Boys To Men: Where The Trouble Is
Some thirty years ago educators and social science types, motivated in part by the women’s movement but also by real gaps in achievement between boys and girls, began to recognize the need to address the particular educational and emotional needs of girls, and to fashion opportunities in the classroom and elsewhere that would allow girls to flourish. As the father of a teenage daughter I am grateful for this; my child has opportunities and accommodations that were not available to girls when I was a teenager, and that were undreamed of when my mother was her age.
But however real the disadvantages faced by girls in an earlier generation, I cannot be the only one to notice that the demographic that is really in trouble today, and that needs our attention, is boys and young men. This is not an original observation — as early as the 1990s some began talking about a “crisis” in the education of boys. There was push-back, I believe, from feminist quarters as well as some disputing the statistics about educational achievement; I’m no expert in education so I’d leave it to those who are to sort out these controversies.
But the recent blizzard of terrible news involving boys and young men — Aurora, Newtown, the Steubenville rape case, the Chardon High School shooting (and the vicious behavior of the shooter in court), and now the horrific Boston bombing — would seem to underscore that whether the problem is in the classroom, the family, or the culture at large, boys are in trouble.
Some of these crimes are more heinous than others and to conflate them may seem unfair; they also involve very different causes and antecedents, and different forms of failure on the part of the young men or the communities around them. But there is also no overlooking the obvious, which is that all of these crimes were committed by boys and young men between the ages of 16 and 25, an age-range that for males appears to be a kind of Bermuda triangle for bad outcomes: whether one is looking at violence, incarceration, suicide, severe mental illness, accidental death or injury related to alcohol or substance use, or educational failure, males in this age cohort are somewhere in the lead.
So what is it about being male and between the age of 16 and 25?
To start with the obvious it’s the age when boys become men and they are expected — whether they are prepared for it or not — to begin acting like adults. They are at or approaching the age of what the lawyers call “emancipation,” an interesting term that typically denotes release from servitude or hardship, but in this case means release from the authority and supervision of parents — a supervision that in the case of many young men may have been sporadic or episodic at best, and which many of them still desperately need.
It’s a passage — from boy to man — and like all such passages, it's essentially an internal one that a boy must make on his own using whatever tools for navigation he’s been given; it is bound to be precarious in the best of circumstances.
Looking back on my own passage a forever ago, I did a foolish thing or three and made some mistakes, but what strikes me now so many years later is the sense I had of having to pretend I knew what I was about (since everyone else around me seemed to know) lest someone should guess how clueless I really was. I never really did begin to “find myself,” in all sorts of ways, until I was well into my 30s.
And I had every sort of blessing at my back: happy childhood memories (you only need a few), a family that valued education, and (my most potent asset, though I didn’t recognize it at the time), the presence of a thoughtful and kindhearted father from whom (I now flatter myself to think) I acquired my best attributes.
I also had less to contend with. It’s not very original to complain about the culture that young people are exposed to — I think my elders probably did so when I was coming of age — but the problem today isn’t only the content of the culture, but its pervasiveness. My coming-of-age period in the late 1970s and early ‘80s now seems quaintly prosaic and serene compared to the unrelenting, all-the-time onslaught of stimuli, of visual and aural incitements.
It’s interesting to me that the troubled or trouble-making young men who make the news invariably have been adept at online social media — texting, Facebook, Twitter accounts and all the rest — but I wonder if they could sustain an in-person, one-on-one conversation with someone about complicated or difficult thoughts, feelings or ideas. At the same time I wonder if they would have any tolerance for, let alone capacity for enjoying, silence or solitude, the prerequisites for reflection and the development of any kind of a spiritual life (virtues that may, in any case, be regarded as vaguely shameful or ludicrous).
And the content of popular culture is nothing to celebrate. Violence and aggression are glamorized in a way that cannot be good for boys, for whom a central developmental task during their adolescence and early adulthood is to learn how to harness for constructive purposes the naturally restless and aggressive energy that comes with a Y chromosome.
The most vulnerable or desperate or ill-equipped for facing manhood, at least, are bound to feel themselves judged by (and forever falling short of) the yardsticks of the culture’s shallowest values — aggression, sexual conquest, and material acquisition — and so will not surprisingly be drawn to ever more audacious acts to prove themselves, a tendency abetted in some cases by the worst kind of publicity. (An especially obnoxious example of this was the front-page coverage in the Plain Dealer of the recent courtroom behavior of the Chardon High School shooter — coverage that must have lacerated the feelings of the families of victims and which, judging from many online responses by readers, did not exactly bring out the best in people. I think the PD owes the community an apology.)
But those of us determined to see a “crisis” everywhere should be prepared to offer a solution, or at least something positive. So here is something: What I think boys need to navigate the journey from boy to man are rites and rituals that sanctify the voyage, that serve as markers of those who have made the crossing before them, and that provide fixed points of reference in a tumultuous landscape.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest (and an exceptional writer, thinker and theologian) who has written and spoken much about male spirituality and the need for male rites of passage. And he has developed a model of “male initiation” that has been copied around the country and in which thousands of men — young and older — have participated. I have not, but friends who have — some of whom have done so with their coming-of-age sons — say it is a powerful experience. You can read about Rites of Initiation at http://www.malespirituality.org/rites_of_passage.htm and hear Fr. Richard speak at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G0_jm1SRu8. Those interested in learning about Rites of Initiation in the Cleveland area can contact Chuck Rihm at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the preceding observations are extravagant generalizations, and my impressions of adolescent life are just that: impressionistic. To be sure, there are, here in our own community, countless boys and young men already busy remaking the world in positive ways. But the worst case scenarios of the last twenty years — from Columbine to Boston — seem to say something tragic and melancholy about the hazards of coming of age as a male today, and should convince us that we are long past the time for arguing about which demographic is most desperately in need of our time, attention and resources.
The most desperate of the young men among us are adults, or approaching adulthood, in the eyes of the law, with the freedoms we accord to grown-ups, but in every essential way that defines manhood — self-awareness, a reflective capacity, and the ability to channel naturally aggressive instincts into constructive purposes — they are just boys, children, infants even. Lost at sea in the passage from boy to man, they drift through their adolescent and post-adolescent years, vaguely aware that somehow they are falling behind and smolder with an inarticulate rage. And it is only a matter of time until, like the bomb in the baby carriage, they go off.
I live in Lakewood.