If you have been following MAN’s blogs for a while (and I hope you have!), you will remember that I’ve been referencing Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey recently. This is the third and last post completing the trilogy referencing Homer’s work. In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on the importance of young men having a community while growing up.
(You can catch up on the previous posts here: How mentoring changed me and The idea of male vulnerability is so so so ancient)
Here’s a refresher of some relevant bits of Homer’s story: Menelaus, king of Sparta, wages war against Troy. Odysseus joins Menelaus, leaving his son Telemachus in the care of his wife, Penelope, his good friend Mentor and the swineherd.
And I’ll pause here for reflection — I find Odysseus’ choice bizarre. Clearly, as the king of the island of Ithaca, Odysseus could have made a different choice. It makes sense to leave his son with his mother, but why not leave Telemachus with a scholar, a fearless warrior or a famous public speaker to prepare him to become the future king? Instead, Odysseus chooses a close friend, Mentor, who almost fails to support his son, and he also chooses a swineherd. Perhaps this was normal in 8th century Greek culture, but I believe there are a few hidden themes we can draw from this story.
A boy needs more than just his immediate family
Typically, the current Western view of family dynamics is for a couple to solely raise their children, maybe with the help of grandparents, but without much of the community’s support. This puts a lot of pressure on couples because they need to wear many hats that could and should be eased with the community’s help.
This brings home for me the beautiful African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”. Meaning that an entire community must provide for and interact positively with children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. There is a similar saying in the Native American culture as well.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had the same sense of community here in Britain? The community’s shape looks somewhat different in a town compared to a city (and compared to ancient Greece). However, one can still find community in an urban context, like Manchester or London. Nowadays, boys and young men can naturally find it in out of school clubs, mentoring, faith groups or sports clubs.
A boy needs a few good ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ around him
In African cultures, children refer to older adults within their community as ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’, even if they aren’t blood-related. I love this! It highlights the importance of family and the supports parents receive. These so-called ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ play a paramount role in the development of all children-more specifically boys and young men. The companionship boys receive from ‘uncles’ has a mentoring and nurturing purpose that supports a father’s role. Like the role Mentor and the swineherd played in Telemachus’ development.
In my own context, although I had my father near, I also had quality time with my uncle while growing up. I was always happy to spend time with him, that I used to tell my friends that he was my ‘big brother’. He taught me many things and still does.
The fatherless experience is not everything
Going back to the story of Odysseus, what about those situations when fathers aren’t around, similar to when Odysseus left Telemachus with others? It’s worth mentioning that Penelope and the goddess Athena played a crucial role in supporting Telemachus as he grew up as well.
Many jump to the conclusion that boys and young men present challenging behaviour if they’ve grown up in a fatherless home. Not having a father (or a mother) is very challenging and can leave one with deep scars. There is no debate about that. However, I believe this can be a limiting perspective. There are countless examples of many young men from different communities raised only by their mothers who ended up well-adjusted. And vice versa, there’re a lot of men who were raised with a father, but didn’t end up doing very well.
“As I like to say, it is not so much about what happens to you but who you have around [when things happen]”.
This is true for both positive and negative circumstances. If something positive happens in life, it is always nice to celebrate with others. Similarly, when going through an unpleasant moment, having a bunch of people around can ease the pain. In other words, having a good community around matters.
Despite the void of his father in his life, young Telemachus becomes the man ready to join his father on his return in the fight against all the men who thought Odysseus dead and wanted to appropriate his wealth and wife.
Sadly it can be difficult for us men to find community, especially as we age and larger cities. We tend to be solitary creatures, and community requires us to be vulnerable and sociable. But there is power in a community that can never be found in isolation. Community is not perfect, but in my view is the best way forward.
So as I encourage you to find community, I’ll leave you with this thought: you can do a lot by yourself, but you can expand your potential exponentially with the support of a great community.
This post is dedicated to my uncle.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|White Fragility: Talking to White People About Racism||Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box||The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men|
Photo credit: Tyler Nix on Unsplash