The first book I ever bought with my own money was Ali and the Golden Eagle. My parents took me to New York and while browsing an outdoor book vendor, I was captivated by a majestic eagle on the cover and the promise of adventure. It is a delightful read for any young child, and even though I have not read it in twenty years, I remember the entire story in great detail.
The secondary protagonist in this story, is the young Ali, about to embark on his test of manhood. To earn his place as a man among his tribe, he must complete the Test for Pain, the Test of Courage, and the Test of Strength.
In the Test for Pain, a red-hot iron was placed against Ali’s breast. He had to endure the pain without making a sound.
In the Test of Courage, Ali was required to touch a poisonous cobra without being bitten.
In the Test of Strength, three, massive stones of increasing weight were placed in front of him. Ali had to lift and move each stone to a new location without dropping a stone.
Ever since reading about this fictional rite of passage, I have been fascinated by how cultures delineate the boundary between childhood and adulthood. From my sporadic research, I found one constant that persists across geography, time, and culture. That constant is pain.
From Vanuatu Land Diving, to Mandan Hook Hanging, the purposes are clear. Craft a painful activity that requires discipline and fortitude to complete. To acknowledge the transition from boy to man, publicly, in front of the tribe.
An outsider would be unable to go through this type of rite of passage. This binds the group tighter to one another, and strengthens them against external threats. Equally important, a poorly-raised child would not pass though such a harrowing rite. If the child has not been adequately prepared by his parents, his family lineage will be shamed by failure or by impropriety. In this way, the group can cast out members of the group, if those members do not train their children to the necessary standards.
While I find most of these rituals to be viscerally disgusting, I cannot resist the pull of a societal idea that says: you were a child before this moment, and now, you are a man.
This is deliciously straightforward. In these cultures, a boy will not be treated like a man because he is not yet a man. Likewise, when he becomes a man, he will no longer be treated as a boy. This sharp distinction is something I feel is missing in western culture.
That does not mean that I wanted to attempt the bullet ant glove manhood ritual as a young boy, but, as a thirty-year-old man today. I still do not know when I became a man.
Was it when I turned eighteen? When I went to college? How about when I got my first job?
Yet, for the duration of my childhood I was told to be a man. Instructed to hide my emotions. Expected never to cry.
I straddled the line between boy and man for years, and then I never really knew when I finally assumed the mantle of manhood. I cannot point to a moment in time where this was acknowledged in public. No one told me to give up childish things and put my attention toward adult responsibilities.
I transformed from boy to man with very little activity. Really, I just got older. Eventually, people called me “sir”.
When I was in high school, I thought I had to be a man and tough out all the terrible thoughts racing through my head. I did not have the luxury of childhood in understanding my mental illness, partly because there was never a clear threshold for me to cross into adulthood.
Maybe if I was encouraged to be more of a child when I was a child, I would have sought help sooner instead of taking the entire burden on my young shoulders.
I do not know if I am even asking a question that requires an answer, but ever since Ali and the Golden Eagle, I have known that there is worth in passing through pain with public encouragement. No one in Ali’s tribe wanted him to fail his test, that would only deprive the tribe of a newly capable man. The entire group pulled for him to succeed.
I won’t spoil the whole story, but Ali did pass his test. With aid from a close friend.
Maybe that is the answer I am looking for.