Dr. Nigel Stepp on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Nigel Stepp is a natural born scientist- one who became a career scientist not because of a desire to possess knowledge, but simply to enjoy it. His doctorate is in experimental psychology and he works in the Information and Systems Sciences Laboratory at HRL. His work steeps him in abstraction, which affords the ability to look at things from multiple angles and clarify their forms. This intimate way of approaching knowledge permeates much of his life, and it’s palpable when you’re in his presence. His dedicated curiosity and eloquence is very inspiring. And his particular flavor of appreciation for truth is a reminder that intimate understanding is rarely disappointing, and that awareness yields possibility.

I was hoping this interview series would go the direction that Nigel takes it through the complexity and depth of his answers. The concept of masculinity really is multi-layered, and as he demonstrates, understanding it more intimately is a provocative and important experience.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

This one is tough, since I consider that term to be yours, so I feel like I would not be able to add anything more than my understanding of what you mean by sacred masculinity. I could, however, say something about the characteristics of masculinity that should be preserved, appreciated, or acknowledged. The rest of these questions seem to address just that.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

For me it’s telling that nothing comes to mind immediately. Instead, I have an awareness of what sorts of archetypes are out there. There’s the gritty and martial Rambo-Norris; the suave, but pickled Bogart-Draper; the differently violent Bond-Brando. I would not identify any of these as my own, but using them as counter-examples helps to narrow the field. The goal in calling these counter-examples is not to be contrary, or say there’s anything wrong with any of them, but to reflect and investigate a lack of connection that I personally have with some of these more common masculine traits.

Each has some lack of dimensionality, even taking into account the inherent flatness of an archetype. For these, flatness is baked in as part of the archetype itself. And so perhaps I should look towards complexity of character.

Further, the counter-examples often rest upon or celebrate a flaw of character. This leaves masculinity painting itself as the underdog that has overcome something, through physical dominance, social position, cunning, or even sleight of hand. This suggests a true masculine trait of introspection, with which one’s character flaw is that thing overcome.

Finally, most male archetypes seem to be defined in terms of an other. The vanquished foe, the arch enemy, the ex-lover, the needful family.

Picking up the pieces, I am left with a complex character who overcomes his own weaknesses to act authentically in the moment. So who is that?

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

Time enough in our thoughts and reactions to follow those threads of complexity. What is needed to make that happen is a much harder question, since it really is an adjustment to what ends up being a reaction, or even a reflex.

The breaking down of the surface shell of masculinity and femininity may help, since it can cover up the depths underneath.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine?/ What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

It’s hard not to immediately go with a Yin/Yang approach — as far as I can tell it maps perfectly, at least as far as the mixing of two components go. But the question is more specific than that.

The role of the masculine is to be counterpoint (as is the feminine). In all self-organizing systems there is an interplay of opposing forces. If the forces are both balanced, and defined in terms of the other, then complex patterns emerge. Order may rise out of disorder.

Getting more specific, what are the masculine elements of those opposing forces? How many dimensions do we want to look at? How many dimensions are there? We could talk about different kinds of strength, which seems to be the most obvious (cliché?), but as they sometimes say in academia, that feels like stamp-collecting. An enumeration of things without regard to the encompassing theory.

Taking self-organization all the way, we can guess that the roles are context dependent. In fact there’s already an answer above: in a given context, the masculine role is to overcome a weaknesses to act authentically.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Strength without vulnerability amounts to luck, or at least happenstance. It also works against adaptation, which is the road to increased future strength.

For me, this comes from an image of an armored chariot rider, with plates of steel scaled around him and his horse, speeding through ranks of infantry. Each groundling is cast off without regard as he passes. Surely this chariot rider is exhibiting great strength, but what will happen when he gets to where he is going? What happens if he should have noticed a shifting pattern in ground or fodder. Why is he difficult to admire for his effort?

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

To re-define, we must agree on a definition. To me, this phrase usually means to stop worrying about pain or consequences and do the thing that must be done. To that I would add a flavor of selflessness, and will re-invoke my male archetype: a complex character who overcomes his own weaknesses to act authentically in the moment.

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

This question is more complex than it appears. Who is we and what is wrong? So I won’t pretend to answer the whole question, but will choose a few points and maybe answer a smaller question. Something that is wrong about some views of masculinity is that it is vulnerable. I don’t mean that it contains vulnerability, which it does, but that masculinity itself is under attack and in danger of being wiped out. Rather it looks like masculinity is getting bigger, even more durable by being more flexible.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

Taking the Yin/Yang approach again, it looks like masculinity might be headed towards identifying with the big curvy bit that folds together with femininity, rather than just the insular dot. Of course it’s both, but maybe it’s been a little one-sided lately.