Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Lost Boys

article by Nancy Qualls-Corbett

A scene once observed was not volatile or violent, yet it has remained in my memory, long lasting and sad. The event was rather mundane in its circumstance but the effect was that of consciously acknowledging something that would have lasting consequences. This happened in Florence, Italy. I was walking by one of the major museums and saw a group of about twenty teenage students, healthy, good-looking boys and girls, standing outside. They looked to be on a field trip and waiting for their instructor for their tour to begin. About a third of them had cell phones and were talking animatedly on them. The other two thirds, mostly the boys, had their backs against the wall staring blankly out into space. In their young eyes I recognized a deadening of spirit. There is no flirting, no kidding or “good guy” jostling around, no interaction or relating to one another, no face to face communication, as one thinks is rather the norm of this age group. It was only by a mechanical means, the cell phone, any contact with another was happening. I wondered at that time what had wounded that vibrant spirit and engaging energy of these young men. They seemed like lost boys.

Since that time and over the past few years I found myself becoming more aware and more concerned about occasional reports in current news media and newspaper editorials regarding new behavioral tendencies or habits of teen age boys and young men. These were not top news items, but inevitably these articles would catch my eye. One report by Maggie Smith, “Shutting Themselves In”, in the New York Times Magazine and another by Michael Zielenziger, “Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created It’s Own Lost Generation”, on a PBS interview. These two presentations described a crisis occurring in the Far East in which a growing number of young men are isolating themselves in their bedroom, usually a very small area, literally for years at a time. One case reported up to fifteen years. They drop out of school; do not have a job, no social interaction except the bare minimum amount with their family, if that. In their private little refuge the world at large is kept at a safe distance while they live a life of fantasy in TV, and radio music and video games. It is estimated by one research psychiatrist that over one million young Japanese men or 1% of the population is affected.[1] It was reported that the longer these boys continue in their self-imposed exile, the likelihood of their returning to the outer world is diminished. The cultural ramifications for the future management in government, economic or community leadership are considerable, not to mention the implications for a life of psychological well-being. When reading these news items, I wondered, where was the sense of the spirit of the hero, a direction in life, the √©lan of life—where had it gone? They seemed to me to be lost boys.

The Japanese and other Eastern countries have named this psychological condition as hikikomori [2] which roughly translates into “withdrawal.” This type of “withdrawal” is not to be confused with that which we would classify as a schizoid personality or other pathological conditions such as autism or Asperger’s syndrome. It is not related to alcohol or non-prescribed drugs. Although the behavior of hikikomori share several symptomatic traits with the above mentioned psychological conditions such as reclusiveness or absence of social interaction there is not the prevailing lack of eye contact or lack of affect, i.e. non-emotional facial or verbal expressions, or lack of verbally ability or motor skills. The onset is generally later in teenage years than one would see in the other pervasive developmental disorders.

Although seemingly not as extreme symptomatically, but perhaps as pervasive, we are experiencing the same psychological phenomena in our Western culture—that of young men delaying adulthood. Dr. Leonard Sax’s recent book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men lists those five factors as: 1) feminization of education; 2) video games; 3) increased prescription of psychotropic drugs that affect the motivational systems of the brain;[4] 4) exposure to endocrine disrupters;[5] and 5) lack of heroic role models.

In the January 2008 edition of the Newsweek magazine’s cover story, “The Boy Crisis,” described boys in every demographic are falling behind according to almost every key societal and academic metric. About one half of the male college population fails to complete their college career in four years.

David Brooks, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, entitled his column, “The Odyssey Years.” He reports about the delaying of adulthood or at least those certain accomplishments by which we once define adulthood: finishing one’s education or learning a trade, moving away from the parental home, becoming financially independent, getting married and starting a family. He writes that “in 1960 roughly 70 percent of 30 year olds had achieved these things. By 2000, fewer than 40 percent of 30 year olds had done the same.”[6] There is apparently less motivation to embark on a career, less drive to actively engage in community, fewer inspirations to look toward the future, and a near to non existent relationship to the feminine. Seemingly the hero is experienced only vicariously through films or video games. Grand Theft Auto IV, the fast paced new video game released April, 2008 is reported to have grossed $500 million in the first week of sales.[7] Certainly that dollar figure reflects the investment of not only money but the psychological investment, in “playing the hero.” The same is true of motion pictures. Top money grossing films carry titles like The Dark Knight, The Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, or Hellboy. All these films are about larger than life, super- duper heroes, and for a few hours in the dark seclusion of a movie theater the young man can project his identification with the strength, the risk-taking, even a suave romantic assuredness onto the masculine image depicted on big screen. Not unlike the Atlas or Hercules of ancient Greece these images of archetypal heroes reverberate in the dark subterranean stream of the unconscious. Paradoxically, we see a very select well-disciplined and focused group of young men and women compete in Olympic Games or other types of strong, forceful, vigorous sports. On worldwide TV screens and perhaps in our mind’s eye this is the image we wish to retain of the beautiful image of youth, but this type of championship is a world away from these lost secluded boys.

For these young men dating or social interaction with a young woman is reduced to Facebook or on-line chat rooms. Sexual feelings or expression gives way to easily available on-line pornography sites, and a growing addiction to cyber-sex. Working towards building a career is replaced with non-challenging, uncreative, less than permanent employment, if in fact they are employed. David Brooks writes “Their world [is] characterized by uncertainty, diversity, and tinkering. Old success recipes don’t apply, new norms have not been established and everything seems to give way to a less permanent version of itself”[8] Again I wonder. A less permanent version of one’s self? A less permanent vision of one’s self? And the image of the lost boy re-emerges in my mine’s eye once again.

Perhaps we are most familiar with the term, “the lost boys”, from J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. It is an appealing story of an eternal youth who was the leader of a tribe of lost boys in Never-Never land, a fantasy land, along with a cast of fairies, pirates and mermaids whom the lost boys encountered. In the story Peter Pan explains to Wendy, the young daughter of the Darling family, how the lost boys came to Neverland: they fell out of their prams when they were very young and no-one bothered to go to find them; it was too much trouble.

Actually James Barrie’s own life reflects this psyche wound. When he was six years of age his older brother died in a tragic accident and his mother became very depressed and remained bed-ridden. Wistfully hoping he could cheer her, he learned to whistle like the now deceased brother once did and wear his clothes in the same way or imitate the brother’s lively little dance. Try as he might, young James could not gain his mother’s love or attention. Possibly this is the reason that one of the original titles for Peter Pan was Boys Who Hated Mothers.[9]

“I don’t want to grow up,” is the phrase associated with Peter Pan and the lost boys—an expression we frequently use when describing the puer aeternus, the young man whose normal adolescent psychology continues far into later life. Although there are many parallels we find with the hikikomori or the young men in their Odyssey Years, it is not all so inclusive. I find there are some basic differences.

Dr. von Franz describes the puer aeternus as:
In general, the positive quality of such youths is a certain kind of spirituality which comes from a relatively close contact with the unconscious…They usually have interesting things to talk about and have an invigorating effect upon one.[10]
No. This is not the case of the lost boys of whom I’m speaking. They are withdrawn within themselves. There is no engagement, no sparkle, no relating to another.

Von Franz also portrays the puer as having “to a smaller or greater extent, a savior complex, or a Messiah complex, with the secret thought that one day one will be able to save the world, the last word in philosophy, or religion, or politics or art, or something else will be found.”[11] Hillman saw in the puer a vision of “our own first natures, our primordial golden shadow…our angelic essence as messenger of the divine.” From the puer, he concludes, we are given our sense of destiny and meaning.[12] Jung saw the puer aeternus as referring to the child archetype and speculated that its recurring fascination springs from man’s projection of his inability to renew himself. To be in a perpetually evolving state, to redeem by innocence, to visualize new beginnings are all attributes of this nascent savior.”[13]

Again, no, this seemingly is not the case…the archetypal puer does not readily correspond to what we are viewing today as the lost boys. There is no forward searching of what the world is about, no look into the future, or a desire to so. There is no provisional life we frequently see in puers, rather it is a stasis if not regression, a hunkering down, pulling the covers over their heads, a disallowing of life to touch one. There are no risk-takers, no daredevil aviators as von Franz describes in her classic interpretation of “The Little Prince.” The only risk at all is perhaps pushing the button or mouse so that the video hero is activated and this is done in a private place where no one else will see one’s failures.

The psychological factors which lend themselves to the imminent situation of masculine development of these lost boys are three: 1) a negative mother complex. 2) lack of masculine hero models. 3) the stress factor imposed by our culture, our collective conscious, onto young men.

With the archetype of the puer aeternus we find a strong positive mother complex, i.e. no other woman can quite compete with the love and attention of mother. With the lost boys, however, there is the strong negative mother complex, as Barrie so succinctly stated: Boys who hated mothers…they fell out of their prams and no one bothered to find them. Nonetheless the strong connection that continues to exist to the mother or the mother imago is the need to be mothered much the same as Barrie relates in the story of Peter Pan. Peter convinces Wendy to fly with him to Neverland so that she could darn the clothes of the lost boys, tuck them in bed and tell them bedtime stories. The lost boys were in need of nurturing, of acceptance, love, in need of seeing delight in the mother’s eye. A similar dynamic exists in the lost boys to whom I’m referring.

We are aware of the psychological experiments from some time ago when baby chimpanzees immediately after birth were fed by a modeled mother chimpanzee fashioned from wire and covered with the same type of hide, molded arms that held the baby, had the same smell and given the real mother’s milk to nurse through a fashioned breast and nipple. But these baby chimps failed to develop at a normal rate and many died. More recent studies in neuro-psychology show how the mother’s loving touch is absolutely necessary in the development of the neurological pathways of the limbic brain. The limbic lobe of the brain, which is located in the hollow space between the two cerebral lobes of the brain, is the seat of our emotions. Three psychiatrists, Lewis, Amini and Lannon who authored the book, A General Theory of Love, explain, “Emotions allow human beings to receive the contents of each other’s minds. It is the messenger of love…It is the receptive component [that] allows people to acquire complex knowledge about the internal state of another person. For human beings, feeling deeply is synonymous with being alive.”[14] Even babies who are blind at birth smile when held by their loving mother. These are the mothers who offer loving care in the formative years and bid a loving farewell in their young manhood years. As we well know there is the other kind of mothers.

I am reminded of the myth of Cybele and Attis. Cybele was the Phrygian great mother goddess. Her chariot was pulled by lions. She was strong and fearless and ruled over all. She was possessive of all her domain and this also included her beautiful, youthful son, Attis. When he fell in love with a beautiful maiden, Cybele’s jealously knew no ends. She drove Attis to madness. We are told in the myth that Attis castrated himself and threw his male members at her. And most certainly we find this same lost of “manliness” in the lost boys. They are psychologically castrated.

But this problem is not only created by possessive mothers whose son/lovers exist only for the edification of the mother—the absence of male hero models, as Dr. Sax listed, is also prevalent in our culture. As the father or surrogate father is usually the first male figure the young male infant encounters, the physical and emotional presence plays a major role in the development of the young man’s ego, a sense of identification with his maleness, a sense of self confidence and a sense of self. It is the nature of the strong, well developed ego, that the archetype of the hero is realized. Here we must ask ourselves the question: does a boy without boyhood grow to be a man without manhood?

Dr. Jung says of the image of the hero embodies man’s most powerful aspirations and reveals the manner in which they are ideally realized. “It is the being who symbolizes ideas, forms and forces that mold or grip the soul.”[15] Yet in a young man’s development, it needs to be realized, to be integrated by ego.

Dr. Jung continues:
In myths the hero is the one who conquers the dragon, not the one who is devoured by it. And yet both have to deal with the same dragon. Also, he is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the treasure hard to attain.[16]
I don’t believe that Dr. Jung was referring to the dragons on Dungeons and Dragons video games, a fantasy place no less than Neverland. These are real life adventures, concerted risks, in love or daring deeds that one must undertake. “There is no birth of consciousness without pain,”[17] as Jung explains

Joseph Campbell describes those who refuse the hero’s call:
Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless…”[18]
A wasteland of dry stones and a meaningless life precisely portrays and reveals this image of lost boys.

Our culture has also added to this growing burden for young men of “shutting out the sun,” the light of consciousness, the hallmark of Apollo. David Miller contends in his article, “Why Men are Mad.”:’s bodies tell them that here has all along been something awry in the very patriarchy whose chauvinism should have served their interest. Men themselves have been unwittingly wounded by the same male perspective which has wounded women”[19] He explains that Freud’s theory of penis envy does not explain what would be the corresponding envy men. If according to Freud, the little girl sees a boy’s penis and is envious of this “something”, then as Miller hypothesizes, the little boy sees nothing which results in “nothing” envy. He makes the distinction that women are not envious of penises, but of phallus (and Freud should have named it phallus envy), the symbolic power of male dominance in a patriarchal culture. “The very patriarchy which has connected dominance, power aggression, initiative, rational meaning, thinking and commitment to maleness, that perspective which has deprived women of a phallus, has also loaded more on men than they wish to bear. What a relief it would be to be rid of this thing, to have nothing.”[20]
Our news media are giving us a cultural readout: an EKG, as it is: the beat and rhythm of heart, the nuance and intonation of our collective heart. The lost of the true essence of the feminine, not necessarily only the “mothering” but the soulful meaning, the quintessence of principle of relatedness, the acknowledgment of emotions. This is coupled with the dominance or posturing or inflated societal expectations of male “power” without the basic building blocks for masculine ego development. Is this the explosion without containment in our world’s crisis from which our lost boys are retreating?

I hear and feel the deep grief of an analysand whose son returned from the war in Iraq and who very soon after left home for his self-exiled place in the deserts out west. He, no doubt, is suffering Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome…as the mounting numbers depict returning soldiers are experiencing. He certainly exemplified a heroic spirit in going to war, but it could not be sustained. Not unlike the lost boys, he has retreated from the world to the deserts of Arizona all alone with only a few e-mails from time to time to family. He retreated far from the toxic atmosphere of a world gone mad. Perhaps it is not so unrealistic as to view this scenario from the psychological realm of the lost boys. Retreating, opting out of the collective conscious values and manifestations can and may be a way to reach beyond the presenting attitudes, a protection sort to speak, all the demands or images we project on these young men.

There are therapy groups established for the treatment of these young men that attempt to socialize and to bring some normalization (as we define it.) Korea and other places have institutionized programs in which youth who are addicted to video games are sent to a rigorous camp, an outward bounds type of setting. There are TV spots in which a well-known athlete, a sports hero says to the viewing audience—and directed to young people: “Come out and play.” Inner cities are establishing a “buddy-system” where men in all walks of life are spending quality time with disadvantaged youths. These are helpful perhaps in behavioral modification sort of way. The problem is recognized but is it addressing the deeper issue?

Jung wrote, “If there is anything that we wish to change in our children, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.”[21] I am reminded of Jung’s writing of the Rainmaker myth as it was told to him by Rickard Wilhelm.
There was a great drought where Wilhelm lived; for months there had not been a drop of rain and the situation became catastrophic. The Catholics made processions; the Protestants made prayers and the Chinese burned joss sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result. Finally the Chinese said, “We will fetch the rain-maker.” And from another province a dried up old man appeared. The only thing he asked for was a quiet little house somewhere, and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day the clouds gathered and there was a great snow-storm at the time of the year when no snow was expected, an unusual amount, and the town was so full of rumors about the wonderful rain-maker that Wilhelm went to ask the man how he did it. In true European fashion he said: “They call you the rain-maker, will you tell me how you made the snow? And the little old Chinese man said: “I did not make the snow. I am not responsible.” “But what have you done these three days?” [asked Wilhelm] “Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordinance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I also am not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao and then naturally the rain came.[22]
Are we, not unlike the Rainmaker? The issue here is to address the fact that our collective psyche, the world’s soul, the anima monde is not in Tao. We are not in the right order of the “ordinance of heaven.” Our lost boys are sending us a clear signal. They are symptomatic of this sickness of our time—searching for the heroic spirit and the warmth of humankind as they retreat into their isolated space and fed only by mechanical gadgets. Are they not a reflection of the hollowness of our collective spirit, the mirroring of our collective neurosis? And yet, as we know, our neurosis, when acknowledged, can also be a place of healing. In our world of crisis we are standing on a thin ledged precipice. “The descent into the depths always seems to precede the ascent,”[23] as Dr. Jung wrote. Hopefully we may kindle the light of consciousness to light the way through this explosive maze. Also as Jung wrote, “The world hangs on a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man.”[24] In our individual containment, we become a filament of that thread.

Nancy Qualls-Corbett, Ph.D. is a diplomat of the C. G. Jung Institute, Zurich and is a practicing analyst in Birmingham, Alabama. She is a senior training analyst affiliated with the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. The author of The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine and Awakening Woman, she has lectured in the States and Europe on this topic. 

Suggested reading: Resurrecting the Unicorn: Masculinity in the 21st Century by Bud Harris

Fisher King Press publishes an eclectic mix of worthy books including Jungian Psychological Perspectives, Cutting Edge Fiction, and a growing list of alternative titles.

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[1] Maggie Jones, “Shutting Themselves In.” New York Times Magazine, January 15, 2006. Page 2. (Also Michael Zielenziger, author of Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, interviewed on NPB “All Things Considered”, Nov. 6, 2006.)
[2] Ibid, page 2
[4] Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, for instance.
[5] Bisphenol A is an endocrine disrupter and is found in some plastic water and baby bottles, plastic food containers, dental materials, and the linings of metal food cans. It is a known endocrine disruptor, and "hundreds of studies published in the decade" have found that laboratory animals exposed to low levels of it have elevated rates diabetes, mammary and prostate cancers, decreased sperm count, reproductive problems, early puberty, obesity, and neurological problems. Other types of endocrine disrupters are found in soft toys, flooring, cosmetics, air fresheners, or flame retardants. See Wikipedia, “Endocrine disrupters.”
[6] David Brooks. “The Odyssey Years.” New York Times. October 9, 2007.
[7] Machinist, “Grand Theft Auto IV" sales top $500 million in a week.” May 8, 2008. Internet.
[8] David Brooks, ibid.
[9] Andrew Birkin. J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. Yale University Press, New Haven. 1986 p. iii
[10] Maria Louise von Franz. The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. Inner-City Books, Toronto. 2000 p.9
[11] Ibid. p. 8
[12] James Hillman. The Dream and the Underworld. Harper and Row, New York.
[13] Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, Fred Plaut. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. P. 125
[14] Lewis, Thomas, Amini, Fari, Lannon, Richard. A General Theory of Love. Vintage Books, New York. P.40
[15] C. G. Jung CW5 para. 259
[16] C.G. Jung, CW
[17] Jung, CW 17, para. 331
[18] Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, Princeton. P. 59
[19] Miller, “Why Men are Mad” Spring 91 p. 71
[20] ibid. p. 73
[21] ("The Development of Personality," 1934)
[22] C.G. Jung CW vol. 14. para. 604n
[23] C.G Jung, CW vol. 9 (1)
[24] Quoted in Tom Dozier, Houston Post, 16 September 1957)

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