“What’s with the face paint?”
I got the question a dozen times from the men in my church. It was a Friday evening in spring. They stood around a fire, bemused and slightly nervous as I painted black and red stripes on their cheeks and noses.
“In some cultures,” I said, “the men carve a scar in their arm for every man they kill. Some high school guys put a notch in their belt for every girl they sleep with. I’m putting a stripe on your face for every child you have.” One color for children outside the womb, a different color for pre-borns.
Their expressions were not so nervous after that.
Most cultures worldwide practice rites-of-passage and coming of age rituals. The Bar Mitzvah. The Masai lion hunt. Poy Sang Long in Burma. The Hispanic Quinceañera. The Aboriginal walkabout. Sheijin Shiki in Japan. The Amish Rumspringa. A Native American vision quest. Vanuatu land diving. Hamar cow jumping. You get the point.
In America, though, the transition from child to adult is much more ambiguous. We recognize certain “rites,” such as a first shave, getting the driver’s license, our high school graduations, fraternity hazing, our “first” drink when we turn 21. But these are practiced inconsistently, and most are either not intentional or not edifying. Neither do they set up a boy’s journey into manhood as a particularly sacred or honorable thing.
As a result of growing up in American culture, with rituals the way they are (or aren’t), I now find myself married for almost five years, two months shy of my 30th birthday, expecting my first child in just over a month, working a full-time counseling job with benefits, and holding a masters degree. And most days I still feel like a kid. Put another way, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, but I still don’t feel like I fit in with other grown-up men.
What happened to me? What is happening to boys in our nation who are expected to become “manly” men? Boys like me are raised, hopefully with a father figure, then pushed out into the world with the anomalous directive, “Be a man.” We’re not told clearly when we’ll have achieved that goal. We’re told in the most general terms what being a man is—strong, decisive, godly, head of the household, breadwinner. Then we suddenly find ourselves as fathers responsible for teaching our boys how to be men and our daughters how to be women. But we’ve barely figured it out ourselves.