taking man back into the wild

Boys to Men

Posted by Mike Cooney on 21 June 2016

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Issue 4 2015 WildNZ

“Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written into the soul of a man. The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, non-fat, zip-lock, franchised, on-line, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart …”  – John Eldredge, Wild at Heart

 The smile said it all. After months of planning and dreaming, finally he’d done it. The fallow buck lay still. We spent a few moments crouched over the deer – acknowledging its life and death, and thankful to its creator for his provision. It’s a routine my boys have seen many times while we’ve hunted together … a lesson in respect.

It had been the perfect stalk. Only an hour earlier, we’d rowed the little dinghy across the river and started hunting the bush edge, wind in our faces, stopping frequently to peer into the trees with our binoculars. My youngest boy spied them first – a group of three bucks, mooching around the safety of the treeline. Within a few minutes, my oldest had quietly closed the gap and got himself into shooting position. I was amazed how calm he was – no hint of buck-fever. Picking out the fattest animal, he squeezed off the shot. And as the deer dropped, my son took one more step towards manhood. 


So, here’s the thing. Apparently, men throughout the developed world are in trouble – some even calling it a crisis of manhood. And, according to people who know these things, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear – we’re seeing more suicides, relationship breakdowns, violence, behaviour problems in schools, crime … Its root cause? Boys in the modern world are “horrendously under-fathered.” In other words, according to psychologist, Steve Biddulph, “they weren’t given enough affection, teaching and example from either their dad or other male figures to help them grow into mature men.”

One of the big issues is the extension of adolescence – a boyhood which is stretching on for a longer and longer time. Quite simply, men aren’t growing up! When you look at the psychology of boys, you’ll understand what I mean. Generally speaking, boys tend to be self-centred, brash and concerned with immediate gratification. In fact, their own catch-phrase, if they had one, would be “It’s all about me!” While this is normal for young boys – those same attitudes ain’t so flash for grown men. Anyone know some adolescent 30-year-olds?

In case you haven’t realised it already, these are complex issues, which have big words to describe them. While a whole book could be written on this, I’ve only got about 1600 words – but I love a challenge. So if you’ll bear with me for a while, let’s get into some nitty-gritty …

For a boy to become a man, something has to happen to move him out of his self-centredness. Most communities in human history recognised this, and handled it purposefully with their own unique ‘rites of passage’ or initiation. Initiation was about moving boys to men by showing them that there were things more important than their own pleasure – turning them into men who could care for and protect others, shoulder responsibility and live for something greater than themselves.

They were deliberate, focussed processes with specific teaching. The common thread with most initiation rituals required boys to face significant emotional and physical challenges: hunting and killing a wild animal, making long and difficult journeys, and even the ritual cutting or scarring of your body (not recommended!). 

Steve Biddulph, describes it like this: “In initiation, the wildness, creativity and intensity of the young men were enlarged, not hammered down. They were brought into a web of shared purpose, so that the women, children, and the natural world on which they depended would be enhanced and protected by the young men’s presence. We wanted them to be brave, but for a reason; energetic, but with a purpose; fierce, but in protectiveness.”

This was the pattern for thousands of years. But due to reasons beyond my 1600 words, these initiations into manhood became lost over the last couple of centuries. What we’re left with, at best, are shadows of their former glory – like getting your first car or graduating high-school. Or at its worst, celebrating getting wasted on your 18th.

Thankfully, the art of initiation doesn’t have to remain forever lost in the confines of history books … or Google. Many present-day communities, families and individuals have taken up the challenge to provide a rite of passage for our boys’ journey into manhood. And here’s something interesting: if you’re already physically a man, yet you struggle with your sense of manhood … “have I got what it takes, to be a man?” … then I’ve got good news. There is a process for getting there, and it’s available to anyone.

So, what can this process look like? Well, firstly, let me clear something up real quick. This isn’t about some macho, chest-pounding BS. You don’t have to be a die-hard hunter or bearded lumberjack – and it doesn’t matter if you’re a skinny accountant in Auckland or a moustached mechanic in Motueka. Got it?

For me and my boys, I’ve got a rough plan around how I want their initiation into manhood to go. It’s fluid, and subject to change, but there are a few absolutes. I realise that I have to be purposeful in my planning. If I leave it to chance or have an attitude of ‘someday I’ll get around to doing something’, then I’ll miss my opportunity.

So here are some of the fundamentals:

OTHER GOOD MEN: It goes without saying that it takes a community to raise a child – and for a boy’s journey into manhood, this is particularly true. I’ve actively encouraged a number of my good mates and family to be involved with my boys. I want them to build a relationship with them, to have a say in their lives and to model good, manly behaviour … and I’m not talking about rugby, racing and beer! I’m talking about qualities such as honour, respect, strength, Kiwi-ingenuity, compassion, generosity, love for adventure and (eventually) for their wives …

It also goes without saying that I recognise that some of my mates are wiser than I am, have different skills from mine, and can say things to my boys that I can’t.

So, let me sum it up: make sure they’re good men. And you should probably stay clear of guys who think that becoming a man is about getting on the beersies or engaging in sexual escapades.

INTO THE WILD: Okay, I know some people are going to roll their eyes at this, thinking “Here goes Mike again, going all bush and hunting and wilderness blah blah blah …” But hear me out! The quote at the beginning (by John Eldredge) sums this up nicely. Why the wild? Because you can’t control it. Because in the wild, you find challenges, risk, hardship, beauty, solitude … 

I’m absolutely convinced that the most effective environment to help a boy become a man is the outdoors. And here in New Zealand, we’ve got no excuse.

SOLITUDE: Isolation features in most rites of passage – and there’s a good reason: it’s about personal growth. It’s about battling and overcoming emotions, fear, discomfort. This is so much easier to do when you’re with your mates. Imagine hiking into the back-country for a three-day wilderness trip with friends – setting up camp, cooking food, telling stories around a fire at night, listening to the forest noises … Now imagine doing the same thing by yourself!

It goes to another level when you only take the bare necessities – a fly, a couple of muesli bars, water and your sleeping gear. Now that there’s nothing to distract you, see where your mind goes. Especially after a couple of days.

CHALLENGE: If it was easy, we’d all be doing it! There has to be some mental and physical challenge. There has to be the potential to fail if you don’t give it your total commitment. If the question that haunts most men – “Have I got what it takes, when it counts?” – is ever going to be answered with an emphatic “YES!” then you need to overcome significant challenges. 

It’s much better to have these challenges carefully managed, than to let life initiate you with an unexpected curve-ball. That’s a much rougher ride.

SOCIAL RECOGNITION: This is an important final stage of a boy’s initiation into manhood. Having the community – whether it’s simply your immediate family, or your wider circle of friends – recognise the process you or your son has gone through, is an important step. I guess it’s a little like a graduation. And whether you have a formal ceremony, or keep it more low-key, that’s up to you. But there are some great ideas to be found on the web.

For part of the process in our family, my 13-year-old boy (as I mentioned earlier) has just hunted and shot his first deer. It wasn’t just an uplanned one-off – there’s been a definite progression in all this. He had to pass a few preliminary rounds first – learning skills, gun safety, ethics, patience, right attitude … 

But now that he’s achieved this stage, he’s been recognised as someone who can be trusted to hunt safely and ethically. He’s won the respect of others – the respect of some of my peers. 

There are other challenges ahead for him – more difficult wilderness expeditions, multi-day solo missions, service projects … but they’re not going to just happen. I have to be intentional in creating these processes. 

In the meantime, my 10 year-old is chomping at the bit for his first deer. He’s got his old-man’s hairy arms, so he thinks he’s already a man.


*This article was published in Grapevine Magazine, Issue 4, 2015

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