“In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.” – Into the Wild
Making the team wasn’t hard, everyone did. Securing a spot on the Friday Night roster would take weeks and, as a freshman, would prove nearly impossible. Earning the respect of the veterans lasted fifteen grueling days.
Two-a-days were miserable, but they toughened you up for the difficult season, they separated out those who wanted to play and those who simply wanted a jersey, and they tested the newcomers. As a freshman, two-a-days quickly grew into a routine: loud music, cramped lockers and changing areas, waiting awkwardly to head out to the field, and then the gauntlet. Upper classman would line up outside the double doors that lead out of the gym, to the parking lot, and then the sun-dried practice field. They were waiting for the freshman. To get to practice, we had to endure the punches, shoves, and heckling. Only then could we practice.
A few years after high school, the fight was no longer for a spot on the varsity squad, but for direction, and I was dumping everything I knew and starting all over. Completely.
Through various conversations with friends, I knew the story of Christopher McCandless even before I picked up the book. When I was finally given a copy, I flipped the pages and scanned the cover with a Christmas-like anticipation; I just knew it was going to be a one-of-a-kind read, the kind that leaves you grieving when it ends, that, when it’s over, you’re weary to pick up another because, well, it would feel like betrayal. Like the relationship and time spent together didn’t matter, that all those hours spent mulling over her pages and caressing her words meant nothing. I knew this book was more than a one-week stand; that we were meant for each other.
I wasn’t married then. I was twenty-two and had recently called off the wedding that was less than two months away, which meant I had time. And a lot of questions. Light reflected off the gray and white cover, and the pages were stained brown from previous reads – evidence that they might hold some answers. I held the book firmly, glanced at the snow-covered bus, and then turned the cover. When finished, the answers I sought were left tickled, not answered. Over the years, as I have returned time and time again to the bent and flimsy pages, as I’ve handed it off to students and peers, a single truth has crept to the surface. And it’s as cold as the black and white snow covered bus on the cover.
Chris McCandless will never die. But he needs to. And fast.
Chris McCandless, or rather at the time Alexander Supertramp, when confronted on perhaps judging his parents too critically, confidently states, “I’m going to paraphrase Thoreau here… rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth. ” And I believe he truly meant it because it’s what propelled him on his crazy journey, but I also believe the truth he found was rooted in a process he wasn’t even aware of. If he was, he didn’t call it by name. Nor did he place adequate value on how it shaped and molded him. How it was the roadmap to his destination. How it was the reason why he left in the first place.
McCandless wanted Truth. More than love (which he received abundantly), more than money (which he earned and was given), more than faith (which he found), more than fame (which he now has), more than fairness (which he wasn’t – to anyone), he wanted Truth. And he found it. But if we are to look at the life and death of Chris McCandless and see only a kid full of wonder struggling to understand Life and wanting Truth and who happens to find both in a tragic ending in Alaska, then moose hunters of all sorts better start packing body bags because many more McCandless-type young men who have found their truth too late are coming. Indeed, they already have. Because, like my father drilled into me from a young age, “the process is just as important as the product,” what Chris lacked prior to his journey west, south, and then north was a process, a right a passage – the many moments that lead to the Moment. The moment a boy becomes a man.
The idea of Manhood, for many cultures, isn’t that elusive or ambiguous. Often times a man, and his surrounding community, can point to either a specific moment or a physical sign that he has completed the journey. Jewish cultures celebrate this event through a religious ceremony called Bar Mitzvahs while boys belonging to the indigenous Sateré-Mawé tribe have to keep their hands in bullet-ant-laced gloves where, for ten minutes, these angry ants sting them relentlessly. The wearing of the glove ceremony will continue for several months with the boy having to wear the glove up to 20 times. Boys tend to bear the pain without screaming or complaining because their ability to endure and withstand the pain is a sign that they are ready manhood and the harshness of the responsibilities.
Other cultures are even more severe. Several years ago, while volunteering at a hospital in Kejabi, Kenya, I was fortunate enough to befriend two Maasai warriors. Sammy and Given both had their own land, their own families, and knew exactly when they became a man. Before they could be accepted into the “warrior class” and be considered men, they had to be circumcised . . . in front of the village . . . without flinching. If they grimaced, they would disgrace themselves and their family. They then had to bring home the tail of a lion (Sammy even had a chunk of his left calf missing, which he showed proudly). I was amazed at their story and they were eager to hear mine. When they asked me what I had to do to become a man my answer was simple, “nothing.” They were shocked. I was embarrassed.
Even American gangs gravitate towards the process of earning your stripes. While all are violent (either killing someone or enduring a heavy beating), none are easy.
The Armed Forces, too, require a commitment beyond signing on the dotted line. To become part of America’s defense they have to earn it, they have to endure and they have to sacrifice. If they can do that, they’re in. And once they’re in, they’re in. They have a family, they have structure, and they have security. They have respect, much like a Jewish man, the Sateré-Mawé tribesman, the Maasai warriors and the players who endured the fifteen-day stretch on my high school football team.
But not like Chris McCandless. Where was his moment? When did he graduate from boyhood to manhood? Was it when he obtained his driver’s license? When he lost his virginity? When he turned eighteen? Chris didn’t leave for his journey until after college, so walking across the stage and flipping his tassel didn’t seem good enough.
So when does it happen?
Daniel Pink argues that all humans are motivated by three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Inherent in this theory is the right of passage. Take something you want or want to know about then work on it, play with it, manipulate it, push and pull it, read about it, taste it, experience it, know it. Fully and completely. Then, use it. Confidently.
The same applies to boys who aspire to become men. Throughout their adolescent years, boys increasingly desire autonomy and fight fervently to obtain it, and rightfully so. The ability to self-govern is a key component of adulthood. But what are they mastering? What is their purpose? And how do they know they’ve reached it?
Turning eighteen doesn’t make anyone a man. Neither does getting a driver’s license, it’s too easy. So is getting laid for the first time, and really, if this is our right of passage, we might be the only culture in the world where the right of passage lasts less than three fantastic and exhilarating minutes.
Boys need a right of passage that will challenge them holistically. They need purpose and a guided journey of practice, failure, and success. Gauntlets leading to the football field are scratching the surface of what boys deeply need, but they are incomplete. At the root of it, past the bullying and simple cruelty, is a truth of what boys need. What Chris McCandless needed. And what he found: a journey that demands a whole friggin’ lot and that never fully ends, but has a clear purpose, and a definite beginning.
Had Chris survived, he would have been able to point back to the bus. The journey from home in the east to Alaska challenged him emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually and it brought him in contact with several older and wiser men of various backgrounds and ages who guided him along the way, allowed him autonomy of life and expression, and who allowed him the right to suffer the natural consequences of his choices, but it was in the bus, alone with his journals, books, and memories of the prior journey that he found his Truth, that he found the beginning of Manhood.
Like Chris, boys are searching for Truth and the right to be called a man. But what defines a man? What makes a man? And when does a boy become a man?
After calling off a wedding that was less than two months away, I was, like Chris in his Alaskan bus, alone and starving. Alone because I had shoved most everyone away – especially those who challenged me, and starving because I was unable to eat the simple truth that eluded me, but presented itself to Chris on the bus and that, once grasped, allowed him to try and leave and return home, a man.
What did he find?
I am fortunate to have married the woman I walked away from and can grasp at ideas of manhood, but I had to go get her. I had to fight to get her back because she wasn’t coming after me. I had to leave my home near Chicago, travel to Montana and seek forgiveness and permission from her parents, then drive to San Francisco and earn my wife back. There was a journey, a clear purpose, and a definitive beginning – sitting by the fire in my parent’s back yard and being hit with Truth: I am wrong.
What makes a man? And when does a boy become a man?
Until we answer these questions, Chris McCandless will never die. But he needs to. The smell of decomposed bodies will become too much to bear.