Talking about the ManKind Project, rites of passage, teen boys, and mature masculinity.
(Editor's note: This article focuses on men and boys. But the film RITES OF PASSAGE: MENTORING THE FUTURE, now in production, will focus on both genders, in equal measure.)
Some of the great heroes in our world today are the men who are mentoring and initiating teen boys.
This is no small challenge, given that most adult men living today were not themselves initiated or mentored. They have no idea what to do, how to do it, or why it’s essential.
The chain of generativity going back at least 50,000 years in the lives of Homo Sapiens is now broken. The wisdom passed from individual to individual, from generation to generation, has largely been lost. In indigenous cultures across the world it used to be that young men were initiated into adulthood by the elders as a matter of course. In fact, most indigenous cultures don’t even recognize what we in the West call “adolescence.” You’re either a child or you’re a man. There’s no in-between. The rite of passage, universally applied, is designed as a mechanism to usher all children across that threshold into adulthood.
This was largely true even in Western society until the Industrial Age. Boys raised on farms or learning crafts were apprenticed by their fathers and other men. While they were taught practical and professional skills they were also taught by men what it is to be a man, what civilized behavior is – the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Once men started moving off their farms and out of their shops and studios to work in factories that ancient system broke down. Couple that with the destruction of indigenous cultures across the planet by colonialism and imperialism and there now remain few organic links through the chain of time to the practices and wisdom of the past.
The byproducts are everywhere to behold. By not initiating and mentoring our young people we are paying a steep economic and social price: teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, drug and alcohol use, depression, ADD, ADHD, youth crime and violence… some estimate the cost to U.S. society at $1 trillion a year. The irony is that doing these “dysfunctional” things – getting pregnant, testing limits with alcohol or drugs, committing crimes, joining gangs, dropping out of school… young people, especially boys, are only asking, crying out really, for initiation.
Initiation is a biological, cellular level need. It accounts for most of where the pushback against parents and other authority figures comes from. Teens need to individuate. They push back to learn the limits of their own bodies, the reach of their critical judgment, their connection to nature and to spirit or god. This is how they learn who they are, what is unique about them. It’s also how they become validated. To be initiated is a fulfillment of their genetic inheritance – to be brought into the community of adults, to take their seat at the village table, to be honored, accepted and treated as equals.
Both men and women need initiation and mentorship. But I believe men need it more. Especially today. [Generalizing alert! I will now be generalizing about men and women. Please note that I am in no way saying all men or all women are like this. Or that certain traits are purely male and others purely female. It's important to recognize that traits generalized as "male" and "female" are part of a continuum; they manifest themselves to varying degrees in each unique individual. And if these distinctions don’t fit at all for you, dear reader, great.]
It’s really important that men have a sense of mission or purpose in life. I have written about this subject recently. They have a built-in desire to want to serve someone or something, to know that their life has meaning and is of positive purpose. There’s also a longing for them to feel part of a team or group, to work together to realize a common purpose. A man’s gaze tends to be outward, toward making an impact, toward how he can effect change in the world. This is a large part of how a man gauges his own power, by measuring his ability to effect change. Obviously this drive can take very positive and very negative forms. But this drive is much in the nature of men.
Very few people understand this anymore. Many men, in their own bitterness, depression, drug, alcohol, sex, work, food, and TV addictions, have given up on themselves. At some deep unconscious level they know what they’re missing in life, how they themselves were never taught by other men how to be a man, how to reach for and find fulfillment in life, how to understand and utilize emotions effectively, what spiritual connection and contentment feels like, where meaning is to be found. No one was there for them so why should they be there for someone else?
This refusal finds expression in all sorts of directives older men often give to younger men: “Don’t follow your dream!” “Settle for less!” “Happiness is not important.” “Take the money!” “Grow up; resign yourself to reality.” “Get a real job.” “Don’t take risks!” The truth is many older men are simply threatened by the exuberance, vitality, dreams, love, innocence, and happiness of younger men because it reminds them of what they’ve lost, how they’ve settled for so much less. Those older men still have a little boy in them who knows and remembers but those little boys are usually buried alive under mountains of passion-killing directives.
Which reminds us that the flow of gifts in a properly functioning culture is not just from the eldest to the youngest. The flow goes both ways. The healthy functioning of adults is dependent on youthful energy, ideas, and input. “Although, ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child;’ it takes the struggles of youth to raise a whole village." “If the deep conflicts of youth are ignored and left unresolved, the new adults will be unable to solve deep conflicts in the culture. If the adults feel they were not nourished, their elders will be ignored, and forgotten.” -- Michael Meade. So if there is no generativity there is no nourishing of life in both directions – for either the younger or the older. And on and on it goes.
The men who have not buried their little boys, who still receive nurturing from their elders, who have kept the flame of innocence, passion, and love alive in the face of enormous challenges – not least of which is a dominant culture that stultifies humanity, demanding that all answers be found solely in consumerism – those men are heroes. Yes, just being alive, truly alive to a world of possibility and adventure, and yes, to suffering and sorrow too, in a modern world that increasingly resembles THE MATRIX, that makes you a hero.
But say you’re doing more than that. Say you’re teaching yourself and others about what you missed out on, seeking and finding ways to initiate yourself, getting and giving mentorship, truly coming to be all you can be. That’s even more impressive.
Let’s say you’re doing still more. Let’s say you’re reaching down a generation or two and extending your hand to a younger man, to a group or groups of younger men. Then you’re a Hero’s Hero.
There aren’t many. But fortunately, there are some. I'll list here shortly some of the amazing men and women doing heroic work today to bring back initiation and mentorship in our time. I unhumbly include myself in this list because I’m now working on a film highlighting their heroic work, presently called Rites of Passage: Mentoring the Future.
I think the greatest crime of the last two centuries has been the countless millions of children who’ve been brought into this world not taught to know their purpose in this life.
What is your life purpose or mission? What are the gifts you have to share with the world? Native Americans talk about the medicine that each individual uniquely has to offer. What is your medicine?
Mine? “I co-create a world living in truth, without despair, by fiercely loving myself and all beings.” Let’s break that down piece by piece.
“I co-create.” One of my shadows is the traditional male “go it alone” shadow, “I can do it all myself.” I call that the male disease. Going it alone is a recipe for burnout and failure. It’s important for me to remember that. God knows I’ve burned out and failed enough!
It’s important too to note that a mission should be bigger than what any one man can reasonably accomplish in his own lifetime. This is not a time for false modesty, to think small. This is a time to think big, real big. Many lifetimes big. Seven generations big. Think the cathedrals of Europe. Many men worked their entire lives on one small part of the structure and died never seeing it complete. Pride in the workmanship and holding the vision are what’s essential.
“A world living in truth.” How sweet would that be? What do I do to make it happen? Certainly my films, even the fiction ones, seek the truth about the human condition and social realities. But it’s not just about what I do, it’s who I am too. I practice speaking truth in my daily life, whether in personal or professional situations.
“Without despair.” It’s important to keep despair in front of me at all times. That’s one of my great shadows. It’s all too easy for me to throw up my hands and say “what’s the use? It’s all going to shit anyway.” Or “I’ll never succeed.” For this reason I drastically limit the amount of news I take in. How people can read/hear/watch the news every day and not want to kill themselves or someone else is beyond me.
Defining myself solely as a filmmaker is also a one way ticket to hell. Defining myself only in what I do, rather than in who I am, moment to moment. I have to consciously limit the directions my mind goes when I work: “How much money must I raise to make this next film?” It’s never enough. But if I wring my hands in despair rather than get busy raising money that’s on me. “Why doesn’t X return my phone calls?” People promise all kinds of things and fulfill very few. But if I obsess about how they can possibly be so far out of integrity rather than cut my losses and move on that’s on me. “Look at X, Y, and Z colleagues… they’re receiving far more funding than I, their film is screening in far better venues, they’re going to much nicer festivals, they’re getting better reviews…” There are plenty of filmmakers who receive far more support for their work than I. But if I focus on that and don’t marshal the tremendous resources I do have that’s on me. It’s all about resisting the lure of being the victim and challenging myself to become the man I’ve always wanted to be.
“By fiercely…” Why “fiercely?” Another of my shadows is being the nice guy, doing whatever it takes to get someone to like me. Being the “people pleaser.” So “fierce” is a good reminder to me that sometimes it’s necessary to not be liked. Being liked by the people I am with is often not a priority relative to what’s really important. To crank up the intensity, the volume, the presence, to do what’s right, what’s necessary to serve the greater good. It requires fierceness to speak up for what’s right in a world comfortable with lies and illusion. Holding firm boundaries requires fierceness. So does confronting self-righteous authorities. So does protecting loved ones from danger.
The word “fierce” also serves to remind me that life is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard. I’m not reductively Darwinian so I don’t believe “only the strong survive.” But the pain, the disappointments, the losses, the fears of life can be immense. It’s essential to develop some emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual resilience, some fierceness of attitude and outlook to weather the storms.
“Loving myself and all beings.” Given much of the above, you might already have guessed that “loving myself” is the greater challenge here. My guess is it’s difficult for most Westerners. (Unlike many (most?) Asians for whom it’s almost unimaginable that a child would not be absolutely treasured, honored and welcomed into this world, building a healthy foundation of self-esteem.) Though it cannot be unlearned, fortunately the habits of poor self-esteem can be mitigated against. Meditation, regular exercise, men’s groups, positive affirmations, mirror work are some of the tools that have proven helpful for me. I’ve also learned to recognize what I need when I need it. So when I feel dumped on by someone, or at my wit’s end with a frustrating situation, I can reach out and ask my wife or a friend for a hug and some encouraging words.
But “loving all beings” is no small challenge either. There is a long list of people in government and a longer list of those in business who really challenge me. How do we love people that threaten us with their greed, their self-absorption, their cruelty, their ignorance, their indifference? The first step is to recognize that we don’t have to like them. Liking and loving are entirely different matters. Secondly, any person’s cruelties can be traced to their ignorance. They simply haven’t been taught any better. At a dharma, or Buddhist level, they haven’t been taught how absolutely interconnected we all are. Lastly, everyone suffers, even torturers, billionaire bankers, war-loving generals, presidents and politicians. While still adamantly opposing their destructive practices and policies, our challenge is to make room in our hearts for their own suffering.
The way I was raised made it difficult for me to accept that any rich person could possibly ever suffer. Working with rich people over the years has taught me otherwise. Not to minimize the fear that faces the 40+ million Americans who won’t eat three meals today, or the 50+ million who have no regular, sufficient medical care, but there are an awful lot of wealthy people steeped in nothing but fear over how they’re going to protect their wealth in our declining economy. Not to mention any number of myriad other problems. Christina Onassis’s suicide at 24 was a real eye opener to me in this regard.
I co-create a world living in truth, without despair, by fiercely loving myself and all beings. And you? What’s your mission?
Men need to enroll women into supporting men’s growth work. Men need to help women understand how growing and healing men, how empathizing with and understanding men, better serves them. It in fact serves women and children and other men - all of us.
I served for a year as unpaid Center Director of our Northern California ManKind Project community in 1999. I took a call once from a woman who was concerned about her husband joining our weekend workshop. It was bad enough that the man couldn’t make an empowered decision on his own to do the weekend. He referred his wife to me so I could convince her that it was OK for him to do it. That alone was enough to make him a prime candidate for our work.
But instead of talking with him I spent about a half hour on the phone with his wife. I answered every question she had, addressing her every concern about the weekend. But rather than get relief and grow calmer, she seemed to become more and more agitated. Finally, I realized that she was going to find some reason to object to our work no matter what. Sure enough, after I didn’t satisfy her with my answer to one very specific question, she suddenly started hurling abuse, projecting all sorts of accusations – that I was sexist, misogynistic, and worse. So she finally got to the place she wanted to go to all along: she slammed the phone down in disgust, saying “my husband will never do your weekend!”
Women think they are protecting themselves when they interfere with “men’s work.” But they’re actually making their own lives harder. They’re making themselves and their partners unhappier. And it all comes from fear. My guess is this woman was deep in fear that her husband would come back a changed man in ways that would feel threatening to her. Perhaps he’d no longer love her. Perhaps he’d no longer defer to her.
Why is it a man’s job to educate women about men’s work? Because women have good reason to fear when men go off together. All too often going off together has been an excuse for men to get drunk, go whoring, to prey on the weak. All too often the victims of those gatherings are women themselves, or children, or men of color, or gay men, or men suspected of being gay. All too often men return lesser men than when they left.
But what about when men go off together to teach each other how to become better men? That happens too. It used to be common for every indigenous society to initiate its boys into adulthood. To teach them the rights and responsibilities of adult citizenship. In a sense this was the very fulfillment of the village – to create generativity, to protect the village from future harm from within, to ensure its survival and continuity. The challenge is to make initiations and healing work for men so commonplace that women will implicitly understand and accept it.
In her otherwise brilliant book STIFFED, feminist author Susan Faludi makes the critical mistake of deriding men’s healing work. She reduces men doing their work – going off to the woods together, resurrecting their imprisoned “Wildman,” summoning their “Inner King” – to their most superficial and reductive meanings, to their most juvenile connotations. This is a terrible mistake. But it’s a mistake many women make, not only feminists. Men need to teach women that it’s safe to let these judgments go.
For some reason men’s drumming circles seem to be a common target of derision among women. Why? What’s wrong with a drumming circle? There are few better ways to get men grounded, out of their heads and into their bodies, and out of their isolated sense of self into a common experience of group. It can be a powerfully communal, growthful, even joyful experience.
This was demonstrated to me when I was making a feature film in Iowa some years ago. The morning was going badly. The crew was taking a long time to set up; things were chaotic. I asked my musician friend Johnsie, who was on set that day to help our stars with a choreographed scene, if he’d start drumming. Amazing! Within minutes I could feel the crew grow more synchronous. Stress and dis-ease vanished off faces and I saw smiles. In no time we were quickly prepared and ready to shoot.
Do women fear men drumming together because some primordial impulse kicks? Do they fear there will be violence, that they will be subsequently attacked? Perhaps. Certainly in different cultures around the planet drumming was often a prelude to battle. But may it also be another product of Zero Sum thinking? ie., “If it’s good for men it must be bad for women.”
All the smart women I know, and I know plenty, cherish their men for doing their work. They realize how it makes the women themselves safer, happier, more loved. They realize they need not be threatened. They realize how they will be well served by a man’s growth.
Why? Because a powerful man understands that his life has to be lived at least partly in service to the feminine if he wants to live a life of mission. Protecting the realm, promoting harmony, creating abundance for family, community, nation, usually means at some point serving women and children. It means doing more than just keeping them safe, it means making the necessary sacrifices to promote their well-being and growth. It means helping them thrive. A powerful, mission-driven man understands that.
The paradox is that it takes a cauldron of powerful masculine energy to get a man to that point. It takes men going off in the woods together, it takes men joining each other in exclusive circles of support, it takes drumming circles, it takes, if not “men’s clubs,” then safe places where men can go to be alone with other men. The fact is men need to be taught by men how to be men. And it takes very strong containers to hold a man’s passage. Men will buck and resist, partly because they fear that no container can possibly hold all the grief and rage they carry. But hold it we can and do.
Smart women understand that there are multiple venues and circumstances where men teach other men, and boys, about being men. The more formal ways are mentioned above. But there are plenty of informal ways. Going camping, hiking or hunting, weekend workshops, men’s support groups. Sports can do it. The military can do it. Work can do it. Yes, even a few drinks at a bar with the guys or hanging out in some man-cave can do it.
The proof is always in the pudding. Does the man (or boy) return from the gathering with a wiser, more mature attitude? With a more loving and available heart? With more humor and light? Or does he return angry, closed, protective, resentful, fearful? Or worse, completely drunk or stoned, aggressive, and violent?
A wise woman always recognizes when a man needs to get out and be with other men. He’s getting short with her and kids, he’s not listening anymore, or worse, he’s put his fist through the wall. A wise woman will urge her man to get out. This was beautifully demonstrated to me on a men’s weekend back in 1996. When asked why he was there one man from rural Wisconsin said, “My wife saw how impatient and angry I was getting with her. She told me ‘It’s time for you to go be with the men.’”
So women, when it’s a man’s time to go to be with the men, support him in that choice. And if he doesn’t return a better man for it then it’s time for him to consider joining different men under different circumstances. But it’s important that women support his seeking. Men going off with men to teach each other how to be men is an act that should be honored.
And men, it’s our responsibility to teach the women in our lives the difference between serving our shadow self and serving our growth. Teaching by words and by example. If we prove to them we’re actually doing right by them, getting that support will be much easier. Women can actually be proud when they see their men going off to be with other men. Imagine that! It’s not that hard to make happen.
VOICE MALE magazine is a hugely important magazine in these days of shifting male roles and identities. I love what it has to say. I love editor Rob Okun and am proud to call him my friend. I love VOICE MALE enough that I want to make it better. Here’s what would make it better for me:
I don’t want to define men and masculinity in terms of doing right by women. I want VOICE MALE to take the lead in defining men and masculinity in our own terms.
I grew up a feminist in a household dominated by a powerful Mom and an older sister. My father died when I was 9. The culturally derived nonsense that my uncle bequeathed me at the funeral a few days later - “Freddy, you’re the man of the house now.” - kickstarted my lifelong quest to define masculinity meaningfully.
Feminism, gender equality and fairness all made implicit sense to me, along with all other forms of social justice - race, religion, sexual preference, class... But in lessons I learned during adolescence from my Mom, like “You need to learn how to be a good husband to your wife,” there was always an implicit if not overt tone of shame. My mother and sister never missed an opportunity to recount parts of the endless list of male crimes against women and girls, against humanity in general - the crimes of patriarchy. Were these statements accurate? Yes. Was I somehow to blame for them? No. Yet I was made to feel that I was somehow to blame by virtue of being born male.
In college I read Susan Brownmiller. "[Rape] is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear." I also read numerous other feminists. Partly due to this education in feminism, partly because I projected the worst aspects of my father on to Type A straight males, I shrank from powerful men from my teens through my 30s. I unconsciously sought the company of women, gay men, intellectual men, and “weaker” straight men – projecting on to them an emotional openness, vulnerability, and flexibility I didn’t sense in Type A straight males. But the true bottom line was this - I unconsciously feared any man remotely hyper masculine. I labeled them as “macho” and dismissed them.
That was the legacy of masculinity I carried until I was 40. In the last 16 years that has changed. I now see weakness and strength in every man I meet, I see fragile, tender hearts in the toughest of men, I accept gruff and inarticulate speech as openly as I do professors’, I see unlimited capacities for love and caring among incarcerated murderers, corporate executives, soldiers, policemen, corner drug dealers, plumbers and roofers… even (and this is the greatest challenge) politicians. I have a much greater understanding and acceptance of how men can be wounded and harmed by women, including by domestic violence, I appreciate how divorce and paternity laws can hurt men as much or more than women. Just as women have been objectified and marketed to, I now see how men’s physical and psychological differences are also marketed as “flaws” that need “fixing” by doctors, medicines, and an unlimited array of products. To some extent, men are also “objects” of history. But saying that patriarchy also screws men is not news.
Though I’ll do my best to combat all forms of crimes against women I’ll not accept personal responsibility for any act I myself did not commit. Though I’ll be there to support any woman as best I can through whatever suffering she may have received at the hands of men, I’ll not take it on emotionally as my own. I will recognize whatever systems privilege me as a white American heterosexual male but I will sharply delineate what is institutional and cultural privilege and culpability from what is personal or interpersonal privilege and culpability. I will not accept personal blame, guilt or shame for 1000s of years of women’s past and ongoing suffering.
Now that I’m unafraid of “measuring up,” I delight in the company of the entire rainbow of human male expression, in whatever context I may find men. Now that I’m less afraid of conflict, I’ll confront men when I think they’re being aggressive. Now that I don’t fear my own tears I can fall more easily into the arms of another man and cry. Now that I don’t criticize my own love of sports I can accept sports on its own terms, rather than seeing them as mindless escapes from real world issues. Now that I don’t take on shaming energy from others and I’m more averse to times when I shame myself my own heart is more open and available to both men and women.
What I will accept is the responsibility to be the greatest man I can be – to stand with both men and women to resist all forms of sexism and misogyny, to resist sexual abuse and violence against women wherever and whenever it occurs, to resist all lingering forms of exploitation and discrimination against women, to do all this and more. But I will do it not because it’s the right thing to do but because it is part of what is great and noble about being a man.
When I read some articles in VOICE MALE I feel a haranguing tone. Is there some mother projection going on here? Probably. My mother’s tone was similar. But I don’t think it’s all projection.
Some articles just feel haranguing: “Do this because it’s right. Do this because it’s just. Do this because you should. Do this because it’s good for women.” None of these reasons are wrong of course. But it’s not just an issue of tone. They’re incomplete. They end up speaking to only half of why we as men should join these worthy battles.
The other half, the missing half, is why engaging these battles will serve me and my growth as a man. Why it will help me understand my own limitations and my own greatness. Why it will support me in my mission in life. Why it will link my heart with other hearts. Why it will fulfill me and make me happy. It’s personal rather than political. It’s poetic rather than polemical. It’s psychological rather than sociological. It’s mythic and archetypal and soulful rather than mundane and professional and altruistic.
I want to be invited to live up to my greatest potential, not scolded. I want to be called to my greatness, not made to feel somehow insufficient. I want to be inspired to be that righteous, worthy Knight I’ve always wanted to be, and I want to be celebrated for the heroic measures I already take and will take more of. In VOICE MALE, in fact in all “men’s work,” I want to experience some joy at arriving at the future I am co-creating – the joy at recognizing I can and will “Be all I can be” – and have that be as palpable and powerful a motivating energy as the plea, however virtuous, to do the right thing.
Emma Goldman, one of my adolescent heroes, famously said, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” I feel the same. If I and all my brothers can’t delight in the men of honor we are now and are still becoming, if we can’t celebrate and be celebrated for the highest virtues of masculinity we demonstrate, if we can’t revel in something sacred that binds us together as men, if we can’t define ourselves meaningfully as men without the necessity to include women in that definition, then what can we be? What will we be?
Women started and to some degree have succeeded at the feminist revolution. I believe men should not define themselves through that revolution. We need to make our own.
It’s about finding a third way. It doesn’t mean patriarchy revisited. It doesn’t mean opposition to patriarchy rehashed. It means accepting the challenge to create new forms of masculinity. Forms that maybe some samurais understood, that maybe some Knights of the Round Table understood, that maybe some warrior monks and priests understood, that maybe the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and Ghandi and Harvey Milk and Malcolm X understood: Men who find the greatest fulfillment in life, the greatest realization for their potential as men, doing service to the realm, fighting for justice, aiming squarely for more harmony and good on the planet.
I call all men my brothers. I stand shoulder to shoulder with all men. But my heart calls out to those men who find that righting social wrongs need not be done because it’s the right thing to do but because it fulfills their greatest potential as men. That is the great beauty in masculinity. I stand tallest when I stand with those men.