11 March 2011
"Masculine" Rites of Passage
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."
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.
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...