Redeeming Neverland: The Question of Shame & the Crisis of Agency Facing Modern Men
The very first line of Peter Pan is an ominous one: “All children, except one, grow up.” “Growing up” is more than aging, more than growing a beard, or more even than simply having responsibility. Without meaningful aspiration, Lost Boys will remain lost. Without glory’s inoculation of shame, masculinity will be reduced to performance dressed-up with double cigar holders. Neither are a sufficient Muse to virtue or character. Neither rescue men from this existential crisis, nor do they deliver more than momentary relief from shame. What then, shall men do?
J. M. Barrie first wrote Peter Pan as a play in 1904, expanding it into a full novel in 1911. Nothing he wrote before or since would ever come close to sparking such popular reception. It tapped into and articulated the tension of a society in the throes of rapid social change and economic reordering. British Imperialism’s assumed stability shuddered in the face of America’s rise to power on the global stage. Though Britain was technically victorious, the South African War (1899-1902) offered Great Britain both a disturbing preview of WWI and a painful illustration of the consequences in being slow to adapt to rapid technological advancement. Combining the dated tactics of the muzzle-loading era with breach-loading rifles led only to carnage. A growing fear of national decline was palpable, with its attendant implications spreading through British society.
The original play’s subtitle, “The Boy Who Refused To Grow Up,” encapsulated both a conflicted nostalgia for the passing Victorian Era and an anxious uncertainty of what the emerging Edwardian Age would hold. The world that was (Hook) no longer is, but what will be (Pan) is yet-unclear, with British men caught in an economic, cultural, and political crucible not unlike the liminality of our own cultural moment.
To mark the 70th Anniversary of their animated classic, Peter Pan, Disney is releasing a live-action remake, Peter Pan and Wendy. While I’m looking forward to seeing Jim Gaffigan in the role of Mr. Smee, it is highly unlikely to resonate with a new generation of young men. The most dark and honest themes of Barrie’s original work will undoubtedly be either cut or as kiddified as the animated version it celebrates the anniversary of. And if so, it will tragically miss an invaluable opportunity to offer hope to a modern generation of boys and men in crisis.
Men, Masculinity, and Culture Wars
For reasons largely outside of their control, boys and young men are falling through society’s cracks at alarming rates. This is happening so consistently and comprehensively that men are now imminently facing an even greater educational disadvantage and disparity in workforce representation than women have since Title IX passed in 1972. In an article focused on the friendlessness and despair facing modern men, David French shows that the disappearance of vocational outlets has left men with a crisis of meaning, purpose, and community – one greatly worsened by the collapse of institutional safety nets that historically mitigated the pain of similar socio-economic shifts.
Parallels abound between the Late Victorian Era and Late Modernity, but they end with the start of WWI (at least for now). The first Industrial Age conflict violently accelerated transition across Western society. Albeit at catastrophic cost, it also provided an outlet for young British men floundering in transition, “adventure” equipping them with patriotic meaning and purpose. We may be living through a period of similarly seismic erosion of consensus, but God forbid we become desperate enough to view war as a viable solution to modern liminality.
What are modern men to do when our culture provides vanishingly few realistic or socially acceptable outlets for men longing to matter and eager to prove it. What aspiration is left for men when the Left believes your sex is irredeemably depraved and the Right gives participation trophies for being born with a penis?
I too would rather take flight with happy thoughts or play the pirate king of a fictional paradise than fight over equally dishonest utopias. Like all escapist fantasies, anti-visions require nothing of those preoccupied by them except to conceptually “be against” the other. It’s an easy, distracting fantasy. But our modern culture wars and the anti-visions fueling them are not innocent distractions. A false 911 call is a felony because it draws life-saving attention and resources away from actual needs.
Dehumanizing legalism (on the Left) and empty caricatures (on the Right) make no meaningful impact on the existential realities of men and succeed only in compounding the existential crisis lurking beneath the economic and educational one.
The Existential Crisis of Unanswered Shame
Thanks in large part to Brené Brown’s popularization, many people finally have some language to describe the pool we’ve been swimming in – shame. But being aware that we’re drowning in shame isn’t the same as being equipped or skilled to wisely answer it (especially theologically), and Brown almost exclusively focuses on negative or toxic shame. Shame can be healthy. It functions as a guardrail to our most socially damaging inclinations (e.g. adultery or child neglect). Its absence can be disastrous to families, communities, and cultures, but shame-as-social-consequence is, on its own, limited in affecting long-term transformation.
To be “shameless” is not a complement. It describes someone who selfishly ignores social guardrails at the expense of their community (either knowingly or foolishly). Yet only sociopaths reach that point due to a true absence of shame. Counter-intuitively, it is when an over-saturation of shame accumulates and metastasizes, that we simply stop caring about social consequences. We become shameless when shame overwhelms our capacity to attend to it, resolve it, or both. We, men and women alike, will slide into shamelessness if we believe we no longer have any standing left to lose. Once shame reaches that tipping point within a person or community, it flips from guardrail to jet fuel, empowering the very social ill it was leveraged to mitigate.
Shame is the fear of insignificance, the lived experience of finitude (healthy) and/or not-mattering (unhealthy). Biblically, it is the opposite of “doxa,” or “glory” (also translated as “weight/significance”). Kids subjected to verbal abuse, or who are repeatedly shamed for minor infractions start to assume it’s true because it’s easier than being haunted by the question of whether it is or not. Anyone who has adopted or cared for foster children knows how much time and effort it takes to answer shame’s narrative with one of enough-ness and beloved-ness. If you are always a burden to those around you, why bother trying?
Richard Reeves points out in his new book, Of Boys and Men: Why The Modern Male Is Struggling, Why it Matters, and What To Do About It, that the two most common words men use to describe themselves are “useless” and “worthless.” “Well, if this supposedly is who I am,” men say to ourselves, “then why shouldn’t I (watch pornography/have an affair/embezzle money/binge digital entertainment)?” I encountered no narrative more consistent while screening soldiers for PTSD as a Chaplain in the Army National Guard. Over 9 years, I counseled over 50 soldiers with suicidal ideations, six of which culminated in a formal intervention (a medical 72-hour hold). All of them were warriors fighting demons of fear and despair, but stunningly only one of them suffered due to combat-related trauma.
Arguably, the most toxic aspects of modern masculinity are behaviors of despair – symptoms of deep insecurity and prolonged experience of not-belonging. As one of the few remaining institutions still seen as trustworthy, young men often gravitate toward the military as a means of overcoming insecurity through an even greater belonging. Many men enlist to flee their demons, but they never stop fighting them.
Contrary to their reputation as angry task-masters, Drill Instructors intuitively function as paternal glory-surgeons. They know, intuitively if not consciously, that when we puritanically tell men “be better” without believing they can be (never mind mentoring them in that journey), we empower the deep-seeded shame and insecurity that produced it in the first place. But shame’s insecurity, when answered with another’s authoritative reassurance of significance (“glory”), becomes the fertile soil of transformation. Apart from glory’s surgical renarration of the soul, shame will fester until not-mattering becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That is the existential crisis facing men, and the context for why it’s being ignored.
The Left’s Lost Boys and Cultural Shame
No one epitomizes the Left’s anti-vision of masculinity’s toxic excess more than John Wayne. Let’s avoid the minefield of whether that is fair or accurate, and assume for the sake of argument that I actually agree that he personifies toxic masculinity, that I also want to see a more kind, humble, and Christ-like servanthood to characterize modern men. So why isn’t that happening?
Predating Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s wildly popular book by three years, Stephen Metcalf traced a surprising thread through John Wayne’s career – being bullied.
That’s right. The man’s man who ain’t never took no lip from nobody was relentlessly and publicly shamed by John Ford, the man who discovered and molded him into the silver screen’s no-nonsense, gruff-talking stoic. Ford was apparently “savage in his mistreatment of Wayne” who so passively took it on the chin that others on set would have to step in to defend him.
Yes, we are indeed talking about the same John Wayne.
What’s even more surprising is why Ford bullied him: Wayne wasn’t man enough. To Ford, he was a floating signifier, a malleable vessel to project his idealized masculinity into. As much (twisted) Drill Instructor as Film Director, Ford wasn’t satisfied with merely shaping Wayne’s performance, he had to remake Wayne himself into his own (imagined) swashbuckling image. It was a projection birthed from his own unaddressed shame, even self-hatred, over what he saw as feminine attributes he longed to purge.
Like John Ford, James Hook relentlessly sought to purge Peter Pan from Neverland after losing both his hand and his significance in a sword fight with a child. Shame is ever the domain of the bully. And, to the degree that it directs his aspirations, one to which he is utterly enslaved (and compensating for). Prescient of the masculinity crisis that has grown over the last decade, Metcalf sees Wayne’s transformation as a cautionary tale:
Masculinity as puerile male bonding, as toxic overcompensation and status jockeying—this is what’s unleashed when masculinity no longer has an obvious function. Divorced from social purpose, “being a man” becomes merely symbolic. (emphasis mine)
If many on the Left want to actively encourage men to LARP as pirates and spread juvenile masculinity, then they should simply continue doing exactly as they are. To stunt all expressions of masculine strength – both healthy and toxic – is a doomed strategy, and one increasingly transparent in its goal of role reversal rather than real equality. This puritanical impulse simply genders depravity in the opposite direction, shutting down even healthy masculine expression for a counterfeit (i.e. “worthless” and “useless”).
Without affirmation of worth or aspiration to grow, shame begets shame.