I really enjoyed my co-blogger, edgymama’s, post last week on boy’s coming-of-age or initiation rituals.
She shared some essential spiritual truths to be passed on through ritual to help boys cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood. These truths might be summarized like this:
- life is tough – face the challenge,
- you are not the centre of the universe, you are not even that important, but part of a larger whole,
- you need to experience loss and powerlessness…
I watched the video on the website edgymama linked and thought a lot about how boys need to feel both their own smallness in the face of something much larger, and that feeling of spiritual belonging, a small part of a greater whole.
I enjoyed these musings as my son has been experiencing a lot of anger and sadness recently, and I feel that there’s a magic answer hidden in here somewhere.
This lead me to what Gordon Neufeld has said about the importance of crying, that the continued ability to let those tears leave the eyes helps the brain to acknowledge powerlessness and so adapt and keep on keeping on. Whereas, the numbing of feelings: the inability to cry occurs when children learn to hide their tears because they are ashamed of them, means that the frustration of not getting one’s way or not getting one’s need’s met can turn quickly into anger. There is no adaptation or learning, but aggression or withdrawal instead.
We need to let our children cry! We need to let them go through processes of dark and difficult emotions so they can get to this place of loss and powerlessness, while still feeling embraced by the larger whole: our unconditional love….Hhhmmm…..
Then, I started thinking about the “Hero’s Journey” a la Joseph Campbell. He wrote a lot about the monomyth, describing as he saw it, that myths from many cultures all centre around a similar trajectory that a young man (or woman) would follow to become a hero (An embodiment of or holder of the magic power of a larger force: the universe, mother earth, the hidden dragon, God… ) This journey would include some great challenge and passage into a strange, unfamiliar territory or descent into an underworld, often an encounter with the female element: ‘meeting with the goddess’ and ‘woman as temptress’…then a discovery of some truth, tool, magic potion and so on, until returning to the normal world transformed.
So, I began to wonder a bit about gender-representations, and such notions as archetypes that Jung and Campbell popularized. I hope I don’t get into trouble for saying this stuff. In order for a boy to become a man he needs to pass through a woman. It sounds almost cheesy or crass or something. Coming of age, becoming the hero of your own life, for our boys (and girls, of course), could mean helping them navigate the dark, murky waters of their emotional life – that this is in fact, one of the key steps in initiation. Encouraging our boys to be tough and not cry is far from enough, it is in fact robbing them of their true passage. Whether or not it is more or less male or female to show emotions is not the point and we could argue it forever. But through the hero’s journey or an initiation ritual, our children might be encouraged to embrace and integrate both energies.
Boys who don’t cry, don’t become men!
Recently my son, who splits between living with me and with his father, has been expressing a lot of anger around feeling left out of activities that I or his dad may do when he’s not with either one of us. His anger has at times been extreme, and once or twice aimed directly at me. While it can be painful to witness my son suffering like this, and painful for me to feel that he’s blaming me for his feelings, I am learning something valuable about helping my son maintain his sensitivity, while attempting to coach him through the process of accepting and owning his own emotions and moving through them.
One of the toughest things I’m learning is that it is actaully my own difficulty in accepting or tolerating his anger or sadness that gets in the way. It’s as if, at some point, I learned that tears or yelling were unacceptable, and so I can’t handle them in my own child and sometimes try to shut them out. I have read that most parents find it easier to accept and comfort the tears of their daughters than their sons, while also brushing off their son’s anger or aggressive behaviour as natural.
I am learning to hold my both my son’s anger and sadness gently and without judgement. It’s tough!
The other day my son was over tired, and really needed a bath, but was pretty upset that I was interrupting his quiet reading time. He ended up crying so much in the bath, which had never happened before, and all I wanted was to have him washed, eat dinner and in bed as quickly as possible because I knew he was so tired and had school the next day. I ended up just washing his face with a flannel while he cried, which I’d never done…..I just couldn’t think of anything to do but ignore his tears, until I finally burst out and admitted to him that I didn’t know what to say or do – we’d tried everything, patience, giving choices, giving ultimatums, being gentle, being firm…bla bla bla. He stopped crying for a second, tenderly put his hand on my sholder, and said, “Mum, just do what you always do, keep loving me, but please don’t ask me to stop crying, just let me cry.” I did. I just sat with it. And in a minute or two, he stopped, and something else happened:
In this safe embrace of acceptance – it’s ok to keep crying-ness – he was able to explain why he was sad….it was very eye-opening, but a subject for another post.
I have heard him say, “You make me so angry when you do that!”And “Don’t ask me to stop crying, or why I’m sad or what’s wrong, you make me cry more when you do that!” In response to this I have tried to suggest that I don’t make him feel sad, or mad, but he feels this or that way when something happens or someone does something, to use the language of nvc. This helps our children and us to ‘own’ their emotions and not to blame others. When others aren’t blamed for causing negative emotions they are more likely to accept and be able to sit with yours. It’s a simple cycle. I love it.
So, just last night, my 6-year-old scooted off with me from his dad’s house and stopped at the end of the block explaining that he was sad about such and such that his dad was going to do that night that he’d miss out on. I simply achknowledged it and off we went. Later, at the cafe, my boy didn’t want to share his cookie with me, and i was ok with it. He sai, “Don’t be sad about it.” I assured him I wasn’t. My little dude said,”Well, even if you were sad, it’s not because I made you sad.” I agreed. Then a moment later he piped up again. ‘You know, mama, even though you’re not sad about the cookie, and I’m happy I get to eat my whole cookie, I still feel sad, ’cause even when I think about sadness, I feel sad.” “I’m just a sensitive guy, I feel so sensitive today.” Later in bed, my son opened up a lot about his feelings of missing out, and we had the chance to go into each case in detail, and how many of the things he described were difficult to change and were in fact hard. I was just so grateful that he is able to express all this. He has come such a long way. For a long time, he preferred silence and being lone when he was sad or mad, but finally I can feel that he is learning to be ok with his emotions. My sensitive boy. And the anger that popped up over the last three weeks has shifted into sadness.
I think that’s ok.
I think my little boy is uncovering one of the hidden keys on his hero’s journey to becoming a man.