The Bigger Story, Part 2: Dying to Live.
By Nigel Mohammed.
The Story of Western Culture
Although there is not room enough here to tell the story of Western culture, but this cultural story has also shaped us, so our personal and cultural story has forged our identity, both feminine and masculine. In the modern era, masculine identity has been forged by ‘values’ such as secularism, competition, survival of the fittest, consumerism, hedonism, instant gratification, living for things, money, education, status, the nuclear family, the ‘good life’, and individualism. These in and of themselves if they define us, will not help us to live for a greater cause.
These values of Western culture however, do not for the most part teach us how to suffer well, how to live well for others authentically, and how to lead well. I could add how to love well, especially sacrificially. Moreover, secularism rules out transcendence and spirituality for the most part. Individualism as a way of life has become a core value of Western culture, so it feels valid to live an individualistic self-indulgent life, but what we look to for validation also shapes us. For men in particular the danger is individualism keeps us locked into a cave of isolation and we have no one to walk through a journey of inner healing.
Initiation Rites of Passage
Rites of passage have been universal to human culture for thousands of years, especially for young boys who knew the line in the sand when they would become a man. Even the journey from baby to child, child to teenager, to father, grandfather, elder, and death are rites of passage, but Western culture does not define them as such any longer.
''So many men
in Western culture
Rites of passage have three stages. Separation from the present; transition where we learn new skills, new ways of being and are changed deeply. Finally there is incorporation into the new self that is changed, but for others.
So many men in Western culture are stuck, so surely it is time to restore initiation rites of passage. This is not to imply that this is the answer to all of men’s brokenness, but traditional ways of forming masculine identity have also failed in some capacity, like family, the workplace, church and maybe sport has become the opiate of the masses, that provides a kind of masculine outlet like camaraderie, tribalism etc, but sport per se does not heal our deepest wounds.
So when did we become a man? Can we answer that question with confidence, clarity and conviction? Western culture seems to have rejected initiation rites of passage for boys after the Industrial revolution. Whereas before this paradigm shift, boys were shaped largely by their fathers and rites of passage, however, after the industrial revolution boys were separated from their fathers. It could be argued then that the relationship between sons and fathers was one of the deepest disruptions with the onset of the industrial age. How much more now in the all-pervasive information age of technology where families are so fragmented? This is not to idealise agrarian cultures, it is to point out, that something has affected men from offering powerful life giving energy to others.
You only need to observe the massive epidemic of both fatherlessness and male addiction that I have already pointed out. Why do inner city teenagers often join gangs? Because young boys will create their own rites of passage, maybe the gang represents an unconscious surrogate father? The severe lack of courageous moral leadership in Western governments would be another factor. The decline of authentic bold men with vision in Western churches and on and on it goes. Homeless men for example largely outnumber homeless women and men commit suicide much more often than women. Why?
The profound pain in our personal and cultural story has conditioned us to avoid pain and yet rites of passage involve pain in order to live powerfully for others. Men in western culture tend to be rational, logical, independent and faithless. Our cultural story has told us to do life alone in the form of individualism as noted; the message is ‘don’t be weak by being transparent with your fears and deep sense of inadequacy’. To the extent we believe and agree with the values of our cultural story, to that extent we will be disconnected and alienated from our true authentic manhood.
Dying to Live
We can learn from our pain, but to find our life we have to lose it. My own story of pain has taught me that factors such as mystery and paradox can sit comfortably with deep assurance. What do I mean? One of the most valuable lessons that has been embedded in my inner being by a love that transcends my story, the Western story and even the story of humanity, is that connecting with who you are becoming by surrendering and accepting the pain of our story, enables this greater love of God to heal, liberate and shift the disposition of our hearts to live in a bigger story for others.
We become by what we overcome.
Therefore becoming and overcoming are central to the bigger story we are to live out of.
In other words our greatest gift to others is hidden in our deepest wounds and that pain becomes absorbed into something that has a greater sense of meaning and purpose, and so who we are to become for others is organic to our story. We can then stand back and view the landscape of our story and observe that someone else is being born out of that story, and is beginning to crystallise as we become transformed by the journey through our pain out to the other side.
However, it must be said, that authentic mentors and spiritual fathers and mothers are needed to facilitate this journey and a deep sickness of Western culture is that individualism and materialism does not provide the space for these crucial companions on our journey. These mentor figures able to be transparent and who know the power of healthy vulnerability can keep men especially from living in a cave of isolation. In a cave you see only shadows and not the substance. A self-indulgent cultural story does not exactly teach you how to suffer well does it?
This crystallising with the right help, then takes the scales from off our eyes to see that weakness is a great gift, for it is only then that we become strong for others. Embracing weakness as a gift is radically counter cultural to the Western story.
This is how our being and life becomes defined by paradox. It is as if our calling chooses us rather than the other way around, and this ‘sweet paradox’ woos and allures our hearts to live in a bigger story.
God knows the danger of us ignoring our hearts, so he reawakens our deepest desires and longings, if we have ears to hear and understand and are given the courage to walk through the fire of our historic pain, we will stumble across the great treasure of our authentic voice and identity as our desires our first awakened, then deepened and ultimately fulfilled in our destiny.
Nigel Mohammed is a teacher, mentor, author and public speaker. He has worked with homeless men and has provided mentoring for younger men; he has worked overseas with women and children at risk; he has worked in leadership development and has ran men's groups.
Nigel is passionate about his Christian faith, and today he serves his community by equipping other men to ''live in a story bigger than themselves''. He is currently developing a variety of courses that he will run at a local community hub he is a part of.
Nigel and his wife live in Worthing, West Sussex.