The “walkabout” is Australian Aborigine’s rite of passage in which indigenous males undergo a journey, typically between ages ten to sixteen, living in the wilderness for a period as long as six months. It is their spiritual and traditional transition into adulthood. These walkabouts are a boy’s first steps into independence, identity, and maturity. Enlightenment, healing and a spiritual awakening are essential elements of these solemn rituals. Ironically, Western Civilization, in spite of its many advances, struggles to craft a dynamic equivalent. We measure the transition of boy to adult using an incoherent patchwork of markers such as getting a driver’s license, graduating from high school, loss of virginity, or getting married. Yet, none of these (not even the sum total of them) provides the benefit to our boys the ancient walkabout delivers to its sons.
For generations, cultures have preserved manhood and societal health through challenging journeys like the Aborigines’ venture into the outback. They provide a much-needed opportunity for young men to prepare themselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically for adulthood and community membership. These sojourns into the untamed to the face danger and fear from within and without are essential to a male’s identity formation. The difference between boys and men is one of heart and thought. The mystery of what it means to be a man is first decoded and then transferred during the days and weeks of these rites of passage. Adult males flounder in life without them.
Boys are male, but being a man is much more than being male. Reaching a certain age, or boasting of a particular possession doesn’t make a man either. Manhood resides within and roots itself in the unseen soul. Being a man is always a matter of what is inside.
The French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep coined the phrase “rite of passage” to describe the metamorphic movement between childhood and adulthood. Gennep defined it as a celebration of the passage, which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. He suggests two universals that every culture’s rites of passage share, mainly: “the sexual separation between men and women, and the magio-religious separation between the profane and the sacred.” Other experts on rite of passage identify three common stages or steps in these passages: separation, transition, and inclusion. My sons and I see a vitally important and necessary fourth stage we call ‘ethos’. We refer to our Christ-centered western rite of passage as a “manabout.”
Throughout America’s history, the defining images or expressions of what makes ‘a real man’ have waffled between the rough and rugged mountain man and the suave, sophisticated cigarette-smoking man-about-town, and it has bounced between the hard working blue-collar guy relaxing to Budweiser and football, and the successful corporate mogul sipping expensive wine atop his empire. This revamping and redefining of manhood continues right up to the present such that the definition of what constitutes a man is now unclear, in flux, and polarizing in today’s western world. In fact, we’ve added chaos to the confusion by debating matters as elementary and foundational as what is male and what is female. This toxic mix is a very real and present danger to those forming their identity. Our society straddles a quaking fault-line as western culture pulls away from its ancient roots and truths about manhood, and the tectonic shifting of the societal plates is traumatizing every structure on the social landscape. As a result, the West is witnessing a rise in male loss of esteem, a pornography explosion, widespread gender confusion, and a staggering degree of prolonged adolescence. Only a clear vision, deeply rooted in the ancient bedrock of what it means to be a man, will stand in the days ahead. Every boy living today needs the help of his father or a male mentor to prepare him for the societal San Andreas ready to reshape western civilization on a scale of magnitude not experienced before.
Despite the West’s many advances, great learning and vast experiences, we, as a culture, have not developed a sound dynamic equivalent to the simple aboriginal walkabout. Our markers of manhood are all over the map. Some say a male is a man when he turns sixteen, or eighteen, or twenty-one. Others propose that manhood is achieved when a male can legally drink alcohol, or when he graduates from college. Locker room wisdom claims the key factor is rooted in sexual experience. Each is as ludicrous as the next! We should all have the discernment to know that the ability to drive or the right to vote are totally disconnected from any indicators of manhood. Many ideas are being offered as the measure of manhood; however, they collectively fail because they are little more than arbitrary guesses, and they fall short because they take a surface view of manhood. Actually, it is easy to argue that many of them provide evidence of a failure to achieve manhood. For example, quaffing alcohol to the point of intoxication communicates more about a boy’s lack of control than it does his maturity, and sexual encounters are candidly more a sign of a child-like need for attention than evidence of any noble character trait. Mannishness is not equivalent to manliness. Manliness is a matter of heart; Mannishness is everything else, and western civilization has opted almost entirely for mannishness.
To direct and assure its boys seeking manhood, Western society needs a marker; a rite; a collective, “Do this!” Unlike our current whatever-you-think approach, this marker cannot be a collage of the collective guesses. It must be founded on time-proven truths, be immune to fads and trends, have roots in the bedrock of the original design, and draw from the deepest, strongest, and purest elements of what a male was intended to become to the planet, in community, and in his spirit. It is time that a brave many men sever the umbilical cord of societal dictates, renounce the childish fads of western culture, reject the crowd’s silly chaotic clamoring. It’s time to recapture that ancient Spirit residing within every male and empower it to be experienced and lived fully by our sons. Why would an apple tree apologize for being an apple tree, or a tulip for being a tulip? A male who pursues his Divine design will never need to apologize for his maleness or his manhood. It’s time we stop apologizing for being male and begin being men again.
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