Throughout most of history being a man appears to have been reasonably straightforward. As you grew up you were surrounded by men doing their work, frequently you would accompany them, you would see the ranges of ways in which they behaved and approached the problems of life and death and every thing in between. With some men, your father, grandfathers and certain uncles, you would have extra special relationships. You would go to them with certain kinds of questions and they would tell stories or attempt to explain things that can’t really be put into words.
One day when you are about old enough to cause trouble, perhaps between twelve and fourteen years old, the men take you away for your initiation. This process will probably be exhausting and painful and leave scars, in some cases it will also be extremely dangerous and some of you won’t make it. Imagine that! A process so important you will risk your son’s life to see him through it. When the boys come back they are young men and no matter how extreme the external transformation it is the internal one that matters. To acknowledge that transformation (in many cultures) the mother will pretend not to recognise her son.
At this point the young man knows that he has left his childhood behind, he is now a part of a community of men whose responsibility for the survival of the group is absolutely clear. He is also more responsible for his own life, how he deals with pain, how he makes his way in the world, how he negotiates his place in his society.
What do we do to teach our boys to be men? Well nothing very much really! They don’t go to work with their fathers, there are no longer obligations on uncles to help raise boys, and no one takes the boys away to initiate them. If you are lucky, when you turn 18, your dad and some of his mates might take you to the pub legally for the first time and congratulate you on becoming a man but no guided internal transformation has taken place. There is a rhythm to a man’s life that requires a number of markers or acknowledgements and require transformations of approach, of consciousness if you will. You can spot these moments in our culture by the spikes in the suicide rates -– adolescence/early adulthood, middle age, retirement and old age. Every year adolescent boys die taking risks. I believe that most of those risks are unguided attempts to self-initiate into manhood, but without the guidance of appropriate men they are disasters.
Every semester I give a guest lecture at the Southern Cross University on men’s spirituality in a unit called Spiritual Wellbeing. The response from both men and women speaks strongly of the desperate need we have to find new ways to define and mark the magical process that is a man’s life.
The Uncle Project; a mentoring program for boys without active fathers
Boys do not know how to become men, we have no initiation processes any more and what is it to be a man in this society anyway? Many boys grow up without any male model to follow and find themselves in real trouble, and for that matter so do their mothers.
Statistics are not the whole story but they can point to important issues. Statistically the children of single parents do worse by any measure you wish to use – at school, in relationships, in career and even in health outcomes and life span. This should not surprise us as it’s been known for a long time that the primary predictors of poor life outcomes are poverty and isolation. Sadly, single mothers all too often bear the brunt of our government’s hard line economic attitudes and as a society we will be paying the social cost of the political shift to selfishness for a long time to come.
What can we do? Clearly we cannot go backwards – no matter how much some of our supposed leaders would like us to return to the values of the 50s it is obvious that not only won’t that happen but the hidden violence and abuse of that era is undesirable.
One answer is to build new areas of social capital, to create bridging links, based on shared values, between people who might normally never mix.
The Uncle Project is an organisation that attempts to do this. The Uncle Project provides male mentors for boys without active dads. Each uncle provides a map of one way to be a man. This map is more felt than explained, by osmosis almost. Something that Robert Bly refers to as “father food” is in this case expressed as “uncle food”. Some sort of magical substance passes from man to boy. Boys who have uncles are transformed – as indeed are the uncles. Through working with the Uncle Project I have come to understand why so many tribal cultures give such importance to the role of uncle in a boy’s upbringing and in society in general. It is not normally the father who controls the initiation of a boy into manhood; his relationship to the boy is wrong.
The Uncle Project was started 14 years ago by Michael Light. For the last year and a half it has been funded, allowing the employment of a half time coordinator and a quarter-time admin assistant. There are around 150 men on our database and 160 mothers and their sons. Over the 4 years there have been about 35 one to one uncle–boy relationships. At the moment there are 12 with another 6 in the matching process. We do not advertise for clients yet mothers see articles about us and get in touch; they have no trouble recognising that something is missing in the lives of their sons. The men that are involved have also recognised something; firstly they can see that many boys (and for that matter many men) somehow never manage to grow up. They also feel that if they are going to take on the great adventure of being truly grown up themselves, then that requires some form of giving back or service.
I am personally continually amazed and distressed at how many men I meet 40, 50, even 60 years old who are still basically adolescents. This is balanced by the extraordinary range of men who come to volunteer with the project and reveal a maturity that I might never have expected, based on their appearance or age.
Unfortunately there are never enough uncles to meet demand. The kinds of men that are interested in being uncles are also the kind of men that are involved in heaps of other worthwhile community activiies; they are stretched for time. For those that do volunteer it is a deeply rewarding experience whether they take on a nephew, help at the carwash once a month or be an uncle for a day at the monthly activity. They also have a lot of fun! If you would like to know more, contact the office in Byron Bay on 6680 8582
Why aren’t there many songs about fathers?
If all goes to plan you will be able to buy an album of songs about fatherhood next Fathers’ Day: not a sugar coated commercialised piece but an album of songs selected for the way they come from the deeper parts of the men who write and perform them. Not only that, the profits will go to the Uncle Project, Pathways to Manhood and a yet to be named National Organisation.
Dan Rumour, guitarist and writer for the band ‘The Cruel Sea’, has expressed interest in contributing to the album. “Awareness of the importance of these things is growing,” he said. “In my parents’ time men thought it was somehow wrong to feel or express feelings; that is very different now.”
Colin George, who dreamt up and is coordinating this project says that while it sounds strange he was humbled into the idea by his experiences over the past few years. Colin’s father died when he was 7, he moved to Australia with his mother when he was 13, then went back to England in his 20s. Coming from a family of nine, he was well supported and in particular a brother who was some two decades older became a mentor. Yet when he returned to England and visited his father’s grave unexpected anger came flooding up and he found himself yelling abuse at the gravestone. “When it all subsided I thought; well this is strong stuff, there is importance here.”
Colin became interested in initiation and how it had never happened for him and his friends. When Colin and his wife Susanna came back to Australia with their 3 children some years ago they started out by travelling extensively. “We did some WWOOFing and I was amazed at how Australian men showed depth and openness and a willingness to share intimate stories.” Since then, many stories have influenced Colin and his work.
When Colin took his son on the “Pathways to Manhood” he was surprised by the fact that half the men there were not the fathers of the boys they accompanied. “There were step dads, uncles, brother in laws, all sorts. I was overwhelmed by their generosity and I found myself feeling humbled by it. I thought, I have to find something I can do.” Colin’s background is as a songwriter and organising bands so with the help of a couple of friends the idea of a compilation album of songs about fathering is on its way to reality. For more information contact: 6688 4357.