Manhood, Hero's Journey, & "Into the Wild"

Many weeks ago my good friend Tripp Lanier and I led a discussion at the Boulder Integral Center on how the movie “Into The Wild” may represent one man’s unconscious attempt at self-initiation. This is the third formal dialogue between Tripp and I on the subject of the journey into manhood. Tripp is the hilarious host of the popular show The New Man Podcast. You can check out our past dialogues here. Or you can check our interview in What is Enlightenment Magazine.

The discussion centered  around the movie’s main character Christopher McCandless and how his tale is akin to The Hero’s Journey as discussed below. It was a lively, intimate discussion about a man’s search for meaning in his life and how he approaches relationship and purpose. Several young men in the audience could really identify with McCandless and his wanderlust. An older man could relate as well and even went to homestead in Alaska in the 70’s. Few of the men however, remember having such an unflinching, almost pathological desire to follow a mission or calling like McCandless.

Throughout my 20’s I was searching. I hitchhiked across Alaska and Central America for months. I lived and worked in the wilderness for over five years. Between jobs that never lasted more than 4 months, I traveled the States and Mexico to rock climb the coolest crags and mountain bike the best trails. I met amazing people and had beautiful, but short-lived affairs. I could really relate to McCandless’s wanderings but I lacked a clear goal. Mine was more ambiguous. Most of the time I didn’t even know what I was searching for. Although I was having a blast at times, the search was painful and because I couldn’t put my finger on what I wanted, I was quietly depressed and carried some existential weight on my shoulders.

The only thing I was clear on was that I couldn’t buy in to the American Dream. It made no sense to me. So, at the same time I was searching, I was running. The author of “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer in an interview was asked the question, “Was Christopher just simply running from his family and his pain?” Krakauer acknowledged this was part of it, but reminds us to think about the notion that McCandless was also “running to” something. He had a clear vision. We could say that most ambitious men are running from their past in some way or trying to prove that they are worthy of the love and respect they so desire.  Can it not also be true that for many of us men, we are equally running toward a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment that so eludes us?

Ironically this is the work I do with adult men. I help men that are just collecting a paycheck go from a life with little meaning, to one that has the depth of meaning they so desire. I also help that ambitious searcher, to settle down and listen to the call within. In both cases, men realize that what they’ve been looking for all along is found within the space of their own heart and being.

The sad reality in the modern man’s journey is that he has little guidance from older men and little support from the community. Not only is there no defining moment where we can say “I’m now a man,” but there is no rite-of-passage to guide us there.

How much does McCandless’s character relate to some part of you now or when you where his age? What part of his journey represents a healthy male rite-of-passage? What part is unhealthy? How can we learn from his vision and his mistakes?

A few important points about this ongoing dialogue.
1. In this culture men have no formal initiation practice where a young boy becomes a man.
2. Men are unconsciously initiating each other or themselves such as McCandles in Into the Wild.
3. Because of the absence of these essential Initiations, a large percentage of adult men in our culture are developmentally much younger than their current age. Look at the leadership and behavior of many men in positions of power.
4. There are few elders willing to provide an conscious initiatory experience for our young men.
5. I have come to realize that our co-opted attempts to address this issue such as vision quests, the military, sports teams, do not fully meet the desired outcome.

Let me explain…
Joseph Campbell, a classic mythologist who did a great series with Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, outlines what he calls the Hero’s Journey. George Lucas drew from this model when he made the Star Wars epic. It can also be teased out of movies such as The Lion King or The Matrix.

The Hero’s Journey has three basic stages:  1. Separation, 2. Initiation and 3. Return. Campbell asserts that all cultures across time have one thing in common—a ritual marking some kind of passage into another life phase. This ritual asserts that in order to successfully move on to the next developmental stage in our life, we have to go through a rite-of-passage.

Most traditional cultures have specific rites wherein a boy becomes a man. In going through this rite, a boy receives some kind of training or transmission from the elders of the community about how to be a man in their village or tribe. Not only is the elder’s role pivotal, the separation from the mother is poignant and a necessary moment in a boy’s life. He leaves the safety of the womb of the protective mother and village and must leave to be tested by the wilderness and the men in the community. As long as humans have been around, boys have been cast into such rituals to become a man. How does this all fit into the modern situation? Quite simply, in our culture no such ritual exists.

If it is true that initiation is a necessary step along a man’s journey, what happens if he does not receive an initiation? If it is also true that in this culture there is no formal initiation into manhood, how is he supposed to know that he is a man?  Is it when he first gets drunk? Leaves for college? Loses his virginity? Gets his first job? Gets in a fight and wins? We could go on guessing, and in our modern situation I doubt we would find some moment, some event that helped this boy understand that he was now a man. Whereas in other cultures, it is obvious, known and acknowledged.

Is it possible then, that men in western culture are unconsciously seeking out initiatory experiences that come from deep within their psyche, and that they actively engage in risky behaviors to meet this end? Is it possible that men are longing to be initiated, to be held, pushed, challenged into an ordeal that would give them meaning, understanding, validation of themselves, their community and their world? Is it possible that the role of the military, gangs, athletic teams and the collegiate fraternity has become initiate boys into men through being pushed, challenged, abused and hazed? How can we address this issue and use the story of Christopher McCandless to initiate men consciously into adulthood, so that they can be the fathers and leaders that can make a real difference in our world?

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