Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A few thoughts on menstruation, boys behaving badly, ritual, and the Gulf oil spill.

You're weak, ladies and gentleman. Weak, whiny, woman-girls and man-boys. And it's because we as a culture have no meaningful rituals to separate childhood from adulthood. If we had stronger, more jarring initiation rites to mark the time between childhood and adulthood, we would all be less pathetic and whiny and heartless as adults.

And if we replaced our self-indulgence with a healthy fear of Mother Earth, the Gulf might not be your "oops" garbage dump.

The world needs to wake and make a big deal of a girl's first menstruation. Her body is becoming a vessel capable of sustaining the species, and we should use it as a time to help the girl become aware that she must eventually let go of the trappings of childhood and accept her place in the world as a mature and responsible and strong human being.

We have turned menstruation into an object of shame and embarrassment. At best, it's aslightly droll and unfortunate event. We talk in code about it and try not to be conscious of it. Silly excuses and lies are made up about why a girl or woman is absent from school or work.

The Aboriginal Australians have rites in which a woman's first menstruation is marked by sitting in a tent for days and days, forcing the girl to come to grips with the fact that she must now let go of childhood and all the weak, needy things associated with it. If she fails to grow the up, the Aborigines can't use her and she gets kicked out of the tribe. In the unforgiving landscape of Australia, ostricization means death. She who fails to mature mentally is a danger to the survival of the community.

Same goes for the men. We need to wake up and make a big deal of a boy who starts to misbehave as a teenager, and throw him head-first into what it means to be a man. We need a point at which a man learns that this rock is a real bitch to live on and he had better grow a pair now.

Men don't have a natural division point between childhood and adulthood as a female does, so ancient cultures have made up rituals to make it obvious that the boy has to grow the hell up or the tribe will die.

The Aborigines have an elaborate, terrifying ritual to snap boys into behaving well. When a boy starts acting all tough and egotistical as testosterone is wont to make a male do, the grown men dress up like spirits, come in making a commotion, "kidnap" the boy from the mother (who plays along), circumcise him, subincise him (splitting), and thus induct him into the mens club. They scare the living fuck out of him in one painful fell swoop and make it abundantly clear that he is no longer a momma's boy, that the tribe depends on him, and he had better shape the fuck up or he's a dead man.

Sure, we have weak certain initiation rites in some cultures. Jewish kids have bah mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs. Catholic children get a smile and a slap on the cheek from the nice priest. Latinas have quinceaƱeras on their 15th birthday to help them act more like spoiled princesses. Men have rites involving self-indulgence – such as going to the nudie bar for the first time, smoking his first cigarette, drinking his “first” beer, and other “special” “firsts”.

In schools and frats we have ridiculous "initiations" administered by our equally immature peers. Some might say the grade school system itself – and college – are good common ways in our culture to mark the occasions of growing up, but those people are wrong. Like a frog in a pot of lukewarm water heated up slowly, such a gradual, plodding process makes no impact. The person never leaves the comfortable confines of childhood. He never feels a change. And we all eventually boil.

Well isn't all that special. None of our common rituals jar us awake. They are all "just something we go through", and don't really make a lasting change on most humans.

This post was inspired by The Power of Myth, an edited transcript of the Joseph Campbell/Bill Moyers interviews, but it is also inspired by other anthropological literature I've read. I've got a little bit of knowledge, and I'm feeling dangerous, so there you have it. My opinion about why we are all so weak and pathetic and whiny. I am sick and tired of hearing about "emotional safety", and I grow weary of us who lack the fortitude to maintain composure no matter what the circumstances.

This is a tough world to live in, and if you think it's supposed to be easy, then I rest my case: We need ritual. We need myth. To teach us what it means to grow up.

In writing this, I have left myself open to ridicule, corrections, accusations, and other concerns ranging from the legitimate and the banal. So go ahead. Give me your best shot. But before you do, think about what I have said here. Try to make sense of it. Give the information/opinion/perspective a chance. And dream with me of a better future.