There are a few things that are lacking from our modern society today that have existed and helped males realize and take ownership of their place as men in society. The most visible of these is the lack of a distinct rite of passage for boys to become men. In their book “Wild Things”, Stephen James and David Thomas (2009) tell us that “we cannot emphasize enough how significant these rites and rituals are in the lives of boys. As experiential, spatial, and tactile learners, boys need events and ceremonies to help mark significant moments and transitions in their lives.” (p. 275) A male needs to know when he has become a man, but more than that, he must know what rights, responsibilities, and requirements he has as a man that he may not have had as a boy.
This is where the rite of passage comes in. The rite of passage serves multiple purposes:
- It provides a distinct mark of separation from one stage of life into another.
- It instructs those going through it in their responsibilities in the new stage as well as the expectations those already in that stage of life have for them.
- It offers a celebration of the new stage of life for the participant and the providers.
Each of these purposes is extremely important. David Gilmore (1990), in examining cultural rites of passage for men, offers that “real manhood is different from simple anatomical maleness, that it is not a natural condition that comes about spontaneously through biological maturation but rather is a precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds” (p. 11). This leads to one of my personal favorite expressions – there is no “bam! You’re a man” moment that happens naturally. We must provide this distinct mark of separation, one that is meaningful for its participants. Failing to do so, I and many psychiatrists believe, causes males to be stuck in a perpetual state of boyishness, never claiming their responsibility as mature men, or to revert back to boyish ways, also known as the mid-life crisis.
Each rite of passage that I’ve examined offers instruction for its participants in the traditions of the culture. Many of these rites of passage come from primitive cultures, so the belief system/religion and gender roles and expectations are fairly rigid. Thus, it becomes essential for the older men to initiate the young males into the secrets of the culture that only the males know (regarding religion, mystical beliefs, and other ceremonies performed by the culture). We don’t have such straightforward educational needs in our melting pot of society, but there are certain expectations and responsibilities that come with the mature masculine that are not expected of boys. We must provide this instruction so that 1) males know what is expected of them as men (more to come on this in future posts) and 2) males are able to exist, interact, and thrive with mature adults, both males and females.
Finally, the rite of passage provides a celebration of new life. I see many males in my work afraid to take full hold of the mature masculine in part because it is not celebrated, but rather seen as a burden, as a set of responsibilities without much carefree life they live currently. Providing the celebration of this new phase gives them something to look forward to. It allows them to see that just because they are embracing the mature masculine and taking responsibility for their life and actions (one aspect of the mature masculine) does not mean that their life is forever ruined. Additionally, this celebration allows for everyone to see that ______ is indeed now a man, and you can celebrate with him, encourage him in his masculinity, and know what you can expect from him as a mature male.
What do rites of passage look like and how can we re-incorporate them into our society? In the posts that follow, I will explore the three most common steps of rites of passage – separation, liminal space, and reintegration – and offer ideas on how these might look in a modern society and how concerned males and females might work to provide safe rites of passage for younger males.
To providing positive rites of passage and safe, impactful initiations into the mature masculine for young males,