What is a True Man? Is it rugged burliness and overdeveloped biceps? Is it physical toughness, the willingness to face danger or take pain?
In the mind of a boy, becoming a man is a matter of proving yourself through action, strength, bravery and physical courage. It’s being the stout individualist who seeks out anything that will serve to test his mettle and validate his worth. He is nothing without an enemy of some kind. But the virtue of the “man of action” is merely a kind of biologically prompted proto-manliness.
For all of his fanfare and pretension proto-man is little more than a servant to the mighty and selfish gene that desires nothing but to be carried forward just one more generation. Our hero goes forth wrapped in the cloak of a noble sounding mission which he himself may even come to deeply believe. Part of the story may be that his mission serves the needs of others, but this is only partly true at best. He acts, as does any simple creature, to prove himself worthy of the herd and more desirable to a mate. In this simple play his weapon is the simulacrum of his own manly “weapon.” To be divested of it would be equivalent to castration. If he succeeds then the clever gene rewards its unwitting servant with an eruption of chemical pleasure and he will privately bask for a time in the overwhelming exhilaration of his own bravado.
This initiation step of the mythic hero’s journey is often mistaken as a full initiation into manhood. It’s certainly a necessary step, but it is incomplete. The life of one who overstays in this phase of development becomes a cliché, a caricature. A little boy trapped inside a hollow facade of manliness, trapped in a viscous cycle by the drug of validation provided by the company of others equally thwarted.
In Joseph Campbell’s prototypical hero’s journey the important final step is the Return. The True Man takes up normal life again. He does not withhold himself in isolation, but bestows the wealth of his strength and wisdom to his fellow man. He still bears the courage acquired from his journey, but his energies are turned from serving his own impulses to the larger purpose of serving society. His weapon is no longer merely an expression of his own virility. He is transformed from biological servitude to one who serves the good of society, the proverbial transforming of the sword into a plowshare.
It is re-integration of the individual back into society that allows the emergence of the True Man. The True Man serves to make life better for others in whatever great or small way that he can. The True Man needs no enemy or competitor to define him or validate him. He does not seek out conflict or violence as his younger counterpart did. The approval of others seems less important. Messages of fear no longer resonate. He sees himself, not as a lone individualist, but as part of the greater whole. By accepting this final transformation he does not remain thwarted in a false artifice of manliness. He is transformed from being a slave of his own biology to serving the needs of others.