In my study of what it means to be a man, something keeps arising that has been bothering me. There’s no real distinction of when a boy becomes a man. An informal poll of my friends and students yields that either (1) they do not know (or have not hit that crossing moment) or (2) they became a man mostly when they struck out on their own, independent of their family, paying bills themselves, working jobs, the like.
But, when I look back to what makes a man, what I’ve discovered at least, this striking out on their own does not do justice as a rite of passage. As I’ll explain in the coming weeks (as I delve deeper into this subject), the rite of passage occurs with the guidance of older, respected males at the helm, teaching and guiding the way. It culminates, typically, with a challenge, at which point the adolescent male (that time between boyhood and manhood) returns to his mentors victorious, and is brought into their fold as a man. Probably the best example I can give is that from 300:
Prior to this scene, you see the boy being raised as a fighter, taught everything he needs to know, before thrust into the wild for his final quest as a boy. When he kills the wolf and returns home with it, it signifies his crossing into manhood.
Know that I’m not advocating that we throw our boys into the wild with a loincloth and a spear. But, at present, in the US, there is not much in the way of rites of passage. Because of this, we run the risk of having adult males like Marcel, described by authors Stephen James and David Thomas. Marcel was a successful plastic surgeon, but his marriage was dying, his work bored him, and he was close to depression. But, more so, he was unmanly…boyish, unhardened by life, wide-eyed and exuberant. This innocence came from his loss of his father before fully being initiated into manhood. To hear Marcel say it “I guess I never learned what it means to be a man. My dad died when a boy needs a dad the most.” (pp. 273-274)
Richard Rohr points out (cited in James and Thomas’s book) that “only our Western culture has ‘deemed it unnecessary to “initiate” young men. Otherwise, culture after culture felt that if the young man were not introduced to “the mysteries,” he would not know what to do with his pain and would almost always abuse his power'” (p. 276). This is so true. Continuing from James and Thomas, “without initiation, boys become disillusioned, dissatisfied, and disenchanted. They have nothing greater than themselves to be a part of – they lack a moral and spiritual identity – and they have no greater story to guide them. … Without initiation, boys are groping for direction, but without meaning or purpose. Ultimately, an uninitiated boy lives isolated and disconnected from himself, from others, and from the world” (p. 277).
Our boys need an initiation. They need a rite of passage that they can claim as their passage into manhood. If adult men that care about them (especially their fathers) do not provide this, they will seek it somewhere else. Many times, in my work with fraternities, the hazing that goes on inside a chapter is referred to as a rite of passage. These college males never were initiated into manhood, do not have the three pillars of manhood (responsibility, respect, and reverence), and so, they place themselves at the will of adolescent males 2-3 years their senior, who have no more knowledge of what it means to be a man than they do. Other boys will turn to gangs, and still others will never be initiated into manhood, and will become like Marcel above.
My challenge is for men, real men, to step up, and look for opportunities to help the boys in our midst have that rite of passage. You cannot replace their father, but if he is present, you can encourage and help him to offer an initiation into manhood for his son (at the proper time). If he is not, you can work with other men who are invested in that boy’s life to offer a model of masculinity and an initiation into manhood.
To helping our boys chart a path into manhood, to proper rites of passage, and to refinding the “lost boys”,
James, S., & Thomas, D. (2009). Wild things: The art of nurturing boys. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.