If you’re just tuning in, this is Part Two of our discussion about male rites of passage into adult manhood. We’re examining the universal themes of these rites across time and place and culture. Last Sunday, we explored the necessity for radical separation from the mother. Today, The Ordeal.
Male rites of passage include activities and exercises pushing the limits of the initiate’s body, mind and spirit. Protracted fasting. Isolation. Deliberately sustaining the sting or bite of a venomous insect or reptile. Being buried up to the neck for 24 hours in a jungle and hoping the elders come for you before the hyenas do. Using only a spear to kill a lion.
Scaling heights. Enduring intense heat/smoke. Ingesting hallucinogens. Seeking/provoking "visions" by inducing clinical hysteria with drumbeat, physical rigor, deprivation and exhaustion. Ritual mutilation/tattooing. Branding.
Hard to stomach, perhaps, for most people, but in premodern cultures, The Ordeal often included very real risk and very real danger, even mortal danger.
Not every initiate returned home from his rite of passage.
Put down the phone! No need to call Child Protective Services. I assure you that, during his upcoming rite of passage, I will not be putting my son into a burlap bag containing rattlesnakes and scorpions, or sending him to a tattoo parlor. And there are no hyenas in Utah. The only animal I will expect him to slay is a rainbow trout, for which he’ll be armed only with a fishing pole and Power Bait.
Once again, the rituals of our ancestors don’t play well in modern culture, where "safety" has become a concept so manipulated and managed by insurance actuarial tables and narcissistic parenting patterns that sometime border on paranoia. Of course, I would not instruct or allow my boy to behave in any way stupid or reckless of life and limb. But it cannot be denied that, to become a man, we must allow our sons to feel discomfort. Failure. Limits. Humiliation. The discomfort includes some calculated risks of injury — physical and emotional.
With the loss of rites of passage, most of the remaining "ordeals" left to teenagers are either without much meaning or outright pathology. Seeing how much you can drink before you puke? I guess it’s a kind of ordeal, but I still know people well into their 30s and 40s participating in that exercise. I’m saying it may be a rite, but it doesn’t seem to affect much passage.
I guess running away from home and living on the streets could be seen as a twisted kind of ordeal or pilgrimage. Sometimes when I watch those guys on the show "Jackass," I think of some twisted vestige of The Ordeal — seeing how much pain you can endure but, in this case, not in service to maturity or manhood.
In our modern world, The Ordeal remains with us only in inferential bits and pieces. Inspired PE teachers and coaches sometimes lead adolescents into moments reflective of The Ordeal. I remember running "line drills" in basketball, over and over, until, at the end, I was nearly crawling, unable even to stand.
I once coached a boys basketball team. About halfway through the season, the mother of my best player submitted this criticism and concern to me in the parking lot, my star player at her side: "I think you expect more from (my son) than from the other players. You are harder on him."
I remember fighting to keep uncensored incredulity from blooming across my face. I blinked my eyes a couple of times, took a breath, nodded and said, "Yes." Then I looked at my player and said, "You didn’t know that? You’re the best player on the team. So you’re the one from whom I expect the most, right?"
He looked at his shoes.
"It’s just a lot of pressure on him," Mom said.
"I know," I said, soberly.
Again I turned to my player as if it were just him and me. "Got some tough news for you," I said. "Talent comes with the price tag of pressure. I’m never gonna quit expecting a lot from you."
The boy met my eye and nodded.
In some miniature way, I had invited the boy into The Ordeal. He was forced to confront — and learn to endure — the responsibility that must accompany great gifts. I would not spare him this discomfort, even though his mother was made anxious by it.
A competent rite of passage teaches the depth of endurance through The Ordeal
Endurance is worship.
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 columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.