What a curious 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 always how they feel.
The transition from near-retirement hard-working family man to wise elder is more complicated that it looks, representing a long and transformational pilgrimage through many stages and personal challenges. Recalling Robert Bly’s powerful depiction of the male midlife passage, Iron John, I searched for another ancient myth to describe 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 another 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.
Men go off to war in every generation. Not necessarily wars with guns, bombs and armies, but the wars of childhood, adolescence and adult life. We first play war as children, creating imaginary battles in backyards and playgrounds, 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. 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, employment applications, evolving work challenges – all the hurdles I jumped to secure a place in the world. Years passed – marriage, children, college funds, family vacations, increasing income, increasing debt, an 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. Like Odysseus, they yearn to come home to a simpler life of love, creativity, and renewal, but like Odysseus, their homecoming plans are undermined by forces they never saw coming.
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 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, restore a deeper intimacy with spouse and family, and find a spiritual path forward. Despite the ubiquitous Boomer fantasy of stress-free retirement, coming home is not always so easy.
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 to conscious elder, 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 love 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!
As I describe in What Aging Men Want, 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.
John C. Robinson is a clinical psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, the author of nine books on the psychology, spirituality and mysticism of aging along with numerous articles, book chapters and guest blogs. His major works include Death of the Hero, Birth of the Soul; But Where Is God: Psychotherapy and the Religious Search; Ordinary Enlightenment; Finding Heaven Here; The Three Secrets of Aging; Bedtime Stories for Elders; What Aging Men Want: Homer’s Odyssey as a Parable of Male Aging; his first novel, Breakthrough; and The Divine Human: The Final Transformation of Sacred Aging. You can learn more about John’s work at www.johnrobinson.org.