A Modern-Day Male Initiation?
Updated: Apr 16, 2019
‘If you don’t initiate your young men into the tribe, they will burn down the village’
— African proverb
As I said in my post about the rites of passage that men once had to go through, I believe that we still need that. Before I go on, however, I need to make it clear here that I do not advocate returning to those old systems -- this would simply be going back in time, and reversing much of good progress. On the other hand, I do not think we should have thrown them away either -- this was a mistake much worse than even going back in time in terms of progress. The third option, as I see it, would be this:
-- setting in place a rigid, intense, and challenging ritual -- or keeping an existing one -- that would serve as a journey, a doorway between boyhood and manhood.
-- keeping the 'old ways' of providing boys with the training and education they need during that process, making it a kind of bootcamp for their soul and body.
-- the training, the education and the rituals must be provided by men only, and, ideally, by the men who are part of the inner circle of the boys who are being initiated; they must be close to their father or father-figure; they must know the boys well enough, so that the boys feel safe in their presence.
-- while staying more or less with the old ways of doing things, with rigour, toughness, and intensity that is always one level above the comfort zone of the boys, the men should introduce a new approach that many of the old cultures did not have: the approach of knowing, deeply knowing each boy's soul, better than he can ever know it himself at this stage of life.
This is what, in a nutshell, I think a healthy, modern-day male initiation should look like: not removing the intensity and even the harshness of the training, but adding to it the closeness of being deeply known, and the freedom to fail, over and over again, and never, ever be rejected. In some ancient cultures, men who don't make it through the brutality of the initiation process are set up for a life of misery, poverty, and early death. But the reasons for that may well be that they have not been deeply known, and, unlike in today's world, the men around them didn't have the knowledge of trauma, stress, and psychology that we have today.
Today, we can do that. Today, we can have a group of boys who, though going through the same thing at the same time, are offered challenges that are tailor-made to their deepest fears and their deepest, buried abilities. After all, presenting a naturally athletic boy with some physical obstacle may help boost his confidence more, but it won't have the transforming effect needed to make him a well-rounded man of calm strength, peace, and true, deep confidence that will inspire and lift others up. In the same way, the shy, academic boy who won't do so well in sports, need to be challenged in that very area, and perhaps taken through his greatest source of shame and weakness, so that he too will come out stronger, more relaxed and more confident, and able to finally feel good in his body. But we must not stop there; we must look not only at each boy's various abilities but also his ways of relating and communicating to both males and females, his inner beliefs about the world and people, his fears and inspirations.
You see, doing away with the old barbaric ways was never the right solution. We should not have thrown away the barbarism of our forefathers; we should have simply redeemed it, making it softer and deeper, turning it from the steel hammer which forged the strong and crushed the weak, into a warm, fertile soil from which a boy's new self can grow...
The American president Theodore Roosevelt once said:
“Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”
Yes, keep the strength, keep the high demands, keep the intensity -- but do it differently for each boy. Let each boy fail and fail again, but instead of being despised and rejected, instead of being driven even further into becoming a man who will hide behind the only things he is sure he can conquer -- sports, or studies, or art -- find out why he struggles in those areas. And I guarantee you that, in most cases, limitations that prevent boys from exploring life and being developed equally in all areas. I do not mean to perfection, of course, but only to a point in which they have a choice what to pursue -- because most boys don't really have a choice; they only do the things they are 'naturally' good at. And although, in their heart of hearts, they might have actually liked to be better at reading and remembering (for those who gravitate toward sports), or be stronger and better co-ordinated in the body (for those who are 'naturally' more academic), the world prevents them from exploring these things by telling them they are 'just not good at' something.
Now, don't get me wrong — we can't all be good at all things; I know that. But I also know the longing of a boy who, though not 'naturally gifted' at sports, longed to be able to be free in his body, strong and agile like his classmates. I remember well the shame and inadequacy as a young man, when, in the heat of the Bulgarian summer, my fellow students jumped into the cool blue waters of the Black sea...I could not swim then, and thought I could never learn. I felt the same about many other things, and about each one of them, I was deeply wrong.
Not only could I learn to do those things, but once I did, I found that they gave me great joy -- the joy I was meant to have long time ago, as a boy who was meant to live without fear and the host of inhibitions I laboured under from my very first years.
You see? It's not about the activities at all -- I don't want to turn the academics into sportsmen, and the sportsmen into academics; but I also don't want any boy to grow up into a life he has not chosen for himself...and how many of us can truly say they ever had that option?
This is why we need a community of men, a modern-day tribe of older men who will know intimately the boys in their midst and will love them enough to initiate them and help them become men who would be free to be themselves, without the sever limitations, fears, and inhibitions most boys today grow with.
So it must not start with boys...
A program will not do this, no matter how cleverly invented.
It must all start with the men.
After all, how can men get to know their boys deeply if they don't know themselves in that way?
And how can we know a boy's deepest source of shame and pain, and his ways of hiding it, unless we have first known our own pain, and our own shame?
No, men who have chosen the safe path by never challenging themselves in the things they are 'just no good at' cannot initiate boys.
We need to walk the walk, long before we can talk the talk.
It is never too late.
With much respect,