The Stages of a Man’s Life

Moving always involves pondering book titles as you pack and relocate your library. This weekend I did my last walk-in Saturday in Bucksport and back in Caribou sixteen hours after starting out I randomly opened a box that contained my prized Osler biography, signed by Cushing, and came across the 80-some page monograph “He” by Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson. I wrote about this book here six years ago.

I have a couple of copies of this little book and I keep coming back to it. First published in 1989, just before I started a four and a half year stint at Cutler Health Center at the University of Maine during my first exile from Bucksport, it describes the archetypical journey most men must undertake as they move through the stages of life, referencing literary names like the Fisher King, Parcifal, Don Quixote, Garamond, King Arthur and the knights around his table, the Holy Grail and the Grail Castle.

The essence of Johnson’s book is that males during adolescence have a profound (Holy) Grail experience, too powerful for them to remain in but then spend the bulk of their manhood hoping to find again. They finally learn that they were never that far from it; it is just a short way down the road and to the left, and this time, if they have learned their life lessons, they can enter the castle and remain there.

Central to the legend is that a simple man, a fool, needs to ask the simple question “whom does the Grail serve” in order for the wounded Fisher King to be healed. But Parsifal, who is such a person, heeded his mother’s advise “don’t ask too many questions” and missed his opportunity.

As I reread the book this time, a sunny Sunday morning over several mugs of coffee, I reflected on how much I have changed in the thirty years since I first read it.

One of the themes throughout the book, woven through the Grail legends, which exist in several cultures and languages, is man’s relationship to his inner feminine, one of the strong elements of Jungian psychology.

Johnson lists six basic relationships a man shares with the female world. All are useful, but they must not be confused with each other: His human mother, his mother complex, his mother archetype, his fair maiden (Jungian speak for inspiration), his flesh and blood wife or partner and Sofia, the goddess of wisdom.

Johnson explains the difference between mood and feeling. Feeling is the ability to value and mood is being overtaken or possessed by a man’s inner feminine.

I am still working on reigning in my tendency for moodiness on some levels, and I am working on letting go of my Americanized idea of “the pursuit of happiness”.

Johnson, as many other thinkers says that happiness is, linguistically and philosophically, living in the present, with “what happens”.

He references Alexis de Tocqueville:

“One cannot pursue happiness; if he does he obscures it. If he will proceed with the human task of life, the relocation of the center of gravity of the personality to something greater outside itself, happiness will be the outcome.”

Here I am, unpacking boxes, mending fences, cleaning stalls, reorganizing closets and cupboards; life is happening in a humble red farmhouse with peeling paint and a sagging front porch. It feels a lot like moving out to camp every summer when I was a young boy, before I started to think I had to be a knight and a dragon slayer…

To quote James Taylor, not for the first time:

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it. There ain’t nothing to it.”

2 Responses to “The Stages of a Man’s Life”


  1. 1 Susan Neely July 8, 2019 at 7:31 am

    Some of us think that there is eternal life with God after this transient one. We seek no Grails…we seek to accept the salvation offered by Christ and His work. Our life here is as His servant. If this is our best life, what could possibly be the purpose. We die and turn to dust and have no eternal soul?

  2. 2 elizabeth baker July 8, 2019 at 8:37 am

    Thank you.


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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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