Lately, the role of men in society has been a topic that I am being asked about more and more. Just today I had an interesting discussion with a male friend of mine at our local coffee shop about the new society we live in and men’s place in it.
This is a little of how the conversation went:
“Lisa, I have a great topic for your blog. “Men and where we fit’”.
Where do we fit into this new society? We can’t and don’t want to just be the arch-typical macho man. We want to be more in touch with our feelings but society hasn’t changed enough that we feel heard or received when we share that we are struggling or not coping. We get brushed off and told to toughen up.
“Men don’t cry. Be a real man. What kind of freak are you for acting that way? Man up. Don’t be a girl. Stop being such a ##**x. Don’t get mad, get even.
It is a concerning trend that some men feel dispossessed and alone in society. The rate of suicide in men is the highest it has ever been and remains the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44. Occurring at a rate of 3 times more for men than women.
The degree to which young men feel pressured to adopt traditional ideals of manhood has been revealed in a new study commissioned by Jesuit Social Services. It was the first nationwide study of what Australians think about manhood, questioning 1,000 young men aged 18 to 30.
It found two-thirds of young men said they had been told a “real man” behaved in a certain way since they were a boy.
“This survey shows us traditional ideals of manhood in Australia are alive and well,” co-author Dr. Michael Flood said (The Men’s Project).
“Young men still see that they’re told by society that men must be tough, men must be stoic, men must respond to challenges with violence.”
My husband and I have six children ages 24 – 33 years old. Five of our kids are adult men so this topic is very close to our heart. They are great young adults and I am very proud of each them.
Before I continue let me say that there are many amazing men out there.
Guys that are neither the mindless, sex-obsessed buffoons nor the stoic automatons our culture so often makes them out to be. Men that strive to be good fathers, husbands, citizens and friends, to lead by example at home and in the workplace, and to understand their role in a changing world.
However, the question must be asked. If some men feel out of sync with society, why? Why is there so much loneliness and aggression among young men? Why do some men seem to be immature and not connected to their emotions? Why do some young men at 30 still act like they are 17-year-olds?
As I began to dig into this topic a few thoughts began to bubble up. These are my thoughts.
1: As a society, we have lost the valuable social tool of initiation and ritual for our young guys which in the past help them navigate their place in the community as they pass from teenager to adult.
2: Our society of winning and succeeding at all costs looks down on suffering, vulnerability and emotional work. If emotional work is not done there is no change. Men stay emotionally immature.
3: Institutions, media, mass communication and political correctness have dampened our ability to ask questions. The 5 min sound bite has damaged our ability to converse, to question, to learn.
The Role of Initiation
We are an uninitiated society. Except for those who love deeply, pray deeply, or suffer deeply, society has lost the historical role of initiation and we have forgotten the rites of passage.
In the ancient world the birth of a child, a youth’s coming of age, and the funeral of a respected elder are all events in which an individual undergoes a change of status.
Initiation, or the coming of age of a boy or girl, is a transition frequently marked by ceremony and celebration. The education of youths in preparation for the responsibilities of adulthood is often a long and arduous process sometimes taking 6 – 12 months. Initiation rites usually begin at the onset of puberty.
Boys, and to lesser extent girls, are separated from their families and taken to a secluded area on the outskirts of the community where they undergo a sustained period of instruction.
At the conclusion of this mentally and physically rigorous period, they are reintroduced to society as fully initiated adults and given the responsibilities and privileges that accompany their new status (By Dr. Christa Clarke, for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Most anthropologists, citing Arnold van Gennep’s major work, “The Rites of Passage,” will say that rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement.
Rites of passage are an important part of a person’s life because they mark the transition from one stage of life to the next. It was recognised that the future of the community depended upon having healthy men as opposed to overgrown boys.
If a young man between the ages of 13 – 18 is not presented with something that is big and challenging, he doesn’t think his life has any meaning. On top of this, the fathers/leaders of our society have nothing more to add. Today we have a lot of old men who really have nothing to say. Worse than that, many young men have no role models that are worth following. Just look at the rise of aggression, domestic violence, alcoholism and apathy of some men in our society.
The young native American teen sent off into the darkness with nothing but a bow and arrow and expected to return with a wolf pelt or two or three.
Apache trial of womanhood. Apache girls take part in ancient tests of strength, endurance and character that will make them women and prepare them for the trials of womanhood. It happens over a week of ceremonies where she moves through the stages of life, child, adolescent, and woman. She has to live by strict rules and learn to set aside emotions.
In Australia the young aboriginal man goes walkabout – an initiation that induces a deeply spiritual awakening and self-awareness that happens with solitude, aloneness, exercising survival and instincts, personal growth and other aspects that are fundamental to Walkabout (source).
The Masaai warrior tasked with stalking and killing a lion in single combat.
The donning of a glove lined with stinging bullet ants to commemorate becoming a man in the Amazon.
Ritualistic tattooing, branding, or mutilation upon reaching a certain age or completing a certain task (source).
If you live your life without suffering anything or without any kind of effort, life will not be worth anything to you (Amazon Tribal Elder).
Every human being needs to feel like they belong to the group. Everyone needs a stake in a tribe, and rites of passage help provide that by establishing and formalizing this (source).
Look at how initiation works.
- Initiation is a universal recognised need
- It is always done in nature
- It is always done by older men to younger men.
- It is done by a same-gender leader who is respected.
We lost initiation in western society because we became successful and powerful in our own eyes and thought that we didn’t need it anymore.
When the traditional pathways to adulthood broke down through the abandonment of these traditional practices and customs by the suppression of the church and or government authorities, adolescents did not learn how to become social adults (Biersack, 1998). Instead, they became ‘insurgents’(Honwana, 2006; Rosen, 2005) or village bikhets (Leavitt, 1998).
The Emotional Work
‘Men are hard-wired to block suffering. “The male psyche is, by nature, defended; men have a difficult time allowing events, circumstances, or people to touch or hurt them. Such blocking may have allowed us to survive…the endless wars of history. But it has also restricted the male capacity to change” (Richard Rohr).
Whilst the path of suffering is the quickest path to transformation, most men don’t change until they have to. Until economic disasters, moral or relationship failure, loss of job or health are forced upon them, the tendency is to project the incoming negative judgment somewhere else.
“Struggling with our dark side is humiliating, men have been trained to compete and to win. When winning is the only goal, we can’t admit to anything that looks like failure, or even allow basic vulnerability. We have to project weakness and failure onto others, making them the losers. Such dualistic thinking and resistance to change only guarantee more war and conflict” (source).
Asking the Questions
The word ‘quest originally’ came from the word question. We have lost the community ritual of quest ‘to search’, along with the ability to ask good questions.
If you haven’t been on a journey yourself you have nothing to say. Most young men today have nothing to say because they have not embraced quest: journey, transformation, brokenness, pain. Western society teaches us to hide our pain, to suck it up, to be a winner. Not to share it, embrace it or express it.
True initiation is when you experience who you are apart from everything you identify with. Your class in society, your gifts, your nice house, your job, your nationality. Initiation is when you experience who you are beyond all of those titles and categories and you question, what is it all for? What is it all about?
Signs of high intelligence include curiosity, openness, and adaptability. Neuro-biologists are now saying that the sign of a high IQ is not people who have answers, but people who ask good questions.
What is the real truth?
A young man does not know how to contribute to society, for him it is all about money, sex, and power. He does not know how to be a team player, does not know about how to be inclusive, sensitive, compassionate and sacrificial. An uninitiated young man is a loose cannon. All ancient cultures understood this. They understood that a hormonal young man was dangerous to the community.
In our society today you see many adults who have never grown up. Adults who remain selfish and self-centered most of their lives. They still have the emotional IQ of a teenager. We lost the bridge of initiation from children to adults and in doing so we have a lot of ill-formed adults.
The real truth is that there are stages in one’s life. The young adult man thinks he is immortal, he is obsessed with the biggest and the fastest. This macho attitude, however, is reserved for puberty, for challenges, for the quest.
The real lesson for a man as he gets older is to bring his head down into his heart and to become tender, compassionate and kind. As maturity comes, a man learns to live in peace and contentment. He is not fighting for power, he is not fighting for supremacy.
Psychologist Robert Moore took the concept of Jung’s archetypes and used it to create a framework that explained the development of mature and integral masculinity in men. Moore argued that the problems we see with men today–violence, shiftlessness, aloofness–are a result of modern men not adequately exploring or being in touch with the primal, masculine archetypes that reside within them.
Like Jung, Moore believed that men and women possess both feminine and masculine archetypal patterns–this is the anima (feminine) and animus (masculine), (The Art of Manliness).
You can read more about these four male archetypes in the book by Moore and Gillette called ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’. In this book, they explore the concept that mature, authentic, and revitalised masculinity is made up of four parts.
Warrior, lover, wise man and king/father. If you are only initiated into one of these areas, you are not a whole man. It takes your whole life to become a whole man. A journey, a life long quest. The father king holds together everything and you don’t make it to father king until over the age of 50.
So the question now becomes – how do we help young men today?
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 teenage-hood 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 and alcohol-fuelled escapades which can cause pain and suffering for themselves and others.
Nick Clements From the Good Men Project explains his thoughts on the New Rites of Masculinity. The Good Men Project was founded in 2009 in the United States by Tom Matlack and James Houghton. This website examines the question, ‘What does it mean to be a good man in today’s society’?
The boy 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 programmes 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 and supportive.
Examples of Modern Initiation
- A good example of this is the scheme 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.
- The Pathways Foundation is a National harm prevention charity that
assists young people to make the fundamental emotional shift from
being a child to becoming a young adult. PATHWAYS TO MANHOOD is a contemporary, community based Rite of Passage for boys to Manhood. A 5 day bush camp for boys aged 13-15 years and their fathers or a male mentor.
Since 1996, a group of men and women working with young people recognised they were underachieving, lacking in direction, self harming and initiating themselves into young adulthood through risk taking behaviour to ‘prove’ they were grown up. Understanding the need for young people to take part in conscious safe rites of passage and mark the shift from boy/girl psychology to healthy man/woman psychology was an essential ingredient Pathways developed their award winning contemporary rites of passage programmes.
‘It would seem that initiation and ritual are not just about celebration, but a deeply spiritual time of life, a time of reflection, a time of gaining confidence in one’s own person and abilities, having a sense of their own spirituality, and realizing and experiencing their connection to the land and nature. It is a part of them as a person, a people — it connects them to the land, a higher purpose, and somehow to a higher plane of existence in some ways, and individually it is part of their identity as a man’ (source).