Where Are the Uncles, the Elders, the Wise Men?

initiation

I try not to watch or read news. Haven’t for many years now. I don’t believe there is such a thing anymore, in the proper sense: a factual account of events. The chief currency with which our current media ecosystem traffics is simply outrage. So I decided that if I was to be outraged, or afraid, or indignant, I would do so on my own terms.

I also decided that instead of simply watching the news, I would use my talents to try to change the news.

It’s inescapable, right? The news. Always worming itself into our awareness. It finds us at the supermarket checkout counter, gas pump, or through the unwanted headline flash on our cellphones, like this one:

“TERROR IN LAS VEGAS”

As I read the article, the first thing that came to my mind, was not gun control, or our dysfunctional mental health system (both surely in urgent need of reform) but this African proverb:

“If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”

…or mow down sixty people with a hailstorm of bullets, or rape on college campuses, or be complicit in hazing deaths at frathouses.

I immediately intuited that Stephen Paddock, the Vegas mass shooter, grew up without the stable presence of a father, or positive male role models. And I was pretty sure that most of the other recent killings perpetrated by white males with no ideological motive would fit this pattern. I was right.

Some have written about this, but stop short at laying the blame for absent fathers on the dissolution of the “traditional marriage bond” and the concurrent rise of births to single mothers. Let’s do away with no-fault divorce, they clamor, and kids will have fathers again and guns will be silenced. But if young men are opting out of marriage in greater numbers than ever before, just imagine the future trendline if we make it harder and costlier for them to jump ship.

Which brings me to the Mosuo, an ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists living in a lush valley at the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. A matrilineal society without fathers, without marriage or divorce, and with no words for war, murder, or rape. I have not been able to confirm this, but I’d blindly bet that they have never experienced a mass shooting.

What’s relevant to me about the Mosuo and what happened in Vegas is not their relaxed sexual mores, but the fact that although Mosuo men have no paternal responsibilities, they have considerable responsibility as uncles to their sisters’ children. In fact, along with elderly maternal great-uncles, younger uncles are the pivotal male influence on children.

In traditional societies, initiating boys into full-fledged men through rites of passage is the purview of the men of the tribe – particularly the elders – and not just the father. I argue that fathers cannot be sole mentors to their sons because of their subjective, vested interests. Even if they could, we generally don’t listen to our parents. The best piece of advice I ever got from a man, was at age thirty, and came from my father. When I told him I was working sixteen-hour days building up my businesses, he warned:

“Unless your mind can purge itself of sixteen hours of material preoccupations (which probably even extend into your sleep) all your creative visions, or visionary creations will come to naught in the objective plane. Additionally, sooner or later, your mind will snap and you won’t be 30 going on 40, but 35 going straight into the abyss.”

He undershot his prediction by one year. I was 36 when I went straight into the abyss.

Indigenous people know that when young men don’t transform into men, catastrophe results: outwardly against the Other, or inwardly, in depression, addiction or suicide. When a youth is denied initiation, his nobility dies. – Barry Spector

Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded towards one of three troughs:

  1. For the well off: into competitive consumers.
  2. For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
  3. At the lower rung: the gangs.

None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.

The dangerous vacuum created by these incomplete initiations, calls for the positive influence of other men: uncles, great-uncles, mentors, grandfathers, godfathers, neighbors, and friends, which can make all the difference in a young boy’s life.

If you are one of them, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active and influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.

Keep in mind what Frederick Douglass once wrote:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

You might just prevent a tragedy like Vegas.

If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood, and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.


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Answering the Call

This is the post excerpt.

empty road

In most lives, there is a path that runs parallel to the one on which we span the time between our entry and our exit from life’s stage.

We usually sense its presence late at night, when alone, and everyone else sleeps. Or returning from work, nerve-ends frayed, and vitality sapped. We often see it through the kitchen window as we stand at the sink, dealing with another pile of soiled dishes and glasses, and wonder:

“Is this it? What am I doing with my life? How much time do I have left?

There is a Russian word that best describes this sentiment:

Toska: At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, a yearning.

Such simmering unease usually signals a call from the path of true purpose, demanding to feel the decisive steps of our most authentic and creative selves.

Most ignore the call. The signals are often fuzzy, the path looks treacherous, steep, and shrouded in uncertainty. So we choose to remain in place, wrapped inside our familiar, predictable, and safe cocoons, and thus never become butterflies. We remain, like Rilke said, “inside the dishes and in the glasses“.

Over time, like a failed telemarketer working the night shift, the Universe gives up, and stops calling.

Not in my case.

I seem to have been assigned the most indefatigable, willful, and creatively-destructive operator on staff – the new hire, the one with the quirky accent, always fresh and stoked, working the longest hours, the most grueling shifts.

When he first dialed my number, I was eighteen, sitting next to my father inside the stately, oak-paneled opulence of the Edwardian Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel having eggs Benedict for breakfast, mesmerized by the glitter of diamonds and gold, kindled by the overhead chandeliers. Too young anyway to understand his language, and no wise mentor to turn to; no Yoda, Obi-Wan, Professor Dumbledore, or Mr. Miyagi to translate the – often – ambiguous message. Preening, cock-sure, and materialistic too, so I ignored his call.

For years he persisted, progressively growing more impatient, but I kept hanging up. At thirty I began to sense what he was selling, and wanted it.

He had watched me as a young boy, reading and writing stories atop an old avocado tree, feeling my delight as the hours passed unnoticed, and wanted to return to me the gift of wonder, curiosity, and imagination I then had.

He wanted me to return to the tree.

But my hands were busy building a business empire. No time for climbing trees, reading books, gawking at sunsets, whiling away astonished by beauty, or for writing stories.

Eventually he got pissed, and six years later, kicked my sandcastle really hard. Left the empire and my identity in ruins, the feisty bugger.

With four mouths to feed, I thought I had no choice but to forever remain a grub. But I always hoped for one last chance; that he’d call again.

The final call came when I was about to turn fifty-five.

I’m going back to the tree.

sleep no more


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