How to create meaningful rites that young men want to experience.
A follow up to Nick Clements’ The Function of Adrenalin in Boys’ Rites of Passage.
In 2006 I was employed to make a documentary film about the male circumcision rites of the nomadic Samburu tribes people of northern Kenya. I thought, living with lovely indigenous people looks simple and exciting on the multiplicity of documentary films out there in television land … it isn’t.
Staying with them for many months showed me quite how barbaric and arcane the practice is, and how much their culture needs to change and reform. In my righteous and politically correct upbringing I was deeply offended and shocked by a lot of what I witnessed.
At the same time the elders of the community constantly reminded me of my own imperfection. After a while I started to see my culture through their eyes. I saw how equally shocked they were by our barbaric and, to them, arcane culture. How perverted we felt to them, the cruelty, the loneliness, the exploitation, the plastic rubbish!
This made me realise that despite our superficial differences—community based hunter / gatherer versus self-centred consumer / materialist—in the new millennium both cultures are old-fashioned, faulty, failing and falling apart.
The elders complained about their teenagers lack of respect and how ‘in their day things had been a lot harder.’ They reminded me so much of the older people I work with in the South Wales Valleys. Bemoaning the loss of the coal and steel industries, and ‘it’s all too easy nowadays.’
This is the kind of drivel teenagers have to listen to, the world over.
Change the record.
Boys to men
At least the Samburu can be bothered to create a huge ritual and ceremony to honour the coming of manhood for their boys. Here in the ‘civilized’ West we expect our boys to change into men without any assistance and minimum disturbance for the rest of us.
Quite rightly our young people feel something is missing when they reach teenagehood and beyond, but they don’t know how to fill the void. Unconsciously, blindly and without guidance many teenagers are now creating ‘anti-social peer initiations’. Testosterone fuelled escapades which can cause pain and suffering for themselves and others.
The men’s movement, bold and noble as it is, re-discovered ‘being a hairy man in the woods’ a while ago, and is foisting this back-to-basics view on unsuspecting teenagers. Drumming very loudly, lighting fires, lodging sweats, making bows and arrows is all very sweet and of value to some, but mostly misses the point.
Surely, we can do better than these two alternatives? Surely we can re-create or create anew rites of passage for boys which are relevant and of value.
If we can be bothered, and I can, then the minimum requirements are something like these:
The boy has got to want to do them. This is not something you force a boy to do. A lot of people believe conscription and boot camps are the answer, they work for some people but not everyone. They work when the boy wants to do that kind of thing, not when he is forced into it. By forcing him you create resentment, prolong immaturity, and the rites are wasted.
The rite must be relevant to the boy’s future life. One way of ensuring this would be to include the creative and collaborative use of modern technology as part of them, not excluding it. We are all affected by the rapid advances of technology, and our young people are at the forefront of that movement. We need our boys to see it’s not all just about killing people in cyberspace and porn. We can use modern technology as a vital part of a personal rite and, particularly, use it to help others.
The rites of the Samburu were specifically geared to the development of cattle herders, because that was the only job going in their society. We aren’t as narrow and restricted in our possible job market, so the rites need to reflect this.
Advanced and creative thinking doesn’t happen over night. Rites should be a concerted programme lasting many years. This gives the boy time to evolve and grow in his individual way, to suit his personality. The programme needs to enable the boy to see who he is, what his passion is, and how he can use it for the benefit of others. He needs to find the job which ensures he springs out of bed every morning, bright, awake and ready for the day. In order to do this he often needs to have been in the wrong job.
The boy needs to be able to make mistakes. This means the rites need to be held by people who can see the bigger picture, in other words, not his parents. His parents will naturally want to protect him and help him. Rites are about standing on your own two feet outside your family.
He needs to find out what it is to be a man, what characteristics are needed, how he should behave. He needs to learn about humanity. As part of that process, challenge and bravery need to be built into any new rites, taught in ways that show the two different paths open for men:
- ‘Warrior’: the path of competition, aggression and violence (the old way).
- ‘Brave’: the path of bravery, courage, vulnerability, and the willingness to collaborate (the new way).
The boy needs to experience both, and be able to decide which path he wants to take because he chooses to, not because he is being forced into being ‘good’. There is good and bad in both.
There needs to be a mentoring and support programme built around such rites of passage. The boy needs to be helped in his transition from boy to man by older men who are wise, wicked and supportive. I use the word ‘wicked’ deliberately. Many of the older men I work with are wicked in a good way. They have a deep understanding of the humorous side of life, and they are very adept at breaking down ego, self importance, and arrogance in others. They do this in a variety of loving and wicked ways!
The new rites need to be structured in the way that all rites were created. The traditional framework is this:
Confusion: The initiate doesn’t feel comfortable, he wants to change. He brings a question.
First gateway: He resolves to change and steps forward into the unknown future, seeking an answer.
Dismemberment: He is taken apart, he is shattered, he is not in control.
Second gateway: He sees a vision of the future, he sees the answer. The answer is not what he thought it might have been, but he accepts it, he knows it is his.
Recognition: He changes. He is different. He recognizes the changes within him. The wider community recognizes the changes.
Re-integration: He is re-integrated into the community, and is of benefit to others.
Parents, particularly mothers, come to me often and ask me to put their boy through a rite of passage, so they can change their lives. If only it was that simple. I have to remind them, the work doesn’t take a day or a weekend, it takes years. The boy needs to come to me and ask for the rite, not his mother. Each boy is different, so each rite needs to be custom made. The one-size-fits-all rites of our past are not useful to us. I also ask, where are the right men to hold such work? I believe we are chronically short of competent mentors which severely limits what we can offer.
This complex and very difficult work depends on experienced and creative mentors, wicked older men, in my terms. People who have been there, done it, many times. I am presently training older men to support teenagers through modern day rites. It is quite a task, as many men have not been through rites of their own. I feel the men need to have been through something themselves before they offer it to other people. So, retrospective rites need to be completed and then they can work with teenagers. All of which takes time and effort- just when it feels like this is a matter of urgency, we need to get on.
However, I know if we pursue this work, if we try our hardest, if we make mistakes, but still carry on, we are at least heading in the right direction. By doing so, we will start something of value to boys, teenagers, men and the older generations. Rites affect all of us for all of our lives, not just when we are teenagers. This can be built on by future generations. I also don’t want to forget this work is of great value to women as well.
We need to realize that teenagers are not the problem, we can’t fix them and suddenly all our troubles will be gone. We need to collaborate right across the ages and stages of masculinity, and by doing so start to create a new, ‘positive masculinity’, which can be part of the evolutionary changes we all need to undertake in order to survive as a species.
Examples of projects
I don’t have a magic formula, or a set of rules for rites and wrongs. But, there are shining examples of rites all over the world illustrating how the work is being done, even if they are not being called rites of passage.
A good example of this is the scheme here in the UK which teaches young mechanics how to service and maintain large trucks. Once they are familiar and adept, the truck is filled with rations and provisions, and the young boys are part of a team that drives the trucks from Europe to Africa. Breakdowns, failures and hard times are encountered along the thousands of miles. Eventually, the trucks are delivered to needy communities, and it is the boy’s job to teach and train the villagers to maintain the trucks. That’s a good rite of passage. Those boys come back as men.
Another project enables young people to use advanced film and other technologies on the proviso that they first shared it with older people. For every hour they teach an older person how to use computers they gain an hour on the equipment for themselves. A bi-product is the creation of meaningful relationships between teenagers and pensioners which has radically transformed the local community.
In terms of using technology, here are two examples:
- 17-year-old Brittany Wegner won first prize at the Google Science Fair for creating an artificial ‘brain’ that can detect breast cancer, in her spare time, as you do.
- 15-year-old high school student Jack Andraka created a pancreatic cancer test that is 168 times faster and more than 1,000 times less expensive than the present option. He create the test using only search engines and free online science papers.
I hope the next generations won’t be circumcised with a rusty blade, and they won’t work in dangerous conditions far underground. I hope they won’t have to be in debt to ‘the man’ all their lives.
Surely, these examples show us that if we make modern rites of passage relevant and meaningful, they liberate us all. How many more simple and life transforming changes could be initiated, if we only gave teenagers the chance to shine and become themselves.
Step out of the way. Bring it on.
Read more on Mentoring and Volunteering.
Image credit: Disco Techs Team 1099/Flickr