Rites of Passage
an excerpt from Martin Brossman’s upcoming book, "Finding Our Fire"
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After reading Robert Bly’s Iron John in the early ’90’s, I wondered if our American society contained any meaningful rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. I started my search at about the same time I began my career as a Personal Coach because I knew that if we could identify a meaningful rite of passage the results would surely be useful for my clients. I began to realize the lack of evidence of this “element” and to understand the trouble it was causing in the lives of male clients and their partners.
Finding natural and constructive rites of passage was as important to me then as it is now. I believe that men today would greatly benefit from reconnecting to the noble initiation into manhood that was once a natural stage of growth which is present in Native American and other cultures. Drawing upon the fairy tale that describes the archetypal issues of men, Bly says only older men in a society effectively initiate younger men into manhood, and that both the older and younger need this process for their own personal development. According to Bly, a father is too emotionally close to his son to do the job. The assistance of other men in the community is necessary.
Our society has accepted initiation by peers: whether into college fraternities, athletic teams, or the dangerous and destructive initiation into street gangs. These often cruel affairs are not true rites of passage. True rites of passage can occur only when “elders” interact appropriately with the young men who are to be brought into the mature association with older men. The little-known essence of the process is that the men who participate in an initiation enter into a kind of initiation themselves. When the older men bless the younger men, something grows as well within those who give the blessing. Initiation is also mentoring in a special way.
In my years in men’s work, I have learned that initiation takes many forms. Although there is no one right way or right time, only masculinity can grant masculinity. Too long we men have turned to women to initiate us into masculine maturity. In truth, it is really up to us as men. Meanwhile many women are tired of trying to do a job that should be that of a man—introducing a boy into manhood. One of my clients, a single mother of a teenage boy, told me she felt great relief when she admitted she could not effectively mentor her son by herself. She happily worked with me when I found responsible men in the community to provide the mentoring role missing in her son’s life.
Despite the wide influence of Bly’s writing, today few major structured rituals or ceremonies are available to help make the tectonic shift from "boy" psychology to "man" psychology. Without initiation-type activities in our lives, there is no line in our hearts between being a boy and being a man. While there may be questions about what happens in any given ceremony, it is important to know that being a man does not mean that we lose the childlike wonder of life. Rather, we learn to gather it to ourselves, to feast on it, to keep it in our hearts, and share it as a mature man having once been a mere boy.
Years ago, initiation supported men in making the tough changes that life requires. With the disappearance of these rites, many men do not or cannot make the shift easily or gracefully from childhood to adulthood. They do not have the emotional or psychological support necessary to go from child to man. So now we have a large population of 35- or 45-year-old boys running around causing trouble for themselves and others. For many of us, the “shifting point” just did not happen. In its place is a blur of feeling, confused and mixed up within us deep down inside: like that of a mere youth stuck in an aging body. It’s a feeling that deeply affects the perception of ourselves and others, sometimes throughout an entire lifetime. A good case in point is Ron*, an 89-year-old friend.
Ron was one of my previous clients. A few years ago he called to ask me if I could support him in “becoming a man.” Surprised, I asked him what triggered this unusual request. He shared that his deceased father and uncle had appeared to him, “just like they were in the room.” He said he asked them if they were coming to get him, and they had answered, “No, you’re not done yet. You know what you need to do.” Amazingly Ron said he knew exactly what they meant. But his dilemma was that he still did not feel like a man. After talking it over with a friend and trying to figure out what to do about it, he called me.
Feeling a bit insecure before someone of his age and maturity, I wondered if I were the right person— if I had the ability to provide what he needed. Ron was an extraordinary man who had accomplished more in his life than I could dream of; he had lived through hardships that I don’t think I could endure. But there is something about a simple, honest request that can grab you unlike anything else. I was aware that I would be on my own, since the only men’s personal development programs I knew of were in the form of three-day weekend workshops, and those were not an option due to his health. So even though I didn’t know exactly how to proceed, we scheduled a time to meet.
At our first session, Ron revealed the hidden details of his life: how he had stuttered badly as a young boy and his friends constantly made fun of him. His father thought he was a wimp and his mother, though kinder, told him stories about the evil deeds of men. Ron took these stories to heart and vowed not to join the ranks of masculine “badness.”
For most of his life, Ron said, he had rejected men for the evils they had done. I asked him to tell me a specific story of how he knew men were evil from his actual experience.
He said he had been on a battleship in WWI, in a remote area near China. And that the sailors were planning to leave the ship and attack a village known for its brothels; they were intent on a spree of raping and killing the women.
I assured him I understood the horror of it as he continued. Being one of the smallest men on the boat, he said he knew he could not challenge the others through physical strength. But he was the only Medic on the ship and realized the crews were dependent on him if they got injured. So he confronted the men leaving the boat, telling them to leave their firearms on the ship, and that if he heard of any deaths, he would not treat the men if they were hurt. He finished the story and said, “This is why I hate men.”
Do you see clearly as I did then what he had missed? I said, “How did you miss your own courageous act?” I asked him to create a log and to write the story, this time as a story of a man with great courage. I told him he could pretend at first it wasn’t him, if that helped. As time went on, he had story after story just like this, and I continued to have him rewrite his history, keeping the content consistent, simply changing his interpretation of what it meant.
At the same time in his coaching sessions, we also worked on his determination of what type of adult men he admired. Gandhi was first on his list. To that he added other men who were clever, wise, and had the strength to adhere to their principles. All were men who were able to transform conflict with their intellect. Of course I could see this was the type of man HE WAS!
I asked Ron to write about this man as though he were building a composite of many men. His resulting model was an archetype that we called the “Warrior-Wizard.” “In reviewing the past, “ I asked, “Tell me how you have actually been a Warrior-Wizard, and how you would have lived your life differently if you had realized it previously? And how would it change the way you live your daily life now?”
After a few weeks went by, Ron reported that he was feeling better about his life and in general about being a man. However, he still had some mixed feelings, and we stopped our coaching sessions when a friend’s death took him out of town. A year later, I felt a strong urge to call him. His shaky voice on the phone told me he had cancer and might not live through the night. He was such a good friend to me. My mind went immediately to how much he had helped me personally, and to a project we had planned to do together —but that is another story! I realized it could be the last time we would talk and told him what a great friend he was, how much he had contributed to my life, and that I loved him. He said the same.
I hesitated to follow up at that point on the topic of “being a man,” but since this might be our last conversation, I simply said,. “Thanks for letting me contribute to you in the area of becoming a man.” “You’re welcome,” he said softly, “You know that’s all been resolved. Our work together was quite helpful.”
What then are the critical components in male rites of passage? I surely do not want to suggest that there is some specific path that must be taken. I only want to offer some components to consider including in constructing any rite of passage activity. First of all there should be some experience that gives a man a sense of transition from one state to another with the support of other men. This is often referred to as a ‘ritual space’. Second a man needs to find a community within which to develop within that ‘ritual space.’ And third the process must honor and welcome the man into the community of men in a way that gives value to both the initiate and the other men involved. It gives him the opportunity to see his unique contribution to the whole.
Our culture unfortunately offers little that qualifies. One valuable exception is The New Warrior Training, an intensive weekend designed to address men’s issues that I have both experienced and recommended for men of all ages. It is especially effective when participants join the weekly or bi-weekly Integration groups that are set up to perpetuate the personal work. I did The New Warrior Training in 2001; I’ve recommended it to friends and clients and gratefully watched as their marriages and work lives quietly transformed for the better thanks to the deep journey they have been on.
Authentic initiation is a powerful process in a man’s journey of maturing, enjoying his own life, and enriching his family and society. The gold I have gained and see other men gaining from deep meaningful fellowship and trust of each other are my reasons for writing Finding Our Fire. It is the collective contribution of my own experiences as well as men from all over the world that have courageously taken on their lives.
It’s a book of
compelling questions about men’s personal issues with personal insights
from men around the world, designed as a tool to support us in gaining
greater access to our passion, our strength, and our compassion!
Martin Brossman is the co-VP of Raleigh Men's Center and leads the Triangle Men's Inquiry meeting. For more info go to: www.toinquire.com., call him at (919) 847-4757 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org Email Martin to be on the notification list of the up-coming book, “Finding our Fire” in 2005.
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