When I first learned the term, it was usually in the context of sexual mores, describing one who didn’t judge people harshly for “improper” behavior. Recently, it has taken on a broader meaning. (no pun intended)
This morning I was thinking about a book I picked up recently, Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge. The author is describing what he sees as “the inner person” or “soul” of the human male, the “wild” being who is more at home in the wilderness of nature than in a big-city office, who as a boy dreamed of “being the hero, of beating the bad guys, of doing daring feats and rescuing the damsel in distress.”
I suppose I react rather negatively to ideas like his because I’ve never been a macho male. While I recognize a desire, occasionally, to charge into things, to act without having to ponder the issues beforehand, to express passion and strength, most of my acts are considered beforehand, sometimes to the point of timidity. At least that’s how I think of myself. If I have a “wild heart” inside, it’s pretty well hidden. As a youth, I idolized John Wayne, but as an adult I found other heroes.
Now as I read this book, something else nags at me. Perhaps a little of it is about Eldredge’s religious point of view. As the blurb on the book jacket says, “In Wild at Heart, John Eldredge invites men to recover their masculine heart, defined in the image of a passionate God.” He points out the scenes in the bible where Jesus raged, or courageously stood his ground, rather than those in which he was the sweet, gentle “lamb of God.” (Yes, I know, “lamb of God” refers to the sacrifice, not the demeanor, of Jesus. But I’ve carried that image from my earliest Sunday school days. Perhaps because most of my teachers were women.) He admits that his is not a mainstream Christian view. For me, it’s an unnecessary distraction from his thesis.
What bothers me most about the book is that Eldredge offers an image of men that doesn’t allow for much temperamental variety. Inside us all, maybe, is that John Wayne guy, and “it is good.” To me, it’s a simplistic view. I don’t quarrel with the idea that passion and strength and courage are desirable attributes in a man or a woman—but there are other important virtues, too, such as humility and compassion.
As I tried to get a handle on the author’s point of view, it reminded me of another acquaintance of mine, a retired teacher, who is currently studying to understand the relationship between “self” and “ego.” He has a particular view of each of these two terms. The self, he says, is that which is born in us, uncluttered and unsullied by culture. Ego is that which has been manufactured, the image that becomes animated to constrict us, make us fit in. It’s a kind of Nature vs. Nurture dichotomy, and Nature (self) is good while Nurture (ego) is bad. The self is mostly relegated to the unconscious, where it hides, feeling and trembling. “Thinking” is necessary, perhaps, but it lords over the self. His answer to the world’s problems is to cut the ego down to size and allow the self to emerge into the light. (To be fair, he does not say simply that the ego is bad while the self is good—that is my inferring from what he says.)
These two world views, opposite as they seem, are in a way similar. Inside each of us is the real us, yearning to be released. Passion is part of the prisoner. (Or perhaps, is it that the prisoner—either version, the wild heart or the gentle, intuitive soul, contains the unexpressed passion for freedom?)
Both, it seems, describe life in terms of singular imperatives. I’m urged to see life in the terms of someone else, without their presenting me with convincing arguments that alternative perspectives don’t also have a place in our culture. There are situations, to be sure, that call for just such simplification. Many times in my life I’ve experienced a John Wayne Moment. And many times in my life I’ve wished I could fall back on the comfortable position of simply feeling what my body wants, rather than having to analyze my every impulse. Both provided me with satisfaction. I just don’t want to live there all the time.
Nor do I want to live T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” that great poem from a hundred years ago that feels as true today as it ever has. Prufrock had a problem being decisive. As one reviewer describes him:
. Prufrock is a representative
character who cannot reconcile his thoughts and understanding with his feelings
and will. The poem displays several levels of irony, the most important of which
grows out of the vain, weak man's insights into his sterile life and his lack of
will to change that life. . . The latter part of the poem captures his sense of
defeat for failing to act courageously.”
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself,
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Still, I wonder why I have this
negative reaction to writers who seem to think that the world is simpler than I
do. Perhaps parts of me are less broad-minded than I like to admit.
July 12, 2007