I got a call. Would I come and do a talk about being a man on a ritual for men. One thing led to the next and I found myself participating in an initiation ritual lasting four grueling days. Organized by and with participation of several leading lights from the men’s movement from all over Europe including South Africa and the United States.
On a Windswept Hill
Five hours drive away from Copenhagen on a windswept hill by the sea, sixty men met up. Most had no idea what they were getting themselves into. We were not meant to know. I was to facilitate my own group of six guys in several two hour sessions during the four days. On a Wednesday afternoon under thick clouds we arrived, found our quarters, greeted our roommates and whomever we passed.
In the leadership we had agreed to be careful with the “What do you do?” questions, in order for us all to be in the same boat as it were. Just “men”. Not doctors, drivers and priests. This strategy worked. The question was omitted and people’s particular professions never came up as a topic. Something that in itself made the event true to form: Rituals are meant to ignite and release the hidden or subdued aspects of the inner life. Therefore they are placed outside normal surroundings, beyond our everyday prejudices, projections, classifications and constricting roles and taboos.
Lost at Sea
Perhaps many of the participants felt like the academic afloat at sea being picked up by rough fishermen in Jack London’s prize winning literary adventure “The Sea Wolf”. A story of a peaceful city man with soft hands finding himself having to toil on deck and having to fight back, becoming the man that university and a sedate life had failed to ignite in him. Jack London put himself through outlandishly tough ordeals in his own life. Perhaps he sensed that being the man he wanted to be, he had to seek tough ordeals in a man’s world – be it at sea or digging gold in the wilderness. The many men showing up seemed to suffer from this lack of a “something” – they were at float in their own existence in need of awakening their own toughness and resolve? They needed to encounter and redeem themselves as the men they were underneath it all.
Writing this I feel a sting of pain. An image appears in my mind of men at drift without the underpinnings of self assuredness that men of old may have had. Men estranged from fathers and estranged from themselves. If there is one thing that signifies modern man, it is: “I try not to exist as it may offend.” Perhaps the case is, that if a boy or man doesn’t respect his father, he unwittingly cast a dark spell on himself as the condemnation of one’s own father indirectly or subconsciously demeans one self. It is however, not only a matter of “absent fathers” in particular households: Industrialization made productive strangers out of us all. Today rapid progress and confusion also separates generations by invisible walls of new technologies, ever shifting values, weaponized morals and politics all the while legacy media and social media warriors produce and partake in tribalism pitting even family members against each other. These essentially abstract stances that we are meant to regard as identities today, may lead the person to a thousand likes, a degree and even a consultancy gig – but won’t teach you how to boil an egg. Even a degree in anthropology won’t teach you how to deal with an upset partner. As such there is a certain meaninglessness permeating our civilization and educational systems. A basic identity as a man disappears in abstractions.
The specifics of rituals have to be kept secret. There is a theatrical element to them. If these elements are revealed to others it is akin to spoiling a movie, by revealing the plot. Therefore I will focus on what the participants’ presented problems were and the effects the rituals had on them.
“Why are you here?”
In the core groups that counted approximately 6 individuals every participant was met with these basic questions: What is your name, where are you from, and why are you here? In my particular group nobody but one had tried this kind of “sharing” and self work before. I needed to make them feel safe quickly and I had been given an opportunity to help them make giant steps as they most likely had a lot of unarticulated pain and wants. As it turned out we got there within the first 30 minutes and the relationship in the group got deeper by the minute until we were like brothers in arms. They talked about feeling like there was something wrong with them, that it was difficult to make women interested in them, that they had just kicked a drug habit and hadn’t managed to replace it with anything. A red thread through it all was a lack of resolve and they would also talk about a weak, bullish or absent father. We made a process in which they among other things were helped to honor – not necessarily love their fathers, seeing them as human beings who did many right things and perhaps many wrong things. The goal being to bring them out of their feelings of not being honorable men themselves in the mirror of a flawed father. Also we had a focus on the importance of having a great network with other guys – because men learn how to become men, by being with other men. A truth that was also eked out by such eminent psychologists as Erich Neumann and Rollo May.
What did they take home?
Their more relaxed bodies softened by physical exertion and the tears of hidden and now diluted traumas, led to reflections about “what’s gonna be different tomorrow?” mission statements and things they looked forward to in the immediate future. Be it getting back to university to finish their degree, taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or practicing gratitude to step out of depressed states of mind. Also my group agreed to meet online every second month for the rest of the year and as I said to them: to keep each other at it and – if need be just to hang out. In the absence of a father, there are good friends and the occasional inspiring fellow participant or group leader at a men’s gathering to be inspired by. You can’t make it alone. We also used this quasi fatherlessness as an impulse to feel free to discover manliness for ourselves in our attempts to make meaning out of it all. Just like Jack London did himself. His father rejected him before he was even born and he went on to invent and reinvent himself and inspired millions to seek their own adventure to become the man they need to be. The man the world calls for.
…Further Reflections. Cornerstones of rituals:
Rituals mix things together. The city and the wilderness. Exertion and relaxation. The known and the unknown. The actual and the symbolic. Seriousness and fun. Young and old (at the specific event I partook in, there was a council of elders with an average age of seventy and the rest of us were between 22 and 54). Symbols and the concrete. The physical and the psychological. Bringing opposites together creates new things. Like mixing yellow and blue and getting green. The difference between bringing these opposites together in the real world and at a ritual as we performed it, is that everyone is set to listen, honor and value how other people orient themselves in the world. There is no tribalism, no immature og premature projections. It is all about being inspired by other people’s truths or “standing places”, be they based on Christianity, Zen Buddhism or insights into mythological aspects of modern life. These three perspectives were cornerstones at the event. (I taught about mythology in modern life).
Most rituals that I have read up on have at least one thing in common: Physical duress. Be it staying alone in a tiny hut for four days (like many girls did in Indian rituals) dancing the night long, climbing a mountain, enduring pain and so on. These physical trials have at least two purposes: The first one is to prepare for the hardship of life: If you survive in the wilderness alone for one week, a single night lost in the woods won’t scare you. The other reason which may have been an unarticulated wisdom by the peoples’ may be that: If you break somebody down physically their psychological defenses also break down. The breaking down of ego defenses make new perspectives possible. This of course represents a tremendous ethical challenge for leaders of rituals. Not a single man at the event, didn’t shed a tear as old mental constructs tumbled and gave room to new ones.
The symbolic realm
Rituals are full of symbolic representations. Symbols reduce complexity. They boil life and existence down into basic images. As such, a boy in the Sioux tribe could get an eagle as a totem animal. A symbol to remind of keeping an eye on his surroundings, get him to soar high – take leadership, and to be brave in taking down prey. Such symbols cut through the many precautions, words, fears, theories and the myriad of sensibilities that hang like curtains in front of the eyes of modern man. At the particular event we used many different kinds of symbols. We used colors to signify stages of development with the color black or grey, representing integration of “energies”; that you can and should maintain and integrate your innocence, anger, fear, wild side and so on. Symbols can, through their archetypal depth, become lasting vehicles for values and inspire action. They represent a home for our soul – as it were?
If a man is anything it is he who secures peace and prosperity for his family, friends and society in that order. This is an impossibility without adopting personal leadership and stringent values to guide you. Whatever these values may be. Personally I subscribe to the virtues put into writing by Aristotle and developed further in the New Testament:
The four cardinal virtues and faith, hope and love.
These virtues have been updated in a test developed by Martin Seligmann and others. You can take the test here.
… and by the way the root of the word virtues is “vir”, as in “virility”. It means “man” in latin.