December 6, 2012

Boy's Rites of Passage and Growing Male Hearts

In early November, myself and 29 other older males from the Desert Men's Council again conducted a Rite of Passage Adventure Weekend. It was held in the desert wilderness, two hours from Tucson, Arizona. There, twelve young males went through a passage experience built on an ancient initiatory template.

The initiates arrive full of teen bravado, and are always surprised to encounter high drama, trials, some physical discomfort, big questions about becoming a man, and a group of men who take their approaching manhood seriously. The graduates of the program are called Journeymen, or J-Men, young males intentionally launched on their journey toward manhood. From the weekend graduation on, they enjoy the continued support of a multi-generational tribe of brothers. It's always a very powerful experience for all the males involved.

What makes these passage weekends different from your standard adventure outing is, in addition to the mix of deprivations and physical challenges, there are many opportunities for the young initiates to hear adult men speaking honestly and openly about the difficult parts of their lives. It's strange enough for most of our initiates to be surrounded by older guys who are clearly there to support them. Add to that, seeing these men be vulnerable, open, and telling the truth about life is clearly something unusual. As trust grows over the weekend, this degree of presence, personal honesty, and emotional vulnerability by the men forms a strong bond, unique in the lives of many of the boys . . . and many of the staff men.
In those moments, when the initiates "speak their truth,"
there are often tears. Boy's tears and Men's tears.
By creating what we call a "safe container," with commitments to honesty, directness, and confidentiality (aside from mandatory reporting requirements), the initiates have a place where the hard parts of their lives can also be spoken. The parts in the way, of them becoming the man they want to be, can be revealed and witnessed. In those moments when the initiates "speak their truth," there are often tears. Men's tears and boy tears. Hearts are touched, compassion expressed, and suffering reduced because it's shared. The young men find they are no longer alone with difficult challenges in their lives, and while there are no easy answers, there is hope and comfort in having allies.

Intimacy and Emotional Vocabulary: A big part of what we are doing in this work is helping all the males on the weekend to grow their capacity for compassion and empathy, while helping them to develop an expanded emotional vocabulary. This is really life-saving/life-giving work in so many ways.

In a November, 2012 New York Times article by David Brooks, titled, The Heart Grows Smarter, he describes a research project begun in 1938. Known as the Grant Study, its goal was to track a group of 268 students from Harvard University, and determine what aspects of their lives contributed to success in life and their physical and emotional health.

In 1966, George Vaillant took over the research, and published his conclusions in his book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study. Very simply stated, Vaillant discovered that it was NOT body type, birth order, or even social class that predicted success, happiness, or vitality in men’s lives. To quote him, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” "Flourishing," also includes living a long time. Of the 31 men in Vaillant’s study, those incapable of establishing intimate bonds, only four were still alive when his book was published. Of those who were better at forming relationships, more than a third were living.

In his Times article, David Brooks describes some of the Grant Study men. He points out how, for different reasons, these men became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion. Imagine, increased longevity, relationship satisfactions, health, and success in life, all coming out of a male's increased emotional capacity. Now imagine having the opportunity to begin to grow your emotional vocabulary and increase your capacity for intimacy as a teenager! That’s one of the reasons the work we do on these Rite of Passage Weekends is so important for these young guys. It also doesn't hurt that we squeeze a bit on our own older male hearts.

If you want to know more about Rite of Passage weekends, or group activities for men and boys, give me a shout. You’ll learn how men helping boys on their Journey to Manhood, is life-giving for all the males involved.

For a great review of Vaillant's Triumphs of Experience book, read this article in The Daily Beast.

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