The Rite Way

By Dr George Burkitt

By a wide range of criteria, men are not doing well. Indicators include premature death and morbidity, disability and handicap, rates of suicide, imprisonment, unemployment, relationship breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and homelessness.

As a general practitioner with a practice devoted to counselling men in crisis, it is clear that the behaviours of men are not serving them well.

How may mature manhood be defined? How do boys undertake the transition to mature adulthood in modern western culture?

During early childhood, the boy is not in a position to take responsibility for his wellbeing and one of the key features of growing up is the increasing requirement for him to take responsibility for himself. On this basis, mature manhood (indeed adulthood) can be defined as the assumption of responsibility for the self and one's behaviour in the context of the wellbeing of the family, wider community and the environment. Responsible behaviour is the product of the ability to learn from personal experiences and the experience of others, the sum total of this being the attainment of greater maturity and wisdom as the years pass. Little is understood of the psychological, emotional, social and spiritual processes by which boys in modern Western culture undergo the transition from youth to mature manhood and the journey seems to be more a hit and miss process than a coherent one.

Having achieved "manhood", what then is the role of the man? Until recent years, manhood was marked by the attainment of paid employment. With that came a sense of status within the social hierarchy and an acknowledgment that the individual was of value to his family and community. In turn, social status and paid work enabled the man to take a partner and assume the role of provider and protector. Thus manhood was defined by three central criteria namely paid employment, providing for others and being the head and protector of a family. To be a man was to be a valued member of the community. Manhood was a highly valued and respected commodity. Attainment of manhood was a goal to which every boy aspired.

In the late twentieth century, these three criteria are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Manhood has been devalued and systematically debased particularly by the electronic media. Teenage boys approach manhood with apprehension and uncertainty if not reluctance. Some would prefer to avoid "manhood" or at least, the responsibility that it entails.

Elements of traditional initiatory practices

Traditional cultures took the process of transition of the boy into manhood very seriously, devoting great attention and social resources to the task of initiation. Much can be learned from traditional initiatory practices in raising our young men to take responsibility for themselves, the community and the environment

From anecdotal accounts of initiatory practices in many different cultures, there appear to be a number of common elements or criteria:

A community of initiated men. The whole community of adult men takes collective responsibility for the initiatory process, with leading roles being taken by men considered to have attained superior maturity and wisdom; such men are described as "elders". The community of men is a crucible within which the boy undergoes the metamorphosis from boyhood into manhood.

Initiation is a universal requirement. All boys are expected to undertake the initiation process and to take their place in the community of responsible adults; there is no place in the traditional community for those who are unwilling to undertake the process or who are unwilling to share collective responsibility for themselves and their community.

Honouring. Every initiate is honoured by the elders and initiated men with each young man being valued equally. "Honouring" is defined as acceptance of the individual as being of inestimable value. In this, there is a clear distinction between the "individual" and his "behaviour". The individual can be honoured whilst at the same time it can be made clear that certain behaviours are completely unacceptable.

Separation of boys from women and girls. Uninitiated boys and girls live and play together, predominantly under the supervision of their mothers and other women. At the beginning of the initiation process, the initiates are ritually taken away from the women who collude in the process. On completion of the initial initiatory process, there may be a continuing requirement for the boy to maintain, for some time, a particular social distance from women, particularly his mother. Women recognise their role in ensuring that this process occurs.

Each young man is individually seen and acknowledged. Whilst a number of young men may undergo the initiatory process concurrently, each is seen, honoured and acknowledged very much as an individual. On completion of the initiatory process, each newly initiated man is presented back to the community and acclaimed for his new status.

Challenging emotional and physical experiences. The initiate is set challenging tasks which severely stretch his emotional and physical resources. In some cultures this involves ritual cutting of the flesh in one form or another. In dealing with this, the initiate is supported and kept safe by the community of men. The process is not competitive.

Ritual. The initiatory process is attended by ritual and conducted at a site of particular spiritual significance. "Ritual" is defined as an action or process performed with intent and incorporating symbolic meaning.

Induction into traditional spiritual knowledge, traditions and practices. This spirituality has three dimensions namely the personal, the interpersonal (community) and the cosmic which give the life of the individual meaning in spiritual relationship with other members of the community and the environment in which he lives.

Initiatory experiences in western culture

What experiences do boys in western culture have in becoming men that might serve an initiatory function? How do these meet the criteria of traditional initiation?

Trade apprenticeship was traditionally conducted within a community of men who acted as role models for the apprentices, though their role could not equate with that of traditional elders and was confined to the workplace. The experience was far from universal. Regard for individual apprentices varied not least according to their performance and aptitude and whilst individuals were generally treated with respect, they were not honoured in the way of traditional cultures. Separation of the boys from women and girls was confined to working hours and challenging emotional and physical experiences were limited to the activities of the workplace. Ritual was minimal and there was little or no induction into traditional spiritual knowledge, traditions and practices except in so far as these were a part of the workplace ethos and culture. Overall, apprenticeship could be described as a positive experience though falling far short of meeting most traditional initiation criteria.

Military service on the other hand is generally a highly negative experience in initiatory terms. The community of men encountered by the recruit is intensely hierarchical with authority being determined by rank rather than earned as in the manner by which men became elders in traditional societies. In general, respect for the individual is measured by the degree of rank attained and respect is mainly directed upwards rather than each man being respected for himself. The training process of the "boot camp" is closer to humiliation and bullying than to the concept of honouring which is mainly reserved for heroes and the dead. Certainly males were, until very recently, separated from females; the military culture tends to be one of belittling of women and reference to them mainly as sexual objects. Junior military personal are usually dealt with collectively rather than acknowledged as individuals, and when the occasional individual outshines their peers they are usually promoted out of their peer group. Challenging emotional and physical experiences are a central feature of the military experience but those who do not perform are often denigrated and excluded rather than supported to achieve the desired goals. Military life is attended by much ceremony, much of it designed as a unidirectional mark of respect to those of senior rank but little of this could be defined as ritual. Finally, the military experience is largely devoid of spiritual meaning.

Outward Bound and comparable training programmes such as sail training and the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, perform quite well against the initiatory criteria but with certain major defects. Firstly, they are conducted by a community of adults who are usually separate from and unconnected with that of the trainee who on completion of the programme returns to an essentially alien community, i.e. there is not the sense that on completion of training, the graduate joins the community of initiated men and elders. The process is far from universal and tends to depend on above average parental income. Most programmes combine young men and women. Ritual and spiritual concerns have only a minor role.

Crisis as an initiatory experience

In our contemporary culture, times of crisis such as marital separation, loss of employment, dramatic change in health status, death of a loved one and bankruptcy provide the greatest test of a man's personal responsibility. To these could be added the stress of meeting certain critical age points such as 40 or 50 years, the so-called "mid life crisis". At times of great emotional stress, there is the option of blotting out the pain by suicide, denial, blame and resort to mind-altering drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, there is the opportunity for the man to take control of his life by the assumption of greater responsibility for himself and his actions; this is precisely the definition of mature adulthood. Indeed life involves many difficult times and in facing each, there is the opportunity to gain greater maturity and wisdom.

The relevance of initiatory concepts and practices to western culture

Discussion of initiation in relation to contemporary life often raises the spectre of a return to traditional forms such as "going bush" for months on end, being circumcised with a stone knife without anaesthetic and having the chest slashed. In this discussion, such preconceptions should be abandoned. It is the principles that are being examined, not the specific practices.

Attempts to identify and evaluate the elements of traditional initiatory practices in a modern context are complicated by the fact that the basic tenets of traditional societies differ so markedly from those of the present. Yet such a study provides valuable insights into changes which have occurred in the evolution of modern society which detract from the quality of life for all citizens and not just boys in transition to manhood.

Starting with the concept of community, traditional societies were vastly different in the way that people of different age and physical capacity were accorded status and value. For example, the aged were greatly respected for their experience, skills and wisdom which in some measure related to the relatively slow rate of change in technology and social institutions. At a time of rapid change, older people are now considered to have relatively little to offer succeeding generations that have become relatively isolated from their elders both by the increasing contraction of the nuclear family and greater social and geographic mobility. This isolation of the elderly and their relegation to inferior socioeconomic status diminishes their quality of life and deprives the wider community of many intangible contributions.

The need for separation of boys from girls and women

The feminist movement has resulted in dramatic improvements in the quality of life for women and girls over the past thirty years; the issue of separation of initiates from women is not in any way intended as a criticism of women or to represent any lack of respect for women or of the role of mothering. Rather, the issue arises from the immense influence of the women in the lives of boys and men. The lives of boys are dominated by the influence of women probably more now than at any time in history. Many boys grow up in households that do not have a resident male adult. Preschool supervision and teaching outside the home are almost the exclusive preserve of women. Male teachers are in a small minority in primary schools. Even the "cub and scouting" movement is now strongly influenced and often directed by women.

Not surprisingly, the boy comes to measure himself more in accordance with the expectations of women, and particularly of his mother, rather than of healthy men. He is dependent on his mother and other women for emotional sustenance. Where there is no man in his mother's life, he may well be required to meet some of her needs for male nurturing and support. In due course, he may take the step from the embrace of mother to the embrace of another woman, his partner, from whom he will expect a degree of mothering as well as a sexual relationship as peers; in a sense, she becomes the "mother-lover". In many cases, there is no time when the male is not in intimate relationship with a woman.

In my work counseling men in crisis, relationship separation is a very common reason for distress. Indeed relationship breakup is behind about half of all calls to crisis telephone counseling services for men. The separated man is poorly equipped to manage his own emotional needs and rarely has any intimate male support network. He has lost the maternal support of his lover.

This is why separation from women, and the mother in particular, is so crucial a part of the initiatory process. It is only in the absence of women, that the boy/man can come to find a definition of himself separate from that of women, to find an emotional and psychic autonomy that will enable him to have non-dependant relationships with women in the future. A community of interdependent men exposes the young man to multiple healthy role models, which is particularly important where the boy's own father exhibits dysfunctional behaviour. The male community also provides the framework in which the boy can learn of healthy male sexuality from men other than his father. It is particularly inappropriate for the boy to hear explicit details of how to be sexual with women from the father as this would reveal too much intimate detail of his mother's own sexuality at a time when he needs to separate from her.

The role of ritual and spirituality

This subject is a life's study in itself; suffice to say here, that my personal experience is that many men are not "ill" in the traditional sense that they have a specific diagnosable disease. Rather they lack a sense of wellbeing or joi de vivre. Their lives lack a sense of meaning and purpose that is often manifest by chronic tiredness, low grade depression and anxiety, a deep sense of loneliness and a profound fear of dying. This common debilitating condition, which I believe that most caring general practitioners will recognise, remains unrecognised by psychiatry. I employ the term "existential malaise".

Archaeologists and anthropologists search for relics of symbolic and ritual behaviours in our ancestors as evidence of their humanness, yet in this age, we as scientists tend to discount and often ridicule ritual and spiritual practices as hubris. When taking a psychiatric history, it is not recognised practice to take a spiritual history except in so much as it confirms prejudices about the patient's dysfunction.

When separated from the straight jacket of organised religion, ritual and spirituality have the potential to give much greater depth to every aspect of our lives, to put flesh on the bones of ordinary every day existence.

Restoring initiatory elements to the transitional process

An understanding of the underlying principles of initiation offers three ways in which the community can enhance the process of transformation of young people in their journey into adulthood. Firstly, each adult can come to see that in every interaction with a young person there is the opportunity, indeed a responsibility, for honouring and empowerment. Secondly, existing educational, sporting and other processes undertaken by young people can be modified by incorporation of initiatory principles so as to enhance the quality of the experience. Thirdly, special processes may be devised to fill unmet needs in existing programmes.

It does not take a radical restructuring of our society for the reintroduction of initiatory practices not just into the lives of our young people but into all our lives and in every aspect of daily life. Referring to the eight initiatory elements described above, we all can work to create a more integrated and supportive community. We can commit ourselves to honouring every other person whilst not having to accept their behaviours. Every adult can be responsible for mentoring at least one young person, helping to draw out their inherent talents; each one of us can commit to looking for the good in a young person before denigrating the bad. Each young person can be praised and acknowledged for being special and valuable to the community. Young people can be supported through trying times rather than being criticised for being inadequate in managing alone. Healthy ritual and spirituality can be encouraged and shared rather than feared. All these could have a profound impact in the way that young people, boys and girls, see themselves.

Existing processes and events that young men experience can be evaluated against initiatory criteria and where appropriate these can be incorporated, empowering young men to take responsibility for themselves. For example, sport can be made more inclusive such that every boy has an opportunity to participate at whatever level he is capable. I believe that at present, sport damages the self-esteem of as many individuals as have their self-esteem enhanced. To meet those criteria not readily amenable to existing practices, special initiatory events can be added to the lives of young men designed and implemented by the men in their local communities. These can be supported by and complimentary to educational programmes.

From an initiative of the 5th Australian and New Zealand Men's Leadership Gathering in 1995, the "Pathways to Manhood" programme has developed as a project of the NSW Men's Health and Wellbeing Association. Weekend events for teenage boys and their fathers are being conducted in the Sydney area and on the far north and far south coast areas of NSW. In Victoria, a trial programme has been developed in a catholic secondary school involving initiatory weekends attended by fathers and sons. These are preceded by a series of weeknight preparatory mini-workshops and followed by a series of "debriefing" nights; the programme culminates in a presentation of the young men to their mothers and sisters at a celebratory dinner. Feedback from participants has been extremely enthusiastic. Such initiatives deserve support, seed funding and evaluation.

Health-food for the soul

In 1976, as a masters student of community medicine in Nottingham, I attended a lecture by my namesake the late Dr Dennis Burkitt, acclaimed for his description of the viral aetiology and mosquito-borne nature of Burkitt's lymphoma, and later for his exposition of the role of dietary fibre in health and disease. His penultimate illustration showed photographs of a bulky, soft human faecal stool beside a small bush medical outpost contrasted with a small hard stool beside a huge modern hospital. Burkitt's somewhat tongue-in-cheek message was that "the size of the stool is inversely proportional to the size of the hospital"!

Befitting his life's role as a surgeon with the Anglican Missionary Society in Africa, his final message was more profound though in my youthful arrogance, I failed to appreciate it at the time. He said that just as modern society had refined its diet by rejecting the fibre because it appeared to have no nutritional value, so had society largely thrown out religion and was so much the poorer.

Twenty-one years later, hopefully wiser and with much clinical experience of men's lack of health and wellbeing, I would like to take Dennis Burkitt's observations another step further. The elements of initiation that I have outlined are the "fibre" of life for the boy undergoing the transition to manhood. Superficially, they appear to be archaic, irrelevant and of little value in nourishing the development and role of manhood. In our intellectual and ethnocentric arrogance, we abandon them at our peril. Let us learn from them and reincorporate them into our modern lives so as to enrich the experience of manhood to the benefit of the whole community, the environment and our world.

George Burkitt is a medical practitioner specialising in men's health and counseling. He presented this paper at the 2nd National Men's Health Conference in Fremantle in November 1997 .


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