Who Will Initiate Our Boys into Manhood?

As published in Paradigm Magazine — Spring 2004

The current generation is not the first or even the last generation to experience a separation between fathers and sons. It was as normal for fathers to be out of the house for stretches of time in the past as it is today. However, in the past children did not suffer the loss of male kinship as much as they seem to today. In the past, there were always grandfathers, uncles and mentors who stepped into the position of support for a boy when the father was off to war, or on the hunt. These men felt responsible for initiating the boys into the varied realms of manhood. They intuitively knew the sacred rites of passage, and how to guide the youngster through the traditions and rituals that would bring on an immense life-change.

In modern societies, many of our youth feel lost and disconnected. A genuine sense of community seems to be missing. In older cultures, it was common knowledge that the fruits of the future germinate from the seeds of the present. They had a perspective concerning the turbulent period of adolescence unrest, which gave them a greater appreciation for the importance of their own multifaceted roles in the lives of their children.

It does indeed “take a village” to raise a child. When the youth experience the support and acceptance by the community, they tend to accept themselves and find their place in the overall makeup of society, which benefits society as well. Malidoma Somé, a Dagara Shaman from West Africa, once explained that there was no word for depression in his tribe. When a child is born in the tribe, his place in the tribe is already established. He grows into his role; he is given his identity. Depression comes from a sense of purposelessness and despair. When one knows who he is and is recognized for his unique talents and gifts, he tends to be imbued with the sense of a larger Community Self that transcends the limits of his individual ego. This, however, must be forged like metal at some point so that it becomes an integral part of the boy’s personality.

In many tribes, there is a time when the boy is ripe to be taken by the men from the camp of the women to the men’s camp across the river. The women feign protest, but it is understood by all that their protests are in vain, resulting in a strange mixture of futility and relief. The predominance of the mother’s influence in the life of her son starts to shift. This begins a transitional process of discharging the confusion inherent in the boy. At first, he is ambivalent about individuating from the mother and moving toward the father and cannot fully grasp the importance of this process.

For a period of at least six weeks, the boy is taught and tested by the men on the basics of the transition from boyhood to manhood. By the time he returns to the village, he is celebrated and acknowledged as being different. He is no longer the boy who scampered between the women’s and men’s sides of the village. He is now a man who will reside on the men’s side. It is expected that he will shed the trappings of his childhood and undertake the challenges and responsibilities of manhood. The initiatory experience, executed through traditional rites of passage, provides a tangible blessing for the young man that formally welcomes him into a new station of maturity. Often, this is evidenced by a visible wound or scar that signifies the intensity of the ceremony. It is something that others can see, and something that the boy-turned-man now has to remind him of his passage from one state of being to another.

Michael Gurian, author of several books including A Fine Young Man, The Wonder of Boys and The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Boys and Young Men, claims, “Rites of passage are a lost art, yet our pubescent boys hunger for them. For over two decades, anthropological studies have confirmed that males need rites in order to mark their passage into manhood. The need for these rites correlates biologically to hunter/gatherer times. The majority of today’s boys and men do not hunt prey with weapons, but they seek the challenge that the hunt implies. When boys aren’t given these rites by their families, they nonetheless go out and try to prove manhood through high-risk, self-created rites of passage, and gangs to hunt with, often damaging their communities in hopes of proving they are becoming men and ought to have the respect of men.” (Personal interview January 22, 2004)

It is a sobering realization that there are so many boys in our culture who feel so disenfranchised. These are the hapless ones who glimpse that they may never receive respect or be welcomed into the community of men. These are the lost boys, the misfits, who experience themselves as different from the others, lacking entitlement. They do not fit in, and they sense that they will not be let into the camp for those in line to be initiated. A condition of despair and desperation moves into their hearts and souls. Shame and rage grow out of their despair and may be discharged at those who stand in the way, who essentially block their right-to-passage. In extreme cases, these boys end up in explosive rage responses, as in the case of the school shooting at Columbine High School. These boys are in desperate need of recognition and guidance from caring and concerned elders who could open the world of their spirit to them through attention and admiration.

Perhaps the epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) impacting our young males is really a symptom of a deficit of attention. Young boys tell stories of their fathers who are missing, are too busy, or seem not to really care about them. They tell me that they feel that they are on their own, without guidance, having to find their way through the world. They have told me that they wished that there were men around that they could talk with who would help them define what it means to be a man. They want to know what it means to be initiated into manhood.

The word “initiation” means to “enter” or “start,” so initiation is the starting point, not the end point, for the adventure of living. If a young man feels competent around other men and confident in himself about his manhood, one could say he has been initiated into the cultural ideal of masculinity. All previous cultures were spiritual in one way or another, so the goal of initiation is spiritual awakening. For millennia, primal tribal men initiated their sons. These were men whose every act was imbued with mythology, with the awareness of the spiritual as well as the physical consequences of each act. These men consciously initiated their sons by inducting them into and perpetuating the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and history of the community.

So who will initiate the sons of modern times? Men of any age who are missing a rites of passage experience as a demarcation between boyhood and manhood should consider creating an opportunity for them to have such an experience. It is never too late. Some men acknowledge that they do not feel like real men, but like boys masquerading as men. These men may have never received a blessing or initiatory experience from a father, a mentor, or a community of men.

Therefore, they do not feel that they have something to give to a boy who is seeking this form of recognition. It is important for men to find a community of men who have elders that are eager to nurture younger men. Men who have had rites of passage themselves recognize the importance of giving back to younger males in search of meaning. Observation shows that whether in circles with inner city boys or boys from the suburbs, they want the same things. The stories that they tell us are frequently similar. They talk about their alcoholic fathers, about divorce, about physical and psychological abuse, or simply that no one seems to care about what is going on within them. Their stories are gut-wrenching and can make someone cry. They have not shared their stories with anyone before until they sit with the men who provide the sense that someone cares, that someone really wants to listen.

My first exposure to traditional rites of passage was ten years ago, when my oldest son was 13. A group of us fathers prepared a weekend-long initiation experience for our sons, who ranged from 13 to 15. We, fathers and sons, met monthly during the year preceding the ritual ceremony to plan it out. Using Bernard Wiener’s book Boys to Men as a guide, we sketched out our blueprint for the rites of passage initiatory experience that we would provide for our boys. Our wives were aware and fully supportive of our process, and knew what part they would play in choreographing the event. Our sons asked questions and offered suggestions along the way while attempting to contain their growing anxiety as we moved closer to the anticipated weekend. We flew Malidoma SomŽ (who was himself initiated as a boy in a traditional African rites of passage ordeal) down from Oakland to officiate. This was Malidoma’s first rites of passage initiation for young men since his arrival in this country in the late 1980’s. He wanted every one to be clear that one does not become initiated overnight. One weekend does not accomplish what may require years to evolve. Initiation is a process, while the ceremony itself is but a point of reference.

By the time the fateful weekend arrived, the boys were jumping out of their skins. The fathers gathered up their sons in the early morning before dawn and began the journey to the ceremonial land. The boys were blindfolded to create an aura of mystery, and to encourage the initiate inward for self-reflection. They were driven up to the Wright land, a sacred parcel owned by Eric Wright, champion of men’s work and grandson of the renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Upon arrival, the blindfolds were removed and the boys greeted one another and observed their surroundings.

We gathered on the outskirts of the property to give the boys some preliminary instructions before sending them off on their individual pilgrimages through the hills, ending up in a second gathering place. Along the way, each boy met strategically positioned elders in various nooks and crannies who confronted him with questions like, “Have you come alone?” or “What are you seeking?” or “What have you brought me?” By the time the boys found their way to the clearing, they were fairly well tenderized and primed for the discussion on manhood facilitated by Malidoma. The fathers joined in sharing stories from their own youth and early initiatory experiences.

After lunch, we gathered to meet with the Medicine Chief who would be leading the sweat lodge and hear him teach about the native ritual of purification and prayer. We all participated in the placement of sacred stones in the fire pit, the building of the fire itself, and the covering of the lodge. The creation of the altar and all the symbolism with every nuance deepened the meaning of the ceremony. By sunset we entered the lodge reverently and commenced with one of the most powerful and bonding experiences that these fathers and sons had ever had together. It was a rite of passage as much for the fathers as for the sons. Afterwards, we sat around the fire sharing a meal and personal stories from the lodge.

As the day came to a close, the boys picked up their gear and headed toward an isolated spot on the land, which each boy had carefully sought out earlier in the day. They would sleep alone, away from all the others for the entire night. Each carried with him a letter and a medicine bundle that their mother had diligently prepared. The letters were to be opened and read only after the boy was tucked away in his sleeping bag. Following the reading of the letter came the exploration of the contents of the medicine bundle. Each bundle Ñ also known as a medicine bag Ñ consisted of objects that were specially selected by the boy’s mother reflecting the love and appreciation felt for her son. This represents a treasured and sacred keepsake to commemorate the event.

At breakfast, Malidoma carefully explained the details and nature of his won initiation. The boys sat transfixed with penetrating eyes as they took in every word. Time was set aside for preparing the gauntlet and archway that the boys would traverse and pass under. The archway would serve as a portal or point of demarcation signifying that the boy had crossed a threshold from one realm to the next. The boys walked solemnly through the gauntlet line and were presented to Malidoma by their fathers. Malidoma stood on the other side of the archway to receive them, one at a time, as they crossed the threshold. The fathers had prepared medicine bags containing letters that they had written to their sons as well as a meticulously chosen knife, which each presented to his son, as Malidoma blessed the new young men and welcomed them from the village of the boys to the village of the men. All enjoyed a tremendous feast, and the weekend came to a close with the weary yet transformed initiates congratulating each other and readying themselves for the journey back down the mountain.

This is one example of an initiation ritual. Father-and-son bonding experiences through rites of passage ceremonies can come in a variety of shapes and forms. For example, a father might take his son on a wilderness adventure. A mother and father took their son to Alaska for a week of kayaking and salmon fishing. A mentor and young man team, who loved climbing, decided to scale an advanced peak to commemorate the boy’s transition to manhood. While another father took his son to a golf camp vacation, they bonded on the golf course, which is an age-old tradition.

The passing on of traditions is an important rite of passage in itself. Such as, for example, when a father or uncle teaches the boy to carve the turkey at the Thanksgiving meal and then, one year, asks the boy to do the deed. This can serve as a memorable benchmark for the evolution from boyhood to manhood. Men need to recognize that part of the circle of life is stepping aside to allow a space and time for their offspring to assume their roles. Every family and ethnic group has traditions that are passed on from the elders to the youth.

So, who will initiate our boys into manhood? The answer is that all men and women can help achieve this vital responsibility. Our society needs this in order to pass on the traditions and rituals that serve as a bridge from the ancient times of our ancestors to our modern times. As the central character, Tevye, wisely announces in the Broadway play, a culture without rituals and traditions is as “shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”