Monday, 19 December 2011

The Male Ego - The Bravado of Survival

Let me tell you the roots of bravado. It's not that complex, but I want to emphasise that bravado itself can sometimes be the only thing a man's got going for him, when the shit hits the fan. It can become a pathological thing, a source of a grave lack in authenticity, but in its core form, it is a survival resource.

Bravado is really just a kind of crucial "faking it to make it." I believe it became a part of the repertoire of masculinity in hunter-gatherer times, when it was mainly the man's role to go out and track down dangerous beasts. The tigers, the bears and and the wild monsters of the desert all had their own version of bravado. It is a way of warning off predators. But for the hunter, it was a way of standing up to that warning.

The primal hunter knew all too well that the wild animals he was trying to kill, were intelligent and sensitive, perhaps in ways he could never understand. He knew that they could pick up on fear and that fear itself would trigger hunger in their bellies. On top of that, when it came to the kill, a hunter had to be able to experience the authenticity of fear and terror, while not displaying any such emotion to his prey. It wasn't a matter of performance, but his performance was a matter of surviving another day. The alternative was violent death.

The primal male had a crucial balancing act to master. On the one hand he must be stoic and unmovable in the face of his animal enemy. His courage was the root of his victory in the kill. However, at the same time, he had to be completely tuned into his emotions. His emotions and his sensitivities were his guidance system, his source of knowledge and wisdom in the wilderness. Without his emotions, he would be instant prey for the very creatures he was trying to hunt.

The repertoire of emotions in a man were vital evolutionary tools.

So when the tiger roared, or the cheetah charged, the hunter was overcome by terror. But by keeping these emotions out of sight, he would confuse his opponent, and win the psychological battle. If the animal encountered a lack of fear, it would itself begin to experience the terror of its own vulnerability. It's techniques for survival were not working. In this moment of uncertainty, the beast was ripe for defeat.

This psychological battle is bravado. It is an act of pure faith in the face of the abyss, and it was a common and essential part of being a man. It is still part of the male psychology because for centuries it has served them well. The male ego, as pathological as it has become, was, at its roots, a simple trick for survival, a way of forcing the difference between death and survival, the difference between being eaten by something more powerful than oneself, or being able to feed one's family and sustain them.

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These days, bravado has a bad name and there are good reasons for it. It is my belief that what we now call bravado, is a bastardised version of this survival trick. Whereas there is still this performance of invulnerability, the display of fearlessness, men are no longer equipped to sustain it in any useful way. I do believe that a crucial part of being a man, is not showing all your emotions. But where we have gone wrong is thinking that not showing them, means not feeling them at all.

This is a disastrous mistake on the part of our modern culture. The experience of fear, an intimacy with terror itself, is as important as not showing these emotions, for men.

However we seek to define masculinity, I think it has something to do with this. We must experience and process high levels of emotional reality, the consistent experience of life's fragility, while at the same time, we must have control over how we live these emotions out.

Civilisation has created institutionalised repression, as Freud pointed out. But Feud was wrong to think this was a good thing. The primal male depended on his bravado, but his bravado was not a form of repression. In fact, his bravado was a complex technique of emotional mastery, whereby men took on the jaws of death, and faced them without wavering, while they supported themselves and each other in processing the horror of these experiences.

It is also a belief of mine that all human beings, male or female, go through this dynamic in one way or another in the their subconsciousness. It's just that for a certain period in human history, men were burdened with this task, because it made evolutionary sense. While it is fashionable to put the male ego in its place (a central feature of what I call post-feminism) we would do well to understand the biological significance of it, if we are to evolve it, or even evolve past it.

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