Boys everywhere have a need for rituals marking their passage to manhood. If society does not provide them they will inevitably invent their own.
In 2012, I was in Tanzania and had just completed climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I remember driving through the countryside and seeing young African boys from the Maasai tribe. They were dressed as typical Maasai, however, the cloaks that many of the boys wore were black and then there were some that had very colorful red cloaks. I asked my driver what the difference was and he told me the boys in black had not become men yet. I pressed the driver to explain, and he told me all about the Maasai rites of passage from boys to men. I won’t go into the specific details (because it’s gross), but I was fascinated, and it got me thinking about rites of passage in general. So here I am, four years later…and I’m finally going to write about my feelings on them.
So what is a rite of passage?
I began reading articles on this to try to understand a little bit more about this cultural practice. I found out that sociologists have identified three phases that constitute a proper rite of passage: Separation, Transition, and Re-incorporation.
Separation: During this phase, the boy is separated in some way from his former life.
Transition: During this phase, the boy is between worlds. He is no longer part of his old life but not yet fully inducted into his new one. He is taught the knowledge needed to become a full-fledged member of the new stage of life he is moving into, and he is called upon to pass tests that show he is ready for the move. The boy would then participate in ritual ceremonies which often involved pain and endurance to prove himself worthy of such a transition.
Re-incorporation: In this phase, the boy, having passed the tests necessary and proving himself worthy, is re-introduced into his community, which recognizes, celebrates and honors his new status within the group.
During all phases of the process, the men who have gone through the ritual themselves guide the boy on his journey. By controlling the rite of passage, the men decide when a boy becomes a man.
So I began to reflect on my own life…did I have a rite of passage?
Separation: In my case, I went away to The Citadel, a military college. All my former possessions were left behind, my head was shaved, and I was given a uniform to wear. During this separation phase, my old-self was broken down and eliminated, and a new me was being prepared.
Transition: From the day of my arrival as a freshman in August each day for next nine months, I was subjected to an entirely new way of life that included being yelled at, prodded, disciplined,
having to perform thousands of push-ups and running in place, marching, drills, inspections and everything one might expect in a military training environment. All of this was to prepare me to join the ranks of all those that came before me and were referred to as a “Citadel man.”
Re-incorporation: The nine-month period of daily preparation culminated in May just one week before the end of the school year in a ceremony known as “recognition day.” This day began early with nothing but physical torture. Running, push-ups, more running, more push-up all the while having trash cans of alternating hot and cold water dumped on us from four stories above us. Bodies cramping as a result and being forced to continue until exhaustion and then some… Then it all stopped. Then we were lined up as one class of freshman and one by one, each upperclassman introduced themselves and allowed us from that point on to address them on a first name basis. We had officially been “recognized” into the Corps of Cadets.
I’ll never forget that day…and that moment. It is etched into the fabric of my soul.
So why do I think about all this stuff now?
Well, when I turn on the TV and watch the news, I see many young men doing stupid stuff. When I travel around the world whether it is in Africa or Latin America, I see many “boys” in men’s bodies still acting like boys. They are not providing for their families, they are not leading, they are not providing a positive role model for other young men to emulate. They have in effect abdicated the throne. As a result, the burden that men have refused to carry has been dumped on to the already excessive responsibilities that women are carrying.
I see this everywhere. Women are taking care of the home, the children, carrying the majority of the financial burden of the home and where the man is still in the picture (as rare as that may be), they are taking care of him too. Also, when I think about many of the world’s problems, gangs, drugs, sex trafficking, wars, and violence it’s all mostly a bunch of men…searching for power, searching for control, searching to answer the question every man needs to know…
“Am I a man? Do I have what it takes?”
In our culture, we don’t have a traditional rite of passage for men. However, in many cases, military service has served as the best route for this to happen. But as fewer and fewer men are choosing this path, the question then becomes…where will they get this question answered? How will they know? Will other men identify them as men?
I don’t have the answers to all that. But I do know that the longer we continue to ignore this need in men…we, as a society will continue to unravel.
Which brings me back to the beginning.
The reason I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the first place was to reaffirm the question that had been answered over 30 years prior, “Am I still a man? Do I still have what it takes?”
I know for me, I will continue to challenge myself and check myself on these questions for the rest of my life. It gives me a grounding, a purpose and a peace knowing the answer to both is still…yes.