There is an African proverb that says, if you do not initiate your young men into the tribe, they will come back and burn down the village just to feel the heat. Are we seeing the consequences in the UK of a failure to provide our young men with a proper path to manhood? Here Peter Chaplin, who organises male rites of passage retreats, explains what this ancient tradition means to him.
— This is article #29 in our #100Voices4Men and boys series
It’s a 500-mile drive from where I live in Surrey to Perth, Scotland, where the annual Men’s Rites of Passage event takes place. The long journey is part of the process for most of us – the separation from work, cars, supermarkets, families, wifi. The road rises after Preston on the M6 and that’s where I feel the distance beginning to have an effect. By the time I arrive, I’ve forgotten how long I’ve been travelling.
When I finally turn the engine off and hand over my keys, phone, books and music, it’s to spend five days under canvas in a field in company with 45 other men, who are also scratching their heads and wondering what they’ve let themselves in for.
Reframing a man’s life
My turn came in 2010, and it was a memorable journey back into a fuller appreciation of the eldership of mature men, something so badly lacking in the west. Most of us have no initiations for such moments. Granted, we can be confirmed by our local bishop (a bit of a milk-and-water affair, as I recall) if we’re in a mainstream church, or can go through initiations in military and sometimes in sporting environments. We go through rites of passage when we are named, married, produce children and die, but nowhere else.
But the rites of passage was very male, very masculine, full of power, passion, failure, humour and brokenness, grief and release. It was earthy and humane, carried a recognition of the inevitability of loss and a reframing of the second half of a man’s life in which the graph levels out and starts to turn south, the time when fighting and striving stop.
I and the men around me found a safe space to confront and experience our failures and griefs among a team of elders who had taken the same journey earlier. Our feet were gently held to the fire, so to speak. It’s not a retreat, and it’s not therapy either. We didn’t have to negotiate any language with women, or apologize for the parts of ourselves that we hide from them.
Bad traditions need to be retired, but having no traditions at all seems to me to be much worse
There’s even more need for this type of eldering/mentoring for adolescents. It’s a challenge to devise meaningful rituals for young men to bring them into conscious and competent manhood. There’s an old African saying that if we don’t do this, the young men will come back and burn down the village. Isn’t that what’s happening right now all over the west? Young men don’t know who they are – though it’s not so surprising, since we as their fathers don’t really know either.
We have cast aside the old ways and the wisdoms of our ancestors without a second’s thought, all in the name of individual rights, self-expression, my freedom, all of which are good and necessary things. Bad traditions need to be retired, but having no traditions at all seems to me to be much worse.
On the way home, we find out later, most men say little or nothing, and when asked at home how it went, they say “I don’t really know what to tell you.” Weeks later it can be the same. For that short space of time up in Perth, these men, many for the first time, got outside their heads and into something altogether deeper and less tameable by language and thought. Sometimes their partners just nod and smile and wait for clues to begin leaking out, for conversations they’ve longed for over many years. Something has changed that they recognise before we do.
To find out more visit the Men’s Rites of Passage website here.
Photo: Flickr/Michael Pollack
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men.
The views expressed in these articles are not necessarily the views of the insideMAN editorial team. Whether you agree with the views expressed in this article or not we invite you to take take part in this important discussion, our only request is that you express yourself in a way that ensures everyone’s voice can be heard.