11 March 2011

"Masculine" Rites of Passage

I never did see much point in arbitrary rites of passage. Even as a kid, I'd watch a documentary TV show about a tribe in Africa and see the boys all lined up for their group circumcision or their war games or whatever it was, waiting to pass through an ordeal or test of strength in order to become "men" in the eyes of their tribe, and I thought, "They are no different after the ritual than they were before. Just because they won a fight or got their penis snipped, it does not mean they're more 'men' now than they were before. They're still 15 years old and probably quite emotionally immature but will now think they have some authority or wisdom they didn't have before: I've seen it in American culture, too, and it's laughable when it's not dangerous. To me, being a man means being a mature, well-adjusted, well-rounded person who recognizes his strengths and weaknesses and is working on becoming better and who takes care of his family and treats people with kindness and is emotionally strong whether or not his body is physiologically strong or muscular and emulates Jesus the best he knows how...not someone who went through some ordeal to prove some arbitrary notions about what men are supposed to be like, or who wins a test of muscular strength, or who has had sex with a woman, or who has proven himself to be more aggressive than other men, or who has said the right words in conjunction with some ceremony...how silly."

When I received awards at scouting ceremonies, my first impulse was to roll my eyes at the formalities and hand shakes and token signs and scripts. But I thought, "There must be a good reason for it, and it's kind of fun, in a way, to be part of something official and formal: I just wish people didn't take it so very seriously because--aside from looking kind of silly to me when they're so serious about something that really didn't require any heroic effort on my part--what matters isn't the ceremony but the stuff I learned and accomplished, which isn't changed by whether I do the right salute or say the right phrase. I guess they just want to make sure we remember certain things by memorizing them, so that's OK."

Arrow of Light
And I think that's the point of ritual to me. I guess I appreciate the probability that most people are more responsive to things like fraternal orders and ceremonial formalities than I am. They just never made a lot of sense to me except as arbitrary ways of helping us remember and recognize principles and, for those who look forward to the recognition or formality, motivation to progress within certain systems of advancement usually tied to particular ideological and cultural ideals and templates. I just wasn't motivated by looking forward to another painfully formalized and pompous ceremony, so I found rites of passage to be almost a deterrent. But I appreciated the symbolism and reminders they offered. I appreciated rewards and awards but didn't want the ceremonial recognition. I was very shy, so that definitely came into play, but there was more to it on an intellectual level. Oddly, I still remember aspects of my arrow of light ceremony, which I remember thinking was overwrought, but I was still proud that I'd 'earned' it. The funny thing: I don't remember what I did to earn it or what it meant. So much for being a reminder. It probably worked at the time, for the time.

On the other hand, I remember the temple ceremony quite well and can probably recite the memorized parts but, of course, choose not to out of respect for what it is believed to mean by those who still participate in it. Somehow, the temple ceremony was different for me. I still saw it as somewhat arbitrary rites and phrases chosen to represent a deeper meaning and symbolic representation of gospel principles. I knew the ceremony had been changed over the years and that it may or may not be 100% dictated directly by God. But though most people are really weirded out by the ritual of it when they first go through, I wasn't. It seemed fine to me, not outlandish or odd. I'd been to a Catholic mass, I'd casually studied ancient religious traditions, I'd taken the stake temple prep class one-on-one, and I knew ritual was a way of engaging the adherent in a whole-body representation of the beliefs and principles taught, an interactive experience which went beyond mere spoken instruction to a more proactive kind of internalization of the ideas taught. I felt like the temple ceremony made me really think in an impacting way about what living the gospel was all about and why we make the commitments we do, and I felt like I was stepping up a bit more, manning up a bit more to a higher level of commitment than I had previously done if only by virtue of the fact that someone was now bothering to say, "Do you actively promise to dedicate yourself to X and Y?" and I was given the opportunity to explicitly state my intent and to follow through. Again, it wasn't the ritual or ceremony which mattered but what it represented, and I found personal motivation and meaning in it. Maybe part of what I appreciated about the temple as opposed to other ceremonies I'd been involved in or witnessed was that everything was very personal, not done with fanfare and individual recognition but sort of privately, one-on-one, as part of many who were doing the same rather than having any individual "recognition" beyond very private interactions I believed were meant to represent my direct relationship and connection with God.

In addition, when I 'received' the Aaronic priesthood when 12, I didn't consider myself to somehow be more of a man, but I did consider it an opportunity to learn a new level of service and to begin to learn to exercise the authority and power of God through my worthiness and dedication to the principles of the priesthood, an effort to become more like God in an eternal, steady process. It wasn't that I was becoming more of a man: it was that I was accepting the opportunity to grow personally and step up. It's a subtle difference, maybe, but a paradigm I think is tragically overlooked and ignored by many or most young men in the church who seem more fixated on the idea that they're being given some kind of badge or stripes each time they 'advance' in the priesthood or are called to serve a mission.

It's understandable, I guess, from an emotional standpoint: men are supposed to want and deserve validation as 'men' (in the social belonging sense of identifying with those who generally share similar traits as distinct from other groups, even if there are amazing, good men whose qualities are not the same as the socially traditionally ideal template), rites of passage into manhood (social recognition that they are maturing and reaching socially or culturally defined milestones which traditionally entitle them to rights and privileges not previously offered, arbitrary though they may be), affirmation and recognition for their accomplishments and learned strengths (both to motivate future progress in him being recognized, assuming he's motivated by social recognition, and to motivate others to want to work to earn the same recognition through their own personal progress), etc.

This all came up because I was reading some material on Evergreen's web site, an article by a somewhat popular author within EG circles about masculine identity (one day, maybe I'll dig into my disagreement with such people's conclusions despite my agreement with many aspects of what they say). Within various sexual orientation change circles, there's a strong trend towards masculine identification exercises and what I think is regarded as a return to a sort of primal, tribal brotherhood notion. I find it all a bit overwrought still, as if those pushing it believe it's the only or best way to motivate and bring accountability into men's lives. I may not feel a drive to be involved with ritualistic or fraternal order groups, but I recognize that we all have formal and informal social systems and that, generally speaking, most people are happiest when they have social order and structure in their lives and tend to progress more steadily with accountability and incentive in place, including social recognition and reinforcement through formal ceremony. I also recognize that a key way values and principles have been maintained and preserved throughout history is through established ritual and symbolic ceremony, regardless of whether I think there are or should be better ways. So I don't have a problem with formalized or fraternal "orders" which engage in more or less formal "ritual" as long as they're recognized for what they are--a social mechanism and symbolic representation of underlying principles--and not given magical importance in and of themselves, used to emotionally manipulate those who aren't cognitively aware of why they feel so "affirmed" and "strengthened" but just assume that everything being taught to them is right because of how good it feels to them to be a part of some grand brotherhood of men, or given free license to commit grave errors of action and thought because their members fear to lose the camaraderie should they challenge the status quo.

Unfortunately, I think fraternal orders almost always have more of that influence than I'm comfortable with, and I don't believe the benefits typically outweigh that effect. But then, I'm not the kind of man they draw to begin with...


The Impossible K said...

Maybe I'm overly critical, but I find many rites of passage to be contrived... ways to soothe the masses into a "groupthink" mentality that really can be dangerous... I'm more aware of it now, I think, after speaking personally to so many about a very private "rite of passage" several boys go through... I was shocked, but sadly not surprised, at the reasons people gave. It makes me wonder... how often do we subconsciously follow the herd and end up making choices that do more harm than good? I know I've been guilty of it, simply by not paying enough attention... especially if I didn't know there WAS an option... That's why it's good to see critical thinking still exists in blogs like this :)

Bravone said...

Great post. Much like your feelings about the temple and priesthood "rituals," I too feel that certain rituals can help us to understand on a deeper level the commitments we are making and help us to remember these special moments of personal growth. However, I also feel similarly about other societal rights of passage. I tried to teach my sons that it wasn't the Eagle Scout award itself that held any particular meaning, but what they became because of the scouting experience.

I have a son who will receive a mission call in the next few weeks. Being the third son, he likely feels some pressure to follow in the footsteps of dad and his two brothers. We've talked quite a bit about it, why he wants to go, etc. I hope he is going because it is what he really wants to do and not because of imposed expectations, although there must be some of that.

I think the problem with many of the rituals and ceremonies people perform is that we often focus more on the symbolism than on what is being symbolized. Take the sacrament for example. Many churches, including some LDS wards, have become so rigid and ceremonial, that it detracts from the personal, individually spiritual experience it is meant to be.

I noticed you tagged Journey into Manhood on this post. Having attended, I agree that it, like scouting has a bit more symbolism, ceremony, and ritual than I am generally comfortable with. Some may learn & retain better with the visual, physical representations. In situations like these, I just kind of smile within and try to determine the real meaning and purpose behind the pomp and fluff. If it is something I value, I absorb it. If not, it's like water off a duck's back.