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The True Rite of Manhood

Bring your boys to the woods if you want. Show them how to use their hands. Help them become strong. But, most importantly, teach them to be kind.

If I hadn’t been labeled a fish, I might’ve believed. My brother got to be an otter: cute and playful, beloved and clever. Our dad was a deer: majestic, cunning, watchful. But I was a cold, smelly, expressionless fish.

If your dad was also into ancient-new-age mysticism in the 1990s, you might know what I’m talking about. If not, I’ll explain. Those animals were our Native American birth totems, and they were part of a hodgepodge philosophy my dad used to create a rite of passage that he hoped would turn his boys into men.

Looking back on it, the cultural appropriation was regrettable. In my defense, I was just a dumb kid from Ohio, and I didn’t know any better. In my dad’s defense, he was desperate to find something more meaningful and less destructive to the world than the de facto initiation ceremonies other WASP kids experienced: losing your virginity, killing a wild animal, going to war.

My grandfather was part of the Greatest Generation. He piloted bombers over Europe, fighting the forces of obvious evil. His war was noble, and therefore his passage into manhood was pure.

My dad’s war was Vietnam. He spent his time firing artillery on a range in Germany, guarding the country his father had helped defeat. His war was ignoble and immoral, and therefore his passage into manhood was tarnished.

In August of 1990, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm. When TV networks beamed real-life video game footage into our home, my draft eligibility was only six years away. No one knew if the fighting would be short or endless.

My dad decided to save his sons from the false ritual he’d experienced. He turned to the poet Robert Bly.

Robert Bly published Iron John that same year. It was a self-help book that mixed fairy tales and myths with modern psychology. Bly lamented the loss of formal rites of passage into manhood but also found those rites inadequate. A first hunt is a good start, he seemed to say, but to really be a man, a dude needs plenty of time away from the wife, chanting, and crying with his bros. The book was a bestseller.

My dad isn’t a misogynist, and I don’t think Bly had bad intentions, though he was quite anxious about the “feminization” of men in industrial society. As Christian Lorentzen says in his exhaustive analysis of the book, Iron John was part of a movement that “managed to be both New Age and retrograde.”

Learning to be kind is a process of forgetting the expectations our society creates in its definition of manliness in order to remember the greater truth we knew when we were young

And so we fled modernity into the forest. We split wood and built fires and pooped in holes in the ground and beat drums and chanted in the night. We carried medicine bags with spiritually significant objects (rocks) in them. We searched our inner selves for evidence of our true masculine nature. On one of these camping trips, I pulled a huge knife from the tree where my dad had thrown it and yelled, “Let’s go kill a pig!” His eyes got big, and he dialed down that night’s chanting.

These trips were fun. I was happier in the woods with my dad and my brother than I was skulking the halls of my school, praying the bullies wouldn’t notice me. At home, my dad would rant about paperwork and get cranky about bills. In the woods, playing Iron John, he was gregarious and relaxed. Surrounded by trees and animals, it seemed the three of us were able to be our real selves.

Back then, I thought the point was learning survival skills: how to wayfind, how to make fire, how to build a shelter. After all, the mastering of skills is one way a boy becomes a man. See also: displaying bravery (going to war), besting a challenge (killing a pig with a knife), enduring pain (wiping with poison ivy).

Now, I think my dad’s whole philosophy can be boiled down to this lesson: You have to change your location in order to change your actions. Eventually, you’ll learn how to change your location only in your mind — and then you can be the person you want to be, kind and happy, no matter where you are.

Some people spend a lifetime learning how to do that. Other people are the ideal male specimen, Fred Rogers. Take the next six months to scour the darkest corners of the internet for the ugly truth about Mr. Rogers, and you will find nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. In fact, you’ll find scores of stories describing the man as being exactly like his television persona. Welcoming, curious, open to the world, and kind.

If there is a particular moment that stands in as a rite of manhood, it is this: to see your son, crying and defeated, and to wrap your arms around him. To place your big, good, strong hands on his face and whisper, it’s okay

We’re talking about manliness, so let’s take a look at Mr. Rogers. That man is not throwing up a dozen reps on the bench press at the NFL combine. He’s not field dressing a deer. He won’t win the Tour de France or a heavyweight championship belt. He’ll medal in a sweater-zipping competition, but in every traditional American definition of manhood, he falls short.

And yet, everyone loves him. Everyone. Show me a hater of Mr. Rogers, and I’ll show you an alien wearing a human suit.

Mr. Rogers proves that there is no greater strength than kindness. To be kind to everyone no matter the circumstances —  when your son spills his milk, when some idiot cuts you off in traffic — requires an enormous strength of character. No one but the Dalai Lama comes close to Mr. Rogers’ kindness reps, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, both for society and ourselves.

If you are a “manly” man, you live with existential dread that all of your abilities will leave you. Strength, speed, power. None of it lasts. One day, your hands will not be big enough. Eventually, you will stop winning. You will lose and keep losing for the rest of your life. If you couple your manliness with cruelty, those who endured your “tough love” will cut ties when your strength wanes. Those who feared you will laugh in your face. Your galaxy of influence will implode, and you will be isolated. But if you are kind, you will be bound to the rest of humanity.

Learning to be kind isn’t the “lost rite” of manhood. Manhood itself is made up. Learning to be kind is a process of forgetting the expectations our society creates in its definition of manliness in order to remember the greater truth we knew when we were young. Those expectations intrude sooner than you think.

My boy is only five. Several times, I have seen him struggle to quiet his crying, to diminish his pain. He drops his head to hide his flinching face from me, in shame. His shoulders slump. His body says: I have failed. I have revealed myself to be a crying baby.

If there is a particular moment that stands in as a rite of manhood, it is this: to see your son, crying and defeated, and to wrap your arms around him. To place your big, good, strong hands on his face and whisper, it’s okay. Not you’ll get ‘em next time or chin up or be a man but I understand, it’s okay, I love you. To bring your carefree mind of the woods into the troubled world of reality and to share the strength of your kindness.

My Iron John adolescence didn’t make me a man, but it didn’t ruin me either. In a way, it was simply playacting. When my dad led us into the woods, he was creating a structure to explain the time we would spend together. At the outset of Iron John, he had a half dozen years with me before I became an adult, legally. After that, who knows?

My grandfather’s passage into manhood was pure, but it didn’t make him a great father. His son ran as fast and as far as he could. Hitchhiking to college, working summers, eventually driving across Canada and into California. When his father died of congestive heart failure, my dad was living a continent away. Distance had eased the tension between them, but there was too much to repair and not enough time.

Knowing what I know now — how cascading decisions and impulsive actions can carry a child so far from home, for good — it’s clear to me what my dad was doing with us, banging drums out in the woods. He was wrapping his arms around his sons — outcasts at school, poor in a materialistic world, straddling a divided family — and whispering, it’s okay, I understand, I love you.

He was showing us how to be a man.