Who Are the Real Heroes Today?

Closing the Father Gap for Our Boys

By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.


We watched from the sidelines as Lance Armstrong has fallen on his sword and has finally decided to tell the truth about his use of performance enhancing drugs. You decide if he’s told all of the truth. We’ve watched recently in horror as the news broke about Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius (aka The Blade Runner) who is facing murder charges for the death of his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Two more examples of “fallen heroes.” The news has been filled with examples of celebrities who have gone astray and yet their loyal followers continue to look up to them with adoring allegiance. We tend to elevate sports figures and celebrities to hero status and when they fall from grace we’re dismayed, let down and lose our faith in those that we look to for guidance and inspiration. But, should we be placing so much on their shoulders? Are they the ones that we should hold as heroes? Who should we look up to today, and who are the authentic heroes that may be unsung but none-the-less are making a difference where it counts?

Where are all the real heroes today? Role models that represent leadership for our youth appear to be absent or in short supply. Many young men today lack guidance to prepare them for manhood. Positive role models that represent the fundamental qualities of mature masculinity such as honesty, integrity, compassion, a sense of social responsibility and a commitment to purpose are needed now more than ever before. Where are all of the fathers, the ones who should be the guiding lights that young males can look up to?

The Father Gap

There is, in fact, a true crisis of fathering in this country. In general, one-third of our nation’s kids will go to bed tonight without their biological father in the next room. Forty percent of children in fatherless households haven’t even seen their fathers in at least a year.

These men have chosen to disconnect and drift from their families, leaving as many as fifteen million confused kids behind. In later life, many of these dismissed kids act out sexually or attempt suicide, the leading cause of death in the fifteen to twenty-four-year-old age group.

Crime, unwed teenage pregnancy, and suicide are huge problems. Studies show that the most reliable predictor of these manifestations is not income or race; it is family structure. Unwed pregnant girls and criminally oriented boys tend to come from fatherless families. Seventy percent of imprisoned minors have spent at least part of their lives without fathers. Gangs feed on fatherless boys. Without fathers and mentors around to teach successful ways of coping, adolescent boys are prone to create their own destructive rites of passage arising out of the rage they feel over being forgotten and abandoned. Random and serious violence can also be correlated to fatherless families. Wounded boys commonly grow up to be wounding men, inflicting on others the very distress that went unhealed within them. Look behind the walls of any one of the men that go on a rampage and you’ll find the absence of positive fathering in his life.

Turn on the news any day and you’ll see an account of a man who is in trouble and often causing trouble. Why are so many men anxious and depressed, or rage-full and acting out? It commonly springs from a painful longing for the unfulfilled relationship with the father, a core wound in a man’s psyche that I refer to as the Father Gap. Many males, of all ages, carry this hidden wound that was inflicted upon them by a father who was heavy handed and went over the top, crushing the boy’s spirit, or by a father who was missing in action and goes down and out of his son’s life. Males often bear unspoken shame and grief from having missed out on a loving and caring relationship with their fathers.

The Father Gap in Black and White

The absence of fathers also goes a long way in explaining the continuing gulf between black and white America. It has been almost impossible to equalize opportunities between the races when a black child is three times more likely to live without a father than a white child.

Underserved black children are among the most vulnerable people in the U.S. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that about 80% of African American children can expect to spend “a significant” portion of their childhood living without their biological father. The 4.5 million African American men ages 15 to 29 represent 14% of the U.S. male population of that age and 12% of all African Americans in the U.S. Their high rates of death, incarceration, and unemployment, and relatively low levels of college graduation rates raise concerns for African American families and the nation’s economy.

Of all African American fourth-graders, fifty-eight percent are functionally illiterate. It is my understanding that officials study the demographics of fourth graders to determine how many prisons will be required in the years ahead to incarcerate criminal adult males. In some cities, eighty percent of black males drop out before finishing high school. Every day, hundreds of disenfranchised fatherless black males are arrested, and one in every eight African American males ages twenty-five to twenty-nine is incarcerated. The top cause of death for black males is homicide.

A Sense of Belonging

In fact, perhaps more than ever, our young males are yearning for a sense of belonging. Inner city youth, succumbing to the dramatic absence of fathering and mentoring, turn to urban gangs for a sense of belonging. Males from privileged and underprivileged backgrounds often perceive acquisitions as the measure of manhood. The privileged may perceive that they can stuff enough external acquisitions in the hole of their core wound to make up for the absence of fathering. Believing that most doors are closed to them, the underprivileged often aspire to play for the NBA or NFL in order to be able to acquire the resources to become someone that has a measure of personal power in the world. It is evident that young men from all backgrounds have entered a troubled world with little guidance, diminished preparation, a false sense of value and dashed hope that they can ever make something of their lives.

Those of us who are interested in men’s issues have observed that a meaningful shared passage into manhood for men is sadly lacking today, as it has been for several generations. Historically, men as hunter-gatherers and farmers knew who they were as men. Their sons spent many hours every day with their fathers and grandfathers, learning through the process of being together what manhood was about. The elders would informally and formally induct the young men into the community of men. But as technology evolved, our great-grandfathers went from the rural farming culture to the urban industrial culture. Men moved from the farms to the cities and into less meaningful and/or unfulfilling work. This was a profoundly significant shift because our work is such an important part of our identity.

The involuntary abandonment by fathers established that, for several generations, boys in our culture have been raised almost entirely by women. Women, simply because they are women, cannot teach boys about manhood. Without men, there is no possibility of any rite of passage into manhood. Therefore, men have been losing the sense of what mythologist Michael Meade calls “gender ground.”

For centuries, men in indigenous cultures had gathered to seek counsel and perform ceremonies and rituals to initiate boys into manhood and to receive guidance and blessings from elders and to mutually support the community of men. Secret societal groups like the Masons, the Elks, Moose, Knights of Columbus, and others served as opportunities for men to come together.

In a time of our ancestors, tribes would initiate young males into manhood through a rite of passage. The elders of the tribe, to ritualize the young man’s journey into maturity, would facilitate a ceremony involving some form of challenge. During the rite of passage the older men would redirect the boys’ focus and interests from the ways of childhood to the behavior and responsibilities that comprise the world of men. This process took place during the time of puberty when boys were to leave the world of women and move over to the realm of the village where the men reside.

As the ones who created the world our youth will inherit, it is our job to prepare our young people for the journey ahead. Although we cannot provide them with their answers, we can point them in the direction of the right questions to ask and equip them with tools for their process of self-discovery. We can rise up to the challenge to become real heroes for our wayward youth and our own children by displaying the qualities of Mindful manhood in contrast with those of false masculinity.

Being the Father You Always Wanted

Many men, lacking In adequate fathering when they were boys, continue to deprive themselves from the fathering they secretly long for by estranging themselves from other men and treating themselves in unloving, if not self-loathing ways. More and more fathers—feeling betrayed by women who have left them, confused by unspoken expectations of them as men, incapacitated by court-mandated agreements, and feeling like failures as fathers and men—are physically, emotionally, and spiritually abandoning their children.

When a man feels that he has failed, he is likely to cut himself off from his past and start again. Many men, instead of cultivating their age-appropriate grandfather energies, resurrect their father energies instead, take on a younger wife, and create a whole new family. Too often the old family is left far behind. One profound difference from our ancestors’ societies is that now, if a man leaves his children, there are not usually other men from his family or community to stand in his place.

How can a man move from the process of healing his own Father Gap to becoming a good father to his children? Spiritual Warriors in the role of fathers can specifically provide the needed support for their son’s journey into manhood and their daughter’s journey into womanhood. Princes and princesses can be prepared and blessed as they mature into becoming kings and queens in their own right.

Trading in one’s victim shroud for the mantle of personal accountability, as one chooses to be the father-to-the-man, can be quite liberating. As well, a mentor who can help to close the Father Gap can become the ally that the man was seeking from his own father. Men can mutually mentor each other and therefore create an alliance that allows and supports the growth and development of the internal father archetype, a prominent cornerstone in the foundation of a man’s life structure.

When a man becomes aware of his own core wound—his Father Gap—he obviously can’t ask for a do-over of his childhood. But what he can do is seek to heal the wound by reaching out to other men, thereby indirectly “re-parenting” himself and satisfying some of those lacks in his own life. This not only provides him with some of the self-fathering he craves, but it is also a significant step toward becoming a Spiritual Warrior who gracefully accepts the challenge of attaining conscious masculinity. In turn, he will be better at parenting his children and being the parent his children deserve, and he will be so much better at being able to mentor others.

The Role of Spiritual Warrior Fathers in the World Today

The picture a man displays through the role of fathering radiates outward as part of what gives existential meaning to individual and community life. Through the role, the person is connected to self, family, society, and earth. Without the role, the person would drift through life without purpose.

Our boys, young men, and our mature men are calling on us to explore with clarity what the role of fathers should be. If we do not provide a sacred role for our boys as they grow, they are more likely to join a gang, abuse their lovers, abandon their wives and children, subsist in emotional isolation, and become addicted, hyper-materialistic, lonely, and unhappy. A boy needs a structure and discipline in which to learn who he is. He needs to live a journey that has clear responsibilities and goals. He needs a role in life. Without these, without the role training that accompanies these, he does not know his sacred and important objectives in life.

Without the disciplined role that a father exudes, sons and daughters do not know how to gauge their actions and behavior that manifest their intentions, achievements, and successes. Especially in areas of responsible relationship, children will never quite know what they have accomplished while experimenting with the sacred tasks of love, caring, and commitment. When fathers are firm and commanding in their role structure, they provide a context made up of boundaries and limits. It gives their children something to lean against that is solid, has margins, and provides containment.

The male role of father should rise from the seed of this word: husbandry, which means to dwell. In ancient cultures a husband was a household dweller who felt a deep masculine bond to his home and land. Husbanding implied generating and maintaining stable relationships with self, family, community, culture, and earth.

Boys and men at their best will mature into a role in which they are not only required to but want to be good husbands and fathers—husbands and fathers of families, stewards of communities and cultures around the world.

Father, Mentor and Father Figure

There are countless numbers of unsung heroes that will never gain the public recognition they deserve for the roles they play in the lives of others. They typically don’t need it and no doubt would ever consider that they deserve to be touted as heroes. And yet they are. For all those that are simply and quietly living their lives and doing their jobs to be the fathers, mentors and father figures that are making a positive difference, I salute them. They are among the spiritual warriors that are making a contribution where it counts.

I encourage more men to view the role of mentor and father figure as a significant contribution to the world of those who are fatherless and searching for guidance and meaning in their lives. If more men would view the value that they can bring to those that are in need of a sense of belonging and recognition we could ultimately make a difference in the harsh reality of so many young men whose lives are adrift, lacking direction, with no one to guide them, and no hope of going anywhere or amounting to anything.

Weekly therapeutic support groups, one-day workshops and longer retreats can be life-changing experiences for men providing a powerful source of self-expression and engagement with others. I founded the Men’s Center of Los Angeles in 1988 following my first men’s workshop in 1987 in which 45 men gathered to explore what it means to be a man in dramatically changing and often-turbulent world. Since that time we have held well over 50 Sacred Path Men’s Retreats in which we have brought thousands of good men together to bring out the best in them. In 2000, we created the Call to Adventure Rites of Passage Retreat for fathers and sons, boys and mentors. In addition to facilitating participants from the suburbs and other parts of the nation, we also provide funds to scholarship boys in need residing in the South Central, Compton, Watts and Venice areas of greater Los Angeles. I’m pleased to say that we have assisted many males of all ages on their journey to become Mindful men, loving husbands and fathers. Our Call to Adventure Retreats convene north of Malibu in April each year. You can learn more about it at MensCenterLosAngeles.com.

Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D., MFT, FAPA is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Beverly Hills and Woodland Hills (DrStephenJohnson.com) and the Executive Director of the Men’s Center of Los Angeles (MensCenterLosAngeles.com). His new book, The Sacred Path: The Way of the Spiritual Warrior (Journey to Mindful Manhood) was recently published and is available at: SacredPathPress.com.