When one has not had a good father, one must create one. –Friedrich Nietzsche
I often wonder why I didn’t get into more trouble when I was a teenager.
I had a rebellious streak, but kept it in check. I sought out older men—teachers, scoutmasters, coaches, camp counselors, male relatives—willing to become mentors to me.
I tried hard to do well in school to please my mother, who had a fantasy that I would save the world.
I got very good at pleasing other people. I stayed out of trouble and had a productive life.
I did these things without knowing why.
I didn’t grow up until at age thirty-five I met Bly, and began to consciously connect to other men in a formal, feeling way. A man needs a safe place to speak his heart to other men. It’s as simple as that.
The nature of adolescent males is eruptive, and in our culture there are many angry, violent young men. Although most of these young men come from troubled homes, it’s too simple to blame the anger and violence on a lack of good fathering.
Good fathering is contributory, but not sufficient, to turn a boy into a man. The whole village has to act in concert.
Some years ago a woman friend of mine asked me to organize an initiation ceremony for her fourteen-year-old son. I had no idea how to do this, but she seemed certain that if a group of older males took the boy with them into the woods, something would happen.
That’s what we did, spending three days together at a camp on the Rogue River in Oregon. Many words were spoken that weekend, and many times we sat in silence, not knowing what to say.
When it was over, I knew that how we spoke was more important than what we spoke. A few years later I ran across this story of Martin Buber’s:
When the Master of the Good Name, the Baal Shem Tov, saw misfortune threatening the community, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and a miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when the Baal Shem’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, had occasion for the same reason to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God, “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was.
What we had done for most of that weekend was to tell stories.
Since that time I’ve participated in other ceremonies for adolescent boys. I know other men who have done so as well. There is no magic formula. I know only one thing about such matters. A young man needs a safe place to speak his heart.
Much as I might wish for it, there will come no group of elders to descend on our house one night and spirit Nick off to a secret camp, where, with the other boys, he will be initiated into the mysteries and responsibilities of tribal adulthood. That is long gone, though its footprint holds place in the psyche.
I like hearing stories of older men mentoring younger ones. I like it that when I go off to a meeting with my men’s group, Nick often gives me something he’s made to show them. I like it that the school we found in Portland has built community service into its curriculum.
In our culture, we have remnants of initiation, nights in treehouses, weekends in the woods, longings, images, baby steps.
I don’t know the prayer, the place in the forest, or the exact way to light the fire. But I do know the story–and I can try to hold the vision for Nick.
I can try to stay awake.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
Frederick Marx, a man I met at the Dad’s Summit last year, is making a film documenting efforts to mentor young men and women. As I watched this eight minute trailer I started to weep.
Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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