Walking Together Through the Stages of Manhood

 All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts. – Shakespeare

We go through three broad phases: Youth (0-30), Midlife (30-60), and Elderhood (60-death), the morning, noon and evening of our lives.
The boundaries of identity continually shift. Each of our stages brings a particular challenge. In the old days, under the guidance of experienced elders, a man periodically underwent transformations. Each of them qualified him to enter the next period of change, when something new would have to break open. Although the core of the Self didn’t change, initiates kept being made, unmade and remade.

Now, it is painfully obvious that young men are forced to carry the load of generations who never underwent initiation themselves. Everywhere, they struggle to develop character, be in relationship and discover their unique gifts.

The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood turning into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness
. – Yeats

Many middle-aged men cannot distinguish between the notion of career and the older, indigenous idea of serving the world to leave it a better place. They often don’t recognize the responsibility to mentor younger men, or that their identity has been shaped more by society than by their own personal destiny.

The finished man among his enemies?
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape? – Yeats

In their most honest moments, some will admit that they have forgotten or that they have been diverted from following the thread that came into the world to follow.

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. – Albert Camus

As initiation rites have disappeared, so have the clear distinctions between life’s developmental stages. From the indigenous perspective, modern men simply don’t know who we are. We harden around our unfinished initiations, and our wounds fester. Consequently, adolescence in America seems to continue indefinitely, as a simple glance at our national leaders reveals.

Fortunately, life offers us frequent opportunities to re-assess these stages and to release some of the hardness around our hearts. We may realize that we are stuck in what Robert Moore called “boy psychology,” addressing the world not from the perspective of our appropriate ages but from the position of adolescent boys who never fully achieved mature identities. Sadly, we often realize this too late to salvage relationships with our parents, partners or children.

I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify
. – D. H. Lawrence

Older men must learn about integrity in the face of declining health. They must face the questions of legacy and of dropping regrets. The must acknowledge the necessity of blessing the young so that culture may go on. They must turn, if they haven’t already, from facing their own childhoods to facing their deaths. It is possible that after a lifetime of soul work, a man may realize:

When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
W
e are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest. – Yeats

But when a man has faced many “small” initiatory deaths, he may no longer fear the “big” death.

When death comes, let it find you alive! – West African proverb

Resist the world’s numbness
And your passion revive.
So when death comes to find you
Let him find you alive! – Greg Kimura

We all suffer from the loss of elders who once held us in strong ritual containers. These were men who guided us through real initiation rituals that tore apart our outmoded ideas of our own possibilities, recognized our innate sense of purpose and welcomed us back into community. Now we face a profound question: can men who themselves were not initiated in the old sense guide younger men through their changes? The answer may well be that we have no choice but to try.

…nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent. – Yeats

Indeed, our annual conference, having reached its 30th year, has come out of its own youth. Are we resting on our laurels, with predictable and comfortable programs? Are we as a group in our own midlife crisis?

Let’s explore and illuminate this rich subject together beneath the timeless redwoods at this year’s retreat.