Male Ritual Initiation: On Becoming A Man in America

This topic has always intrigued me.  In fact many years ago I wrote a small book on the subject, self-published it at a local print shop, then never did anything with it further, eventually tossing it all.  But I continue to feel that the vacuum of male ritual initiation in modern Western societies, especially in the USA, has “short-sheeted” our cultures.

In all tribal societies, to my knowledge, there is a rite of passage from being a boy, to joining the ranks of manhood; same for girls becoming women.  Many of these practices continue this very day, some extremely risky, but innate to the respective cultures.  Some of these rites would highly offend our values and senses, but each tribe or group devised these over millennia to be their social “glue.”  Somehow our modern Eurocentric societies, over centuries, lost whatever we had “back in the day.”  Likely this had to do with two things:  religion and industrialization.  The latter gave the masses a means to live less tribally, more as larger societies, exchanging goods and services, without having to endure extreme deprivation or physical pain routinely; whereas the former sought to totally control the masses, with initiation becoming baptismal in Europe, excluding any possibility of initiation into one’s familial micro-culture.  The objective of most ritual initiations is to prepare the man for dealing with his future life as a man, whether warrior or elder, which invariably will involve pain:  the pain from hand to hand combat, the pain of hunger and pain from accidents working in very harsh conditions; basically the pain of living as hunters, gatherers, and herders.  The greater objective is to be shown one’s role in their tribal structure, and instill an appreciation for the tribe’s values.

However, my thesis is that having forsaken ritual initiation, our society left the door open to the natural yearning that young males have to feel their strength, to become men in the sense of social responsibility, to protect their loved ones and to bond together.  Thus, I contend, boys in America have been left with finding their own means of initiation, for some beginning with participating in potentially dangerous activities such as skate boarding and other sports and activities with considerable risk.  Another example is our passion for rough sports, whether it is football, or today’s popular MMA fights, which are clearly at a lifetime cost to these “gladiators.”  To become a man in the heart of a “normal” boy, is to face danger.  The sense of adrenaline flowing through the body, providing that special thrill that has to be upped each time to experience the same level of reward, fuels this self-initiation.  The coursing of testosterone through the body, focusing the mind on sex, is a parallel aspect of this initiation: being a standout in a sport may reward a young man by upping his popularity sexually.

I personally experienced all these aspects of self-initiation, growing up as a boy in Texas: doing all sorts of risky things, hunting with a rifle at age nine, riding bikes doing crazy stuff, racing dump trucks on gravel roads….you name it….and being like many American kids in their teens, endangering myself and others while DWI; oh, and let me not omit, chasing girls.   Eventually my self-initiation was joining the Air Force, going to pilot training (that I quit…see another of my posts), and fortunately, NOT going to Viet Nam.  So my perspective  about all this is experienced based, of course.

But the No. 1 issue of my thesis, is this:  that Americans and America at large has always had a penchant toward violence, and over the years since the Korean war, our society has turned to war as a means of collective initiation.  As a result, in the absence of personal ritual initiation, many of our youth have sought to pass into manhood by joining the military – or being drafted to be “initiated” – without any real understanding of what they are getting into, or what they may have to do, or accidentally do,  “to other human beings.”  The saying that “ignorance is bliss” well describes how we prepare our youth in understanding the full truth of America’s history domestically and abroad, and even current events cannot easily be penetrated or assessed by the young mind (the mind does not reach adulthood until around 25 years of age), so how can they make a clear choice about becoming a soldier?

On the other hand, most American males never go so far as to join the military, and so are left without any recognizable initiation into manhood.  So initiation comes only through the experiences of their lives, and combined with our poor education system, lack of mentoring and coaching by elders, begets an unending spectrum of personal and social difficulties.

So given the premise of my argument, do I also proffer a solution?  I do have one:  radically improve our educational system.  Obviously there is no way to change our culture at large, but we can greatly improve what we teach our children, our boys and our girls.  Children will self-initiate themselves into adulthood, one way or another. If they have been given a wider spectrum of education, from societal to physics, all through their school years, they will be much more equipped to critically analyze their options and the implications of potential choices they must make in life.  The starting point would be to teach American history truthfully, devoid of “white washing” and prejudice.  Next, expand the teaching of science, for instance teach quantum physics theory and its implications regarding “consciousness” and even religion.

Am I optimistic.  Well, yes.  I detect slow but sure changes going on, for the better.  My pet saying, that I often voice to my godchildren and others, is “all good things take time.”  So while we cannot return to tribal ritual initialization, we can holistically prepare both our minds, spirits and bodies to be the best adults we can be.