He sits by the fire in a canvas camping chair. In the daylight, he’s all zits and peach fuzz and knock-knees, but here in the mystery glow of the flames he looks older. Intense. He’s waiting to be born.
He’s bent over his journal, given to him by his father. On the front page, the father writes, "Ask anything, Ask everything." And the boy is doing just that. He muses, reflects, thinks aloud on this paper about life. Poses a question. Then returns the pen to the binding and places it on the picnic table. This is the signal. He’s ready for his father to read.
The father reads, reflects, and now writes an answer. You might ask, since this is all happening within plain sight, within a few feet of each other, why on earth don’t they put down the book and just talk?
Because the written word makes us think more than the spoken word. Because the formality of it reaches deeper than the spontaneity of just runnin’ your mouth. Because a journal dialogue is less intimidating for the average teen. Maybe for the average father, too.
The teen is a 15-year-old boy, but not for much longer. His father has brought him to the wilderness to talk about becoming a man.
I’m the father in this story. The boy is my firstborn, now 17. A few weeks from now, I’ll similarly disappear into the Utah wilderness with his younger brother, turned 15 this past April.
In premodern times, virtually all competent civilizations practiced one form or another of rites of passage into manhood. Such ceremonies were near universal in aboriginal societies. Our modern world is impoverished and suffers greatly because of the absence of these rites. So, when I became a father, I resolved to piece together my own makeshift version of a ceremony for manhood.
From Africa to Australia, from Ireland to the South Sea Islands, the ceremonies tended toward universal themes:
RADICAL SEPARATION FROM THE MOTHER
Painted as skeletons, the African elders come at night with torches and drums and wrench the terrified boy out of the arms of his pleading mother. An Apache boy is bound to his mother with a leather thong tied around both waists like an umbilical cord; the elders hand the boy a knife, with which he dramatically cuts the chord. A Tongan boy stands before the entire village, and hurls a cup of water into his mother’s face.
OK, none of this would play well in our culture. But it is our great loss that we have nothing left with which to replace it. So adolescent boys speak with disdain to their mothers. They mock them. They violate curfew. They lie, sneak and deceive. They protest their independence while behaving in ways guaranteeing a protracted dependence. Constant power struggles, because we lack the symbolic means to help mothers and sons shift the balance of power toward manhood.
I do a ton of work with couples. Give me a nickel for every husband I’ve met who, well into his 30s and 40s, is still not psychologically separated from his mother, and I’d be a rich man. In the absence of this separation, his worldview and behavior chronically confuse his wife with his mother, sparking all manner of defensiveness, sullen withdrawal, bouncing back and forth between avoidance of conflict and painful, contemptuous blowups. Such a man has both an exaggerated sensitivity to feminine intrusion, and an exaggerated insecurity to separation from the feminine; that is, to his wife/girlfriend’s individuality.
Stick a TV camera in the face of a big, burly, rugged, macho NFL football player, and he never says: "Hi Dad … Hello children … Hey Uncle Phil …." Nope. "Hi Mom." Always. With her, he’s still just an 8-year-old on a diving board clamoring for Mom’s attention, recognition and praise.
To become a man, a boy must "injure" himself and his mother through radical separation. As a man, then, he is free to begin a new relationship with the feminine. A relationship of respect as two whole separate people.
Our modern world abandons individual mothers and individual sons to wrap their arms unconsciously around this archetypal task. Both struggle. Rites of passage into manhood provide the necessary symbols and ceremonies — not to mention the powerful support of the community — to consciously provoke and complete this important psychological task.
Next Sunday, we’ll continue our discussion of the universal themes of rites of passage into manhood.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His Human Matters column appears on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.