A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN ELDREDGE
I’m surrounded by wilderness. The wind in the top of the pines sounds like ocean waves cresting on the ridge of this mountain I’ve climbed, somewhere in central Colorado. Spreading out below me, the landscape is a sea of sagebrush for mile after lonesome mile. This is the kind of country you could ride across for days on horseback without seeing another living soul. Today, I’m on foot. Though the sun is shining this afternoon, it won’t warm above minus one, and the sweat I worked up, scaling this face, is now making me shiver.
The aroma of the pungent sage still clings to my jeans, and it clears my head as I gasp for air – in notably short supply at 10,000 feet. I’m forced to rest again, even though I know that each pause broadens the distance between me and my quarry. Still, the advantage has always been his. Though the tracks I found this morning were fresh – only a few hours old – a bull elk can easily cover miles of rugged country in that amount of time …
And that’s why I linger here still, letting the old bull get away. My hunt, you see, has little to do with elk. I knew that before I came. There’s something else I’m after, out here in the wild. I’m searching for an even more elusive prey … something that can only be found through the help of wilderness.
I am looking for my heart.
John Eldredge is wild at heart. He loves nothing more than being in the outdoors. Whether it’s climbing mountains with his sons, casting a fly in one of Colorado’s many rivers or hunting bull elk high in the Rockies, this is where he comes alive.
In his best-selling book, Wild at Heart, John attempts to take men on a journey of discovery – to help them recover a life of freedom, passion and adventure. But it’s not just a ‘boys only’ book. He hopes it will also help women understand their men and encourage them to live the life they both want.
However, his love of the wilderness nearly cost Grapevine this interview. Just prior to my phone call, John was out riding his horse – and got thrown off! The Result? Two broken arms, a busted nose and a postponed interview …
GRAPEVINE: In Wild at Heart you ask, almost apologetically, “Do we really need another book for men?” Good question: how come we’re seeing so many books about men and manhood?
JOHN: Because we’ve lost it! We’ve lost what it means to be a man – and especially how you get there. I mean, how does a boy become a man? What’s the process? We’ve lost all that – and I think we’re searching, trying to find our way back.
GRAPEVINE: So what makes Wild at Heart different from all the others?
JOHN: A couple of things. One: it doesn’t start with duty – it starts with desire. Lots of messages for men ultimately fail because they ignore what is true to a man’s heart, and simply pressure him to shape up.“This is the man you ought to be! This is what a good husband/father should do!”
NOT ENOUGH …
We’re urged to be responsible, sensitive, disciplined, faithful, diligent, dutiful, and so on – all good qualities. But men need something else. Men need to understand their heart – it starts there.
Then, two: Wild at Heart deals with the wounded heart of a man, and talks about healing those wounds – from the inside out. Pressuring men about duty and obligations – “here are the rules about being a good man” – often doesn’t work because they’re broken men. They don’t need more pressure – they need healing.
GRAPEVINE: What do you mean when you talk about a man’s desires?
JOHN: Well, there are certain things we all want as men. In fact, I’m convinced that these desires are universal. They may be misplaced, forgotten or misdirected, but in the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight … an adventure to live … and a beauty to rescue.
GRAPEVINE: It all sounds rather noble and heroic!
JOHN: Well, in many ways, it is! As I’ve listened to thousands of men, searched the literature, studied boyhood, I’ve found these three desires written deeply into their hearts. And if you can connect men back to their desires – WOW, you’ve really got their attention!
I mean, you think of the films men love, the things they do with their free time, the aspirations of young boys – and see if I’m not right on this! Why do men flock to movies like Gladiator? They want to see a real man in action. They want a hero, they want someone to follow.
GRAPEVINE: Ah yes, Maximus the gladiator … that was a great movie! But these three desires – tell us more …
JOHN: Okay. Firstly: a battle to fight. A man needs a mission. His life has got to be about something important. If he feels he’s just killing time – it’ll kill him! He’s got to have a quest, a purpose, something he can throw himself into and prove himself as a man. But he also needs to do some great good. It could be rescuing kids off the streets, or rescuing people from a burning building. It might be fighting injustice in the courts, or it may be fighting for people’s health in a hospital. That mission can be 100 different things for 100 different men, but he’s got to have a battle to fight. And he’s got to be passionate about it.
Secondly: an adventure to live. When life becomes boring, that’s when a man gets in trouble, starts his addictions, has the affairs. Men can’t stand boredom – they’ve got to have adventure in life. For one man, it’s his investments – he just loves the world of finance! For another, it’s going out and rafting a river, or tramping into the bush. It can be any number of different things – but men have to have an adventure.
And thirdly: a beauty to rescue. This is crucial for a man – that he fights for a woman. Most guys, when it comes to the woman, are scared of her, or they look to her for validation, or they find her attractive for sex. But that’s not enough. He needs a woman as his companion, and he has to believe that, “somehow, because of me, her life is better.” That does something – it makes him feel like a man!
GRAPEVINE: Okay, aside from being a little scared of her, what’s a man’s role with a woman?
JOHN: In a nutshell? A man doesn’t just need a battle to fight; he needs …
… SOMEONE TO FIGHT FOR
Take Robin Hood or King Arthur. Where would they be without the woman they love? Indiana Jones and James Bond just wouldn’t be the same without a beauty at their side, and inevitably they must fight for her.
You see, a woman yearns to be fought for, to be someone’s priority. She wants to be a part of the adventure, and she wants to be the beauty that’s delighted in. It’s not enough for a man to be a hero – he needs to be a hero to someone in particular, to the woman he loves.
GRAPEVINE: You spend a lot of time talking about our hearts … what’s so important about a man’s heart?
JOHN: Well, for starters, we’ve lost it. The heart is absolutely central. Who we are, what makes us come alive, what stirs our passions, what drives our relationship … this all comes from the heart.
GRAPEVINE: So how did we lose it?
JOHN: Part of the answer is in the story of our western culture and its loss of manhood. There was the impact of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s, the lack of good role-models, the loss of fatherhood … for a long time, we lived in a world that didn’t celebrate fathers. Most dads portrayed in movies or TV were idiots, or were the bad guy, or were laughable.
But then you’ve got to look at the story of a man’s life. If a boy is wounded, especially by his father, he begins to lose heart.
You see, a little boy needs two things when he’s growing up and when he’s a young man: he needs to know that his father delights in him – that he adores him. That’s the first need. And the second: he needs to be validated – to learn from his father (or from another man) that he has what it takes. That he is a man, and he can be a man.
So it’s delight, and it’s validation. If you listen to where men lost heart, it was in one of those two places.
Most men didn’t grow up with a father who had a whole heart, who loved them and knew how to validate them as men. And a boy becomes a man only through the active intervention of a father. (If not literally his father, then a father figure – an uncle, grandfather, family friend.)
GRAPEVINE: So what’s happened to ‘manhood’ then? What does society want from us men?
JOHN: It’s been reduced to this: be nice! We don’t really know what society expects anymore, but it’s come down to “just be a nice guy and don’t rock the boat”.
But that’s not enough for a man’s heart!
That’s not what little boys dream about. Boys dream about great adventure – don’t they? And being heroes! And that adventure may take place in the university where they’re doing research, or it may be climbing a mountain peak. But being a nice guy won’t do it.
GRAPEVINE: In Wild at Heart you talk about boys having never been at home indoors – that men have an insatiable longing to explore; that we come alive in the wilderness and long to return there. Is this longing universal?
JOHN: Well … yes and no. No, because a lot of guys have said to me, “Hey, I enjoyed Wild at Heart, but I don’t really go in for the outdoors stuff.” However, that’s often because no one’s ever taken them there. No one’s invited them into the world of men. There’s something about taking a man outside his comfort-zone that’s very important to his journey.
Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of a man.
ROOM FOR THE SOUL
The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, non-fattening, on-line or microwaveable! Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart.
You’ve got to get a man off the couch, away from the TV and all the comforts that make him soft! The reason I put a lot of emphasis on adventure is not just because it’s fun, but because it shapes a man. Almost all adventure takes courage – right? Whether it’s canoeing a river, or rock-climbing, sailing on the ocean or going diving – that requires courage.
A man needs to learn courage for everything in his life – especially being married, being a father, being a businessman … those things take courage! And the best training school for developing courage in men is the outdoors.
GRAPEVINE: But how about the man who feels more at home in an alfresco setting, sipping on a latte?
JOHN: Well, there’s a lot of courage that’s required in the city too – more and more! And the initiation of a man can take place in urban settings. But … if I were to talk one-on-one with your latte man, I bet we could find the reason to his dislike of the outdoors back in his story.
Listen, I’m not saying that every man needs to be a hunter or a fisherman. But I am saying that there are lessons to be learned that can only be learnt when you’re outside your comfort-zone. And that happens best in nature. One of the reasons that cultures for centuries took boys out into the wilderness for initiation, is simply that nature is so vast and big and beautiful. It causes a boy to face the reality that there’s something beyond him that has to be respected!
But here’s the problem: when all of your life is under your control – the latte doesn’t require anything of you; the remote control doesn’t require anything of you. When your world is all about your comfort, you’ll never be shaped or tested as a man!
GRAPEVINE: In Wild at Heart, you say: “Even if he can’t quite put it into words, every man is haunted by the question, ‘Am I really a man? Have I got what it takes … when it counts?’” I mean, you wrote a whole chapter on it! Why?
JOHN: Because this is core! You’ve got to understand masculinity is bestowed – it’s given. You’re not just born with the confidence you need to make your way in this world – it’s given to a boy by his father, or by the company of men.
DO I HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?
A boy is desperate for validation – for confirmation that he really does have what it takes – that he is a man.
You look at all the things boys do, whether it’s jumping off rocks into the river, or riding a bike with no hands – all that crazy stuff! They’re almost always doing it to get the validation of their father. “Did you see me Dad?” “Did you think I was amazing?” “How did I do in the game?” “What do you think of this story I’ve written?”
We’re desperate for validation, and very few of us fully find it.
GRAPEVINE: So if we can’t find it … what then?
JOHN: We just keep searching – trying to discover it in the things we own, in women or whoever will pay us attention, in what we wear or where we eat out or how well we play sports. And unfortunately, our culture cheers us on in that vain search: “Make a million, get better educated, win that promotion, hit a home-run … BE SOMEBODY!”
And so the truth is, most men are faking it. They’re putting on a show – it’s a bravado, you know what I mean? They put on a mask to look confident – that they’ve got it all together. But they’re not validated.
That’s why you often see a man who is absolutely driven at work – trying to prove something, to succeed no matter what. Or you see him turning to a woman – hoping she’ll make him feel like a man. Or you see him ‘checking out’, leaving his wife and kids – because he believes their answer to his question is: “No, you’re not a real man, and you don’t have what it takes!”
GRAPEVINE: You mentioned earlier that most men are “wounded”. That sounds a little scary – and a little deeper than most guys tend to go! What do you mean?
JOHN: Yeah, it does sound pretty deep – but it’s really important that we understand this! The wound comes usually when we’re young. And the deepest wounds a man takes are in those two places we spoke about earlier; “Do you delight in me, Daddy – am I the apple of your eye?”, or “Do I have what it takes?”
Those first wounds can come from abandonment – maybe dad left either physically, or emotionally. Or maybe he was violent and had lashed out. In other words, there was no delight.
Maybe when we asked the question, “Do I have what it takes?” dad said, “You’re a mummy’s boy!” or “No, you’re an idiot!” Sadly, the things some fathers say to their sons can be awful – evil even!
Or maybe he was a silent father, who just never once told his son, “I’m so proud of you, and I think you’re amazing!”
Let me tell you, that wounds a man’s soul …
GRAPEVINE: Do you come across some men who are ‘wound-free’?
JOHN: One in 1000, maybe … who had an amazing father – that’s the difference.
Listen, this world of ours is a long ways from Eden! It can be brutal. And if the wound doesn’t come in one way, it comes in another. I know guys who were profoundly wounded by their mothers. Or by their teacher at school. Or by an older brother who sexually molested them. Some guys got hurt through their very first relationship – they were engaged and she broke up with him.
So it may not have come through the father, but it is a very rare person who gets through this world without a wounded heart.
GRAPEVINE: So we’re pretty lucky to get through without a wounded heart – right? But it doesn’t have to end there, surely?
JOHN: No, it doesn’t. And the road to healing starts with the realisation that this is not our fault. There’s no shame in feeling young and afraid inside; there’s no shame in needing to be healed; there’s no shame in looking to another for strength.
WIMPS DON’T QUALIFY
Our culture hasn’t really helped us with heroes like John Wayne and James Bond and all those other ‘real men’ – because the one thing they have in common is that they’re loners. They don’t need anyone.
As a result, we suspect deep in our hearts, that needing anyone for anything is a sort of weakness, a handicap! This is why a man never stops to ask for directions! We all have a desperate need for men in our lives who can encourage us. You look at all the initiation rituals of cultures down throughout the centuries, and it was the company of men who took the boys out and validated and initiated them.
But most of us, if we’re honest, feel really uncomfortable around other men – and we’d rather not show our wounds or talk honestly with each other. However, some of the most profound healing I’ve ever experienced came through the words of other men who are my friends.
Which is why it’s important that men go adventuring together …
GRAPEVINE: I can see what you mean. Our Kiwi culture expects men to be tough and independent – but we might just open up and share our stories if we’re sitting around a campfire with some mates …
JOHN: Exactly! I’m not suggesting you take a group of guys, sit them on chairs in a circle, and ask them to start sharing! Guys are very uneasy doing that. But get them out together, doing something in the company of other men – fishing, playing sport, building a car, fixing a house – and it just happens.
GRAPEVINE: Those initiation rituals that some cultures put their sons through – how do they help a boy’s journey into manhood?
JOHN: Because of the experience. When a boy (or a man) is tested, he discovers for himself that he has what it takes. You see, it’s one thing to have someone say something encouraging to you like, “Hey, good job – you did great!”, but it’s a whole other thing to discover that through your own experience.
It happened to a friend of mine last year, when we were on a trip in the woods. He and a mate got themselves lost – completely lost – and had to find their way out. And they did! It took a long time, but they made it. It was a frightening, testing experience, but in the process my friend discovered he has what it takes.
Now men used to do this for each other. They used to provide opportunities for these kinds of experience.
To be led through something like that by other men is very powerful. Then, when it’s all over, and you’re sitting around talking and laughing about it, one of the guys says to you, “Hey, you did great!” Wow, that touches something in a man’s soul!
GRAPEVINE: Okay, we’re agreed: dads play a crucial role in all this. What about mum?
JOHN: The mother plays a beautiful role in her son’s life. She is the source of mercy. I mean, think about it! When you got into trouble, who would you rather tell: mum or dad? Mum – right? Because she’s usually more tender. And when you scraped your knee – who did you run to? Mum! You see, mum brings tenderness and mercy as well as unconditional love.
Now there are a lot of single mums out there – and the good news is, you cannot be everything for your son! And the sooner you can admit that, the greater the relief. However, you can help his journey into manhood. You can get him involved in positive experiences with other men – whether it’s in a sports club or a summer camp, with an uncle or just a friend down the street. Your son needs men who will spend some time with him – that’s where he gets his validation.
GRAPEVINE: But many single mums would find it hard to ask for that sort of support. How can the rest of us help with this process?
JOHN: Easy: offer to take her boy with you. It’s as simple as that! So when my boys and I are headed out to do something, we’ll grab one of the neighbourhood kids to come along. It might just be going out for a burger or a coke together, but that boy loves to be with the men. Or it may be on a camping trip or playing some sport together. Bring him along – that’s all it takes!
You don’t have to become his father, okay? That’s where some of us feel a little daunted: “Oh, I just can’t get that involved.” Look, I understand – I can’t either. I’m a busy guy too. But that’s not what it takes. Just invite the boy into whatever you’re doing …
GRAPEVINE: Have you got one final suggestion for those of us who’re still struggling with “Am I really a man? Have I got what it takes?” …?
JOHN: Yes. Walk into your fears! You have to face your fear, whatever it might be: “I’m afraid to go down and join the local group of men who’re playing football on Saturday” – then go join them! “I’m afraid to talk to my kids” – then talk to them! “I’m afraid to marry the girl” – then marry her!
You’ve got to face your fears. That’s where you’re tested as a man, and that’s where you’ll find your courage.
Several years ago my boys and I were rock climbing in a place called Garden of the Gods. Sam was the first to climb that afternoon, and after he clipped the rope into his harness, he began his attempt.
Things were going well until he hit a bit of an overhang. Unable to get over it, he began to get more and more scared the longer he hung there; tears soon followed. So with gentle reassurance I told him to head back down, that we didn’t need to climb this rock today. “No,” he said, “I want to do this.” I understood. There comes a time when we simply have to face the challenges in our lives and stop backing down. So I helped him up the overhang with a bit of a boost, and on he went with greater speed and confidence. “Way to go, Sam! You’re looking good. That’s it … now reach up to your right … yep, now push off that foothold … nice move.”
A few more moves and he would be at the top. “Way to go, Sam. You’re a wild man.” He finished the climb, and as he walked down from the back side I began to get Blaine clipped in. Ten or fifteen minutes passed, and the story was forgotten to me. But not Sam. While I was coaching his brother up the rock, Sam sidled up to me and in a quiet voice asked, “Dad … did you really think I was a wild man up there?”
Miss that moment and you’ll miss a boy’s heart forever. It’s not a question, it’s the question, the one every boy and man is longing to ask.
DO YOU WANT TO FIND OUT MORE?
CHECK OUT JOHN ELDREDGE’S WEBSITE WWW.WILDATHEART.ORG