I stumbled across something I wrote many moons ago – amazing what you can find when you can break away from the 9-to-5 for more than a couple days in a row. As I look at these few lines now, I realize that round-the-world travel I began in my early 30s was the definitive rite of passage for me. Arriving in Phnom Penh two days ago with no room booked, no map, and two or three phrases in the local language reminded me of self-affirming that kind of travel can be. There’s an indescribable feeling of accomplishment to put yourself in such a situation and sort out a bed, a bite to eat, and a beer all within an hour of hitting the ground.
I’m also wondering if many of the things that trouble our society today stem from the fact that so many young men have no other avenue of entering ‘manhood’ than through violence or crime. It’s becoming more difficult to achieve that sense of pride through hard work and ownership. Living with the folks and delivering pizzas doesn’t cut it, nor does watching your buddies die fighting unjust wars around the world. Buying that cookie-cutter, poorly-constructed suburban home – if you’re lucky enough to afford it – might work for some. Maybe we need to re-think what isn’t working any longer, figure out how to affirm and confirm young men and women into society. Here’s what I wrote way back when:
I’ve been reading an anthology of some of Wilfred Thesiger’s writing – a book I found while I was in Bangkok. He’s considered the last of the great English ‘gentleman explorers’, sort of a 20th century T.E. Lawrence. A couple of my favourite writers, Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux often refer to him, so I’ve always had an interest in reading something of his — Arabian Sands is reputedly his masterpiece. But it’s one of those names you really don’t think about when you’re in the bookstore; if this book hadn’t been in the window, probably would’ve gone another decade without reading anything of his.
Thesiger’s collection of early essays – excerpts from his diary as a 20-year old adventurer, letters to his mother – have got me thinking about rites of passage, specifically how they are so indistinct in the modern world as to be almost non-existent, and how what effect this has on us in the 21st century. (Yes, I know, I need to get out more!)
Thesiger perceives his adventure in Abyssnia at age 20 as his passage from boyhood to maturity. He’s there on a geographical and anthropological expedition – finding the unknown source of a river, documenting the customs of the peoples he encounters — but it’s clear that he’d be doing this without such justifications; running around Africa with 40 armed men, negotiating with various tribes, accepting hostages as guarantees of safe passage – all good fun in and of themselves.
(After my first round-the-world trip, I decided – from observation – that the reason there are so many areas in conflict in the world, is that young men enjoy running around jungles with guns much more than they do selling bananas on the sidewalk or washing windows at the gas station. In the States, we pretend these low-level jobs might lead somewhere; abroad, no one suffers from this kind of delusion.)
One of the tribes Thesiger encounters is the Danakil, who believed that a boy becomes a man only after killing a man. Others mark this rite of passage when a boy kills a lion, gazelle, or other animal. Thesiger himself is a fan of hunting big game, although he doesn’t seem to need the constant reaffirmation through violence that Hemmingway required.
Our fathers and grandfathers had their wars – noble causes, protecting the world from the Nazis, the Communists, etc. Before that there were forests to clear, farms to manage, barns to raise. Men from those times didn’t have to prove themselves any further — when you saved the free world in your 20’s – or had already built your own home from nothing with your bare hands – you could rest assured that your coming of age was not in question.
But what marks this passage from youth to adulthood today? Getting a driver’s licence at 16? First date? Graduating high school? First job/house/wife – etc.? I guess you can see where I’m going with this – I certainly don’t condone blood sport as means of finding one’s place in the universe, but these modern passages certainly seem warm and fuzzy substitutes.
And if that’s the mark, what about those too poor to afford a car, or go to college, too unattractive or shy to get a date, too undereducated or otherwise disadvantaged to get a decent job? There must be a subconscious humiliation growing within these individuals, something shouting ‘I’m not a man because I don’t have ______ .’
When did rites of passage move from ‘doing’ to ‘owning’ something? In a system where wealth determines access – not just to material goods, but to our sense of self – it’s not too hard to see where some of our biggest problems come from – crime in poor inner-city areas, religious extremism in suburbs where young men don’t fit in, terrorism against the ‘haves’ by the ‘have-nots’.
Killing of course, is never the answer – but it is a primeival urge. You can’t compete in the modern world, therefore you regress to an earlier time. Only you’re not really a man, but a coward, because you use modern mechanics to kill wholesale. Setting a bomb is even more cowardly than shooting someone; it goes off when you’re not even around, maybe killing women and kids – but where’s the glory even if it kills a soldier? No, these guys with bombs, the worst kind of cowards.
I could never understand the sense of accomplishment some feel when killing an animal with a gun (for sport, that is – putting meat on the table is completely different in my book). A political parallel is empire building — note that it only worked when Europeans had guns and everyone else had rocks and sticks. Opponents with guns, like the American colonies, had the capability to fight back – and win. This is why empires fell apart at the beginning of the last century, and why American attempts at colonization won’t work today – everyone is armed to the teeth.
As a boy, I read with interest stories of how Native Americans and other primitive peoples learned to face buffalo with a spear or bow, or chase down deer with nothing more than a knife. It always seemed to me that this is much more noble conflict than hunting with a gun.
But times have changed, and as much as I romanticize about wanting to return to simpler, nomadic times, I wouldn’t want everyone to do that – who would make my cappuccino at Starbucks?
However we definitely need to find new rites of passage – rites that aren’t based on blood or force, but that can’t be based on privilege and wealth either.