What an interesting title: What Aging Men Want. Don't they just want to retire, play golf, fish, travel, volunteer, watch sports and see the grandkids? What more could they want? And anyway, don't most retired guys say they're busier and happier than ever? After carefully interviewing forty men I knew well, I discovered that "happily ever after" may be what they say about retirement, but it's not how they feel.
The transition from busy middle-aged family man and hard worker to wise elder is much more complicated that it looks, representing a long and transformational pilgrimage passing through many stages and issues. Recalling Robert Bly's powerful depiction of the male midlife passage, Iron John, I wanted to find another ancient myth to describe the journey of male aging. I found it in The Odyssey.
The Odyssey, transcribed twenty-seven hundred years ago by the blind poet Homer, presents an epic tale of an aging warrior coming home from the long and brutal Trojan War. Although the war is over, it takes Odysseus ten years to find his way back to Ithaca. Why so long? Because every colorful adventure he confronts symbolically encodes a psychological challenge all men face on the long journey home. Let's examine the story's symbolism a little further.
Men go off to war in every generation. Not necessarily wars with guns, bombs and armies, but the wars of adolescent and adult life. We first play war as children, creating imaginary battles in sandboxes and backyards, but our warfare begins in earnest in middle school as we navigate the biologically-driven "Alpha male" pecking order. This competition for power, status, sex and love cuts as sharp and dangerously as a sword and continues into the world of work, where we compete for jobs, income, advancement, and power. Love, sex, and family provide additional challenges on the way up the ladder. These battles go on for decades.
Ask almost any man to talk about his experience in the war of adult life, and he will eventually spin out tales of his own warrior years. I remember good friends in middle school abruptly moving onto the new cliques of athletes, high achievers, and popular in-crowds while I coughed in the dust of their abandonment. The competitive pressure kept building - looks, clothes, grades, SAT scores, college, more grades, graduate school, and employment applications - all the hurdles I jumped to secure a place in the world. Years passed - marriage, children, college funds, family vacations, increasing income, increasing debt, aging body, and finally secret exhaustion.
By the fifties and sixties, many men weary of this war. They dream vaguely of laying down their swords and shields and retiring to a happily-ever-after vacation of reading, fishing, golf, travel, hobbies, projects and grandkids. After three decades, my heart was tired of running a practice, caring for people, dealing with crises, but I saw no way out of my responsibilities. Like Odysseus, I wanted to come home to a simpler life of love, creativity, and renewal, but like Odysseus, I had no idea how to get there, and I could never have anticipated the journey I eventually took.
Odysseus' voyage home covers ten long and hard years! As I began to examine his struggles from the perspective of depth psychology - the psychology of dream symbols and unconscious archetypes - and my own experience of retirement and aging, I suddenly understood the reason his journey took so long: each adventure symbolizes a psychological task we men need to work through to drop our warrior armor, awaken our underdeveloped capacity to love, reconcile with long-ignored spouse and family, and find a spiritual path forward. Despite the ubiquitous Boomer fantasy of stress-free retirement, it's not so easy coming home.
By the time I finished rereading The Odyssey, I had identified eighteen growth challenges men face in the journey of aging divided into four general categories: Early Mistakes, Transformational Experiences, Homecoming, and Final Challenges. Here are some examples of our growth trials. In his late life transition, a man has to 1. Give up his habitual conquer-everything approach to life (The Raid on the Cicones), 2. Overcome the temptation to bury his angst with alcohol, drugs, or mind-numbing activities (The Land of the Lotus Eaters), 3. Surrender his heroic male self-sufficiency (The King of the Winds), 4. Come to terms with the unresolved feelings about women (Circe the Witch), 5. Face the reality of death (Descent into Hades), 6. Consciously choose a real relationship over fantasy idealizations (Leaving Calypso), 7. Terminate a lifetime of warrior strivings still imprisoning his soul (Confronting the Suitors), 8. Reconcile with his family after years of emotional distance (Reunion with Penelope), 9. Accept the reality of old age (Visit with Laertes), and 10. Understand the spiritual work attending this final stage of life (Ritual for the Gods). No wonder it took Odysseus ten years to come home!
I also wanted to guide men safely through the retirement transition. Having specialized in men's issues for years as a clinical psychologist, I share ideas on how men can mentor each other, rekindle their passion for life, and create initiation rituals for this new time of life. I also summarize what I believe men really want.
In sum, retiring "happily ever after" can be a dangerous fantasy for men because it glosses over the serious work of aging. Worse, the old model of masculinity directs men to conquer age with exercise, nutrition, attitude, travel and more work. That's ok for a while, but it's not the deep journey of understanding and transformation men need to reach home safely.