Part 5: Into the Woods – Initiation and the Masculine Soul

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a five-part series that takes a scientific approach to study the value and impact The Crucible Project has had on men who are thirsty to live with more integrity, grace and courage. It is based on work of Crucible brother Ryan Poling, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. In this post, we’ll dive into initiation and how crucial it is for men to claim their masculine identity.

Read the rest of the series:

Part 5: Into the Woods – Initiation and the Masculine Soul

“The trials are designed to see to it that the intending hero should really be a hero. Is he really a match for this task? Can he overcome the dangers? Does he have the courage, the knowledge, the capacity, to enable him to serve?”

– Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

When I think about human knowledge, I imagine all of humanity as existing inside a small village surrounded by woods.

The center — or clearing — of the village represents common knowledge: Things like basic math, state capitals, and how to read and write. As we move from the clearing toward the outskirts of the village, we move away from the known and inch closer to the unknown. This is the realm of specialized knowledge, like calculus, organic chemistry, and quantum physics. Once we reach the edge of the clearing and take a few steps into the woods, we’ve reached the frontier of human knowledge. Here be dragons…and string theory, neuroscience, and Einstein’s unified field theory. Looking to our left and our right, we see researchers, academics, explorers, and entrepreneurs, axes in hand, working to expand the clearing.

My study on the The Crucible Project’s initial weekend is my attempt to chop down a tree or two at the edge of the clearing. Over the last few weeks, I have written about my research on the impact of the initial weekend. I’ve shared about authenticity, assertiveness, and forgiveness and discussed statistics, research design, and neuroanatomy. But in this final post, we take a few steps into the woods – a bit of speculation based on my time at the edge of the clearing. This is where we drop our researcher clipboards and don our Indiana Jones hats. Just make sure to bring your flashlight.

The Hero’s Journey

To start, let’s talk about this word: Initiation.

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes about a narrative structure called the “Hero’s Journey.” Distilled down, the Hero’s Journey consists of three steps:

  1. The Hero leaves home (leaving the clearing and going into the woods)
  2. The Hero undergoes a trial, usually guided by a wise elder
  3. The Hero returns home to serve with knowledge gained through the trial

The Hero’s Journey shows up across much of fiction and nonfiction. It’s what Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and a Navy SEAL all have in common. They all experience a Hero’s Journey. Luke Skywalker leaves home and travels to Dagobah to learn the ways of the Force from Yoda. Frodo, under the guidance of Gandalf, travels to Mt. Doom to destroy the One Ring. A Navy SEAL completes intensive training designed to weed out all but the most resolute of recruits, guided by drill sergeants and officers. It’s clear how they all leave home and enter the woods.

But let’s focus on the second step in the Hero’s Journey: Undergoing a trial.

The Sateré-Mawé, an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian rainforest, understand the role of a trial in an initiation. In order for Sateré-Mawé boys to become warriors, they must wear gloves woven of leaves and filled with hundreds of bullet ants for up to an hour. These ants are known as “bullet” ants because their sting has been compared to being shot by a bullet. This initiation is guided by the tribe elders, all of whom completed this same ritual when they were young boys.

Of course, wearing bullet ant gloves isn’t the only form of initiation. Jewish children complete a bar (or bat) mitzvah to signify their maturity in Jewish faith. In the military, new recruits are brought through boot camp, guided by drill sergeants who have themselves completed boot camp. More specialized military groups, such as the Navy SEALs, complete even more extreme initiations. Part of my initiation into academia has consisted of years of advanced study as well as passing my comprehensive exams and writing and defending a dissertation. There are many kinds of initiations, but I argue that as men, we are not intentional enough about initiation.

In the first post of this series, I wrote that men often aren’t secure in their identities as “men.” They may be men biologically and chronologically, but they often feel as though something is missing. That missing piece, I believe, is a proper initiation.

We have a need to know what we’re made of. That we have what it takes. And there’s nothing better to show us than a trial, a test of our character and grit and resolve. We search for this initiation in different ways, whether by skydiving, motorcycle racing, drinking, pledging to a fraternity, academics, or some other challenge, but none of these are necessarily the initiation we need.

Instead, a proper initiation requires a few different elements:

  • Guidance from elders. An initiation needs to be led by others who have “gone before.” In practical terms, those who have “gone before” are often individuals with more experience or a deeper skill set than what we possess who have also undergone a similar trial.
  • A community. In order for an initiation to be meaningful, a man must be initiated into a community of men. At the end of his trial, he needs to be told, “You are one of us now,” and he cannot be told this unless there is an existing community of initiated men.
  • A trial or ordeal. An initiation is a test of a man and thus requires a degree of difficulty. The test must not be impossible, but it should stretch the initiate’s limits. It must help him uncover character strengths he did not know he had and teach him lessons he can bring home with him.
  • Boundaries and a “win condition.” An initiate must know when he has completed the task. Imagine pursuing an academic degree without knowing what classes to take or when you would graduate. There must be a foe to vanquish or a battle to be won.
  • Affirmation of his identity. As I mentioned above, at the end of the trial, the initiate must be recognized as having a new name or status. Advancement in the military comes with a change in rank, for example. Completion of graduate training confers the title “Doctor” (which, interestingly enough, comes from a Latin word meaning “to teach”).

Creating Initiated Communities

As I mentioned at the beginning, much of what I’ve written in this blog comes from my intuition after having spent time at the edges of the metaphorical village. The idea of an “initiation” is a difficult thing to quantify for research purposes, and so we must continue to explore the idea while also taking cues from philosophy, mythology, Scripture, sociology, and other sources of truth. There is much work still to be done to understand how initiations might help men create healthier communities, but I want to close with a bit of personal experience.

Every summer for eight years, my father and I would attend a week-long father-son summer camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There was no running water, no electricity, and incredible views of the stars. During my last year there, when I was 16, my dad (quite literally) took me away from the clearing of camp and into the woods.

After trekking into the woods for some time, he handed me an axe and a pair of work gloves, pointed to a small tree, and said, “Chop down that tree.” I put on the gloves and went to work with the axe, taking down the tree in a few dozen swings. Then he pointed to a larger tree whose trunk was the better part of a foot in diameter and said, “Chop down that tree.” I set to work again, but I soon began to tire. As I became frustrated and doubtful that I had the strength to fell the tree, my swings grew wilder and more aggressive. At times, I began crying in frustration. During these moments, my father silently took the axe, demonstrated a few decisive swings, and handed the axe back to me. Slowly, the wedge I was creating in the trunk of the tree grew larger. I still remember the crack! as the trunk gave way and the tree finally fell over.

I still have a picture of me sitting on the felled tree, exhausted, sweaty, but victorious. In that moment, I learned I was a little bit stronger than I had thought I was. I passed the test. I had what it takes.

The Crucible Project weekend is designed, in part, to give men an experience of initiation. They generally don’t know what to expect during a weekend, so they are effectively stepping into the unknown. Once there, they are challenged, and at the end, they are affirmed and welcomed into a community.

My point is this: Sometimes initiations are grandiose, such as basic training in the military or the Sateré-Mawé bullet ant ritual. Sometimes initiations are small and intimate, like a father taking his son into the woods to chop down a tree. But as men, we all need them. Guided by elders and in the midst of community, we need to be tested so we can see and be told that we have what it takes. And in our community, we can use the trial of initiation to help our sons, brothers, and friends discover and claim their masculine identities.

– By J. Ryan Poling

Ryan’s initial Crucible weekend was in August 2006. He is completing his doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Fuller Seminary Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA, and is currently on internship at Salina Regional Health Center. He holds Master’s degrees in Psychology and Theology, and he was also Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Azusa Pacific University. He lives in Salina, Kansas, with his wife, Erika, and their bunny, Bailey.

Photo Credit: James Hall via Creative Commons