year ago
Reviewed by Rich Follett for Readers' Favorite What Aging Men Want: The Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging by John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D. Min. is a powerful, transformative guide to the inevitable personal odyssey all men must face: maintaining a sense of purpose and vitality while facing the effects of advancing years. What Aging Men Want dares to ask the question: “What if aging can be ‘…a radically new, fulfilling and joyful time saturated in love and generosity, quite literally the blossoming of your life?’” It is a compelling question, approached with impeccable scholarship, sound psychology, a mythologist’s eye for universal truth, and the kind of straight-talking personal point of view authentic only to those with a wealth of first-hand experience. The premise of What Aging Men Want by John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D. Min. is that the universal stages of a man’s aging process correspond to specific chapters of Odysseus’ fabled return to Ithaca at the close of the Trojan War. While Robinson’s approach is so methodical and precise as to be virtually incontrovertible, the narrative is pleasingly conversational in tone and never patronizing. It is clear that Dr. Robinson seeks not to assert his credentials among a jaded body of peers, but rather to extend a compassionate invitation for fellow men struggling with fear and doubt to drink freely from his font of hard-won and carefully considered knowledge. It is virtually impossible to imagine any man, regardless of wealth, privilege, level of education, or degree of life experience, for whom What Aging Men Want would not be a valuable asset. Each chapter of What Aging Men Want by John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D. Min. is formatted identically, with an introduction outlining the focus, a segment reframing the story in modern context, the author’s interpretation, points for discussion, and a closing challenge. Robinson then ends each section of this exceedingly well-crafted guidebook with Growth Questions which challenge the reader to apply learned insights in practical and personal ways. This consistency of design allows the reader to relax into the experience and extract every possible benefit from the wisdom within its covers. In much the same fashion as Odysseus of old, readers of “What Aging Men Want” by John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D. Min. will return to their former lives with a newfound sense of joy, purpose and self-worth. “What Aging Men Want” by John C. Robinson, Ph.D., D. Min. should be required reading for every man facing mid-life and struggling with impending mortality.