July 20, 2016

A Rite of Passage Ordeal by Fish and Tobacco Juice

Finding different ways to honor a young man as he moves through various benchmarks on his way toward manhood is just a good and maybe important thing to do. Over the years, I've written about many of these transitions and made suggestions about how to amplify them with attention and sometimes a little ritual.

Here is a link to some 60+ Man-Making Blog posts about different passage experiences. The posts cover everything from birthdays, a first shaving lesson, getting a driver's license, to the more serious rituals for "crossing the line" from boyhood into early manhood for an adolescent male. In each of these moments, something changes in a young man's life. If the men in his world are aware and engaged, there is an opportunity for them to honor and celebrate the young man. Who among you got enough of that when you were growing up?

Sadly, intentional Rites of Passage
for young men
have largely disappeared.

Sadly, intentional Rites of Passage for young men have largely disappeared or are very under-played in our culture. While there are a few organizations that offer them, most of our young guys are left with few choices as they are propelled by their biology toward manhood.

One common option is self-initiation, often involving dangerous and very high-risk activities. You'll see competitive and "I'll show you" kinds of foolishness, fueled by testosterone and guided by a poorly wired teen brain.

Then there are peer initiations through things like hazing, gang challenges, ordeals and the trials required of boys and men everywhere to gain membership to what I call the men's hut . . . the place where manhood is conferred and honored.

Tribal Initiation 1975
On a recent vacation trip, I came across a good example of how one profession tested the new guy. Last summer, I was listening to an old fisherman speaking at the fishing museum on the shore of Lake Superior in Bayfield, Wisconsin. He was describing the challenges of fishing on the big lake, and the seaworthiness of the Lake Superior gill net fishing boat. It had an all-metal construction and an odd whale-like shape, perfect for riding large waves. It could also quickly become a completely enclosed workspace if the conditions required, complete with a small coal stove for heat. It was a boat perfectly designed for working the cold and often stormy seas fishermen often encounter on the big lake.

When I inquired, the old fisherman said they had a special way of initiating the new guys into the profession:
When we had a new helper on the crew, we’d wait for a good’n stormy day for the “welcome.” As part of the tradition, someone would kindly take the new man out for a large and greasy breakfast. Then, as we were heading out, we'd send the new guy below to work on the nets. He thought he was getting off easy because he was going to be out of the bad weather and be warm and dry.

When the boat was really pitching and rolling in the big water outside the islands, one of us old guys would go down to chat with him and commence with spitting tobacco juice on the hot stove. That pungent fragrance, along with the heating of the wooden floor, with its years of accumulated fish gut residue, would rise up a stink you could smell in a fog bank long before you could even hear an engine.

This ordeal by fear, sea, and odor always brought the new guy to his knees. Us old timers, after having a good chuckle, always felt new respect for him and went easier on him after that.
The old fisherman was laughing during the telling of this tale, most likely because he and many generations before him had experienced this uncomfortable ordeal. It was a Rite of Passage which earned the poor initiate a degree of acceptance into that world of men. While some form of testing and trials have always been part of initiatory experiences, today we have the opportunity and freedom to create what's best and relevant for our boys in each community.

If you have a similar story of an ordeal you faced at some point in your life to gain entry or acceptance to man's world, I'd love to hear it. You can send it to me or add it to the comments section of this post.

Personally, I'm all for intentionally creating positive passage experiences for our young men. If you're interested in how to do that, give me a shout. Let's all try to find a way we can notice, name the transition, and honor young men as they move along on their journey toward manhood.

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