September 20, 2010

Are Painful Rites of Passage Necessary?

The recent Leaving Neverland Man-Making blog post reminded me of the problem cultures down through time have faced as their young ones began to leave the things of childhood behind and started poking around in the business of the adult world. This in-between time has always been considered a dangerous phase in an adolescent’s development, a situation that begs for attention from the adults in his community.

The in-between time for an adolescent even has a name . . . it is called the liminial state. As one anthropologist, Victor Turner wrote, Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony. Most societies considered adolescents to be extremely vulnerable and even dangerous during this time because of their social ambiguity. Does that sound familiar?

The Mende people are one of the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. Their Poro Men’s Society is the group charged with preparing young males for leadership in their community. During the period the liminial males are being trained, they are actually considered dangerous. The men of the community “play pipes and yell warning cries to prevent passers-by from coming into contact with them.”

Dogon Circumcision Cave Painting

And so it has been for societies all over the world. The community and the men have had to surround the boys, get their attention, and using the collected wisdom of the ages, transmit important knowledge, experience, and ideas that can support them on their quest for manhood.

Following his training, there was often a painful ordeal for the young male. This clearly, and without question, marked his crossing out of neverland and into a new station in life. With that crossing came a new identity and adult male responsibilities. His body (and psyche) often bore potent reminders, for the initiate and his community, that a new man had arrived in town.

In the following video, a young boy from the Dogon people in Mali is about to experience a painful practice that is believed to move him out of that middle-ground between boyhood and manhood. As uncomfortable as it is to watch, it might be preferable to the fate too many contemporary boys (and men) are paying for staying in neverland.

What do you think?

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  1. Anonymous3:48 PM

    Which man/men would you trust your life with?

    What is their base reference point? Never good enough.

    Children should be taught in school at an early age how to live daily life so when those
    years come up, they will be a man. They will stand tall in their gut and have strong
    boundaries and would not be in need to be macho. One is weak if he needs to be something
    to others to be viewed as passing any rite.


  2. I agree with you that in a more perfect world boys would be continually surrounded by good men, mentors and role models. Sadly, for so many young guys it hasn't been that way for a couple generations. That's why part of my mission it to call men to action in support of young males.

    I've done a few different Rite of Passage experience. Never, ever felt my life was at risk and always learned something important about myself and "men."

    I have also staffed, and lead Rite of Passage events for young males. Never even close to being as aggressive as the old tribal ways describe in this post, and always delivered with the physical and psychological safety of the boys in mind. My experience has been that these events are always positive and powerful learning experiences for all the males involved.

    The challenge in many rite of passage experiences is not living up to others expectations, judging the initiates, but rather (simply put) helping them answer the question, "What is your vision of the man you want to become, and are you happy with your progress in that direction?"


Your response to this blog post is appreciated and welcome.