I love the collective nouns for groups of animals: a murder of crows, a charm of goldfinches, a bloat of hippopotamuses. At a recent Men and Boys conference I invented a new one - 'a confusion of men'. Right now, most boys and men are confused about what it is to be a man. I think that is a good thing.
My father never asked himself, 'what is it to be a man?', he wouldn't have understood the question. As a baby boomer I sought male role models and was disappointed with those on offer.
For over 30 years I have worked creatively with boys and men, building communities, using the teachings of indigenous peoples to inform my work with disenfranchised groups. When I first embarked on this odyssey there wasn't much interest in exploring the confused and damaged state of the male in our society. Recently that has changed. A concern has grown, particularly around teenagers and their rite of passage into manhood. Rites are now recognised as being important, as being missing in our lives. They were a means of transforming the boy into a man, but they disappeared a while ago. The question is, how do we re-introduce them in a modern and acceptable way? They are needed by both boys and girls, but I'll write from the male perspective.
In order to pass through rites, the initiate needs to undergo radical changes:
1. To cut the ties with his mother and close family. Leave home physically and mentally.
2. To create his own identity. Discover his passion and innate unique ability. This probably isn't what his parents or teachers want him to be. To do this he needs to make mistakes and possibly become disillusioned or depressed.
3. He needs to find his place in the pecking order amongst his peers.
4. Once he does this work he needs to be recognised as having changed by his elders.
He may go through a lot of hardships, challenges, disappointments and, ironically, by doing so he will succeed in life. He will become motivated, enthusiastic and happy with himself. A contributor to society - a good man.
We allow our boys a very short period to do this important work, probably from 13 to 21. To achieve all of the above in such a short time is asking a lot. More realistically, it needs to be from 13 to 30. During this rite the initiate needs mentoring by older men who have 'been there and done it'. Unfortunately, recent generations of men have not had elders to help them. Instead, they have created 'peer initiation', becoming a man amongst friends, not in the wider community. This is the equivalent of re-inventing the wheel every twenty years or so.
I didn't respect or acknowledge my father's generation whilst going through my process. I ignored them and moved into manhood with my friends. Successive generations have cobbled rites together, as best they could. The consequences of this are profound. Our culture now lacks depth and quality. We have no cross generational understanding or compassion, we have become disillusioned and cynical, we perform meaningless jobs out of fear. We live without enthusiasm, we seek addictions, we have become 'a confusion of men'.
All of us should be very pleased that maleness has moved on since the simplistic Victorian ideal of the macho and violent tyrant. We are only just starting to see what is a viable alternative. In order to have some clarity for the future, we need to instigate new rites of passage, not just for teenagers, but for every generation. I run 'retrospective rites' for men who want to work with teenagers, but who weren't properly initiated themselves. I believe we have to put ourselves through the rites we missed before we can share our knowledge with others. These rites then become truly 'cross-generational'. Allowing young men to see the beauty and wisdom of older men, and for those older men to praise and support the new men in their struggle. The next set of rites I am planning will also be 'cross-gender', enabling boys to be encouraged by men and women, enabling girls to be encouraged by women and men. Any one out there interested in helping?
Maybe by doing so we can move from the present 'confusion of men' to 'a beauty of men', who knows!