The following is an adapted excerpt from Leaving Boyhood Behind by Jason Craig.
In Rudyard Kipling’s coming-of-age novel Captains Courageous, a spoiled, rich teenager named Harvey is initiated into manhood through a series of adventures on a fishing vessel. Separated from his wealthy family, he gets thrown in with real men, the sort with quick wits, short tempers, and gritty virtue. Prior to the fishing adventure, Harvey had spent his entire childhood and early teens being ushered around the world by his mother, who is trying to amuse him while his father is totally absent, growing a massive business empire. His mother keeps Harvey comfortable and safe, while his father funds the comfort. The novel, though first published in 1897, is an accurate presentation of today. More than ever, fathers today are overworked or just plain absent, leaving uninitiated sons in the hands of mothers who tend to do all they can to keep their boys comfortable and safe. Moreover, also like many boys in our culture today, Harvey is not rooted in a specific place and culture. These realities work together to keep him immature, because they keep him from being able to become a man.
Kipling’s novel tells the tale of a young man’s rite of passage, and I think it does a particularly good job of emphasizing the stage of separation from childhood. Harvey’s separation begins on a large ship. The teenager is bragging about himself to men seasoned by work and comradely, and they pity him. He’s immature, puffed up, arrogant, and selfish. To these fishermen he is certainly not a man, but he pretends to be, and that’s the most pitiable part. Unlike Harvey, these fishermen real men have no need to tell the world what they are. It is as obvious as the sun is hot. Harvey boasts that he has never gotten seasick, and to prove his manliness he takes a big drag of a man’s cigar. Harvey then finds himself helplessly cigar-sick and overcome with nausea .Attempting to hide his sickness, he ducks out of sight….. and his life is changed forever by what happens next:
[Harvey] doubled up in limp agony, for the Wheeling “stogie” joined with the surge and jar of the screw sieve out his soul. His head swelled; sparks of fire danced before his eyes; his body seemed to lose weight, while his heels wavered in the breeze. He was fainting from seasickness, and a roll of the ship tilted him over the rail. … Then a low, gray mother-wave swung out of the fog, tucked Harvey under one arm, so to speak, and pulled him off and away to leeward; the great green closed over him, and he went quietly to sleep.
A fisherman from another boat sees Harvey go overboard and scoops him up in a net of fish. Since the fishing vessel cannot afford the time and resources to hunt down Harvey’s mother, they take the boy with them on their voyage. They are out to fish, and fish they will. Harvey’s mother thinks he is dead, and as long as the ship remains at sea, he is forced into a whole new life. It’s a great adventure and proves to be his initiation into manhood. Had he stayed with his mother, his initiation would be impossible.
After a season of fishing with the men, Harvey is reunited with his parents and he is fundamentally changed. His mother is convinced he will suffer from some enduring trauma, but his father sees that the experience has created something new in Harvey. It has made Harvey a man:
The father, well used to judging men, looked at [his son Harvey] keenly. He did not know what enduring harm the boy might have taken. Indeed, he caught himself thinking that he knew very little whatever of his son; but he distinctly remembered an unsatisfied, dough faced youth who took delight in “calling down the old man;” and reducing his mother to tears such a person as adds to the gaiety of public rooms and hotel piazzas, where the ingenuous young of the wealthy play with or revile the bell-boys. But this well set-up fisher-youth did not wriggle, looked at him with eyes steady, clear, and unflinching, and spoke in a tone distinctly, even startlingly, respectful. There was that in his voice, too, which seemed to promise that the change might be permanent, and that the new Harvey had come to stay.
I’ve known boys like Harvey. I remember, sadly, acting a lot like Harvey. What helped him, me, and a lot of other boys that need to grow up is the separation from my childish ego and the tough love of men. Ending childhood is hard in boys, but not impossible.
WHAT DOES SEPARATION ENTAIL?
One of the hardest parts of a rite of passage for young men today is the separation. Our society has perpetuated adolescence, and we no longer require young men to give up the ways of boyhood. In some cases, society openly encourages men to remain boys. With more and more hindrances to maturity occurring, for many boys the leap from boyhood to manhood becomes so obscured as to seem impossible. Not only are the paths gone, but those who are supposed to be guides have themselves stayed in childhood. Many of the “men” in our society today are simply adult boys: males of biological manliness but emotional and general boyishness. What holds them back the most is the lack of separation from their boyhood?
Childhood is closely linked to femininity. Children literally come forth from their mother and remain largely in her care for the first several years of their lives. The hope of humanity rests in the image of “women and children;“ because the hope of each child’s future is apparent in their very being, which their mother receives and nurtures. The very phrase “women and children” is either strictly feminine or genderless –we never hear of “women, boys, and girls:‘ As long as it is associated with young childhood, therefore, boyhood has a feminine association, as it is overseen by the maternal ethos.
This distinction and necessary separation between “women and children” and “men;’ however, does not mean an absolute separation. Nor does it mean that a woman’s only purpose is domestic, or that men should have no domestic role at all. Both men and women should be domestic, meaning their lives should be oriented toward their family. Traditionally, a father’s role is more “outward, ” but regardless of a family’s structure today, the father and the mother necessarily play different roles.
This does not mean the father is severed from home life; he just serves it in a different way. And this is a good thing.
This is why a crucial part of a boy’s journey to manhood is to be separated from the world of “women and children” to live in the world of the men. This world is necessarily a sacrificial one, as part of what it means to be a man is to sacrifice for those in his care typically, for women and children.
In fact, the idea of separation has a priestly undertone, for a boy is separated from his childhood for the sake of sacrifice. He must be willing to give over his life if necessary for the sake of the women and children, who are the promise of society’s future.
It is the duty of priestly manhood to die for the promise and hope that is within the feminine and the young. No man worth the salt of his baptism should deny this priestly duty to defend and sacrifice for women and children. This includes not only his own family but even those women and children without husbands and fathers, so many of them victims of the politically correct absurdities of our day. As Scripture reminds us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (Jas 1:27).
To learn about the course and book on rites of passage by Jason Craig, visit www.leavingboyhoodbehind.com.Those Catholic Men.