There was a tradition among my ancestors, up until about the 12th century, called the Fianna. If you were a young man, maybe 14 or so, and were destined to inherit land and some kind of greater responsibility, you were expected to join the Fianna. This band of young people, living in the wilds together, is also the stuff of myth. Some believe it to be the roots of the Robin Hood legends. Certainly they are part of Irish legend in the stories of the great hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.
The Fianna was not only a place to send your unruly young men who had too much time on their hands, it served as a way to initiate young men into the responsibilities of adulthood. The Fianna were hired to protect lands, drive away marauders. During the summer and fall they lived together in the forest and were expected to hunt their own game and provide their own shelter. They sold animal pelts and found other ways to provide for themselves. They lived close to the land, coming to understand the ways of the world they would eventually govern. They were known to memorize poetry, and be partial to music and celebration. It was a community of young people exposed to forces that could show them their place in the world. One can imagine an ever evolving cast of characters. As one leader aged out another would emerge.
I grew up with my own, somewhat diminished version of the Fianna. Mostly boys, we spent our summer days riding our bikes around our neighborhood. Sometimes we were getting into too much trouble, sometimes we actually helped people. We looked out for each other, and one of our parents inevitably looked out for us. We participated in summer theater together and had sleepovers. If one of us was having an especially hard time at home, we talked about it, sometimes even talked to our parents about it. There was a lose network of connective tissue that held us all safely together. People kept tabs on us. It was a time when one could see adulthood starting to take shape on the distant horizon.
I still see bands of Fianna in my own town. It’s a very small town, a place where relatively harmless Fianna can still flourish. These are the summer tribes that are the very beginning of a long initiation into adulthood. They meet outside the library and flop across benches. Laughing and jeering, they seem quite harmless. They gradually receive more and more responsibility, more authority over how they’ll spend their days. They stay out later, travel farther. Some will get jobs or help out at home. They’ll be presented with challenges without their parents around to guide them. They will develop bonds with people outside of their family.
Of course most cities in our country can’t support bands of Fianna anymore. There is too much violence, too many weapons, too many gangs with very real economic agendas ready to sweep kids up and make use of them one way or another. The levels of violence we live in would overwhelm just about any band of Fianna, even Fionn mac Cumhaill’s brave band. It seems to me that now our Fianna exist online. It’s not the same thing, life is not given the chance to throw curveballs. Parents are rarely seen in that world. But it does cultivate a kind of tribe. And it contains monsters few of us really understand. There are places of hate there that are hard for most of us to fathom. These Fianna feed young men in some ways, but they can also abandon them and leave them without any real warmth or humanity.
For some, the military becomes a Fianna. It provides a band of brothers, combat training and many adventures. But the Army does not require that you memorize poetry in order to be allowed into their ranks. You do not need to know how to dance or play a flute before they put a gun in your hands. Many find the military to be exceptionally brutal, trying to attain manhood by beating the child within us to death. Our military lacks the traditions of humanity that the Fianna were reported to cultivate. And cultivating humanity is one of the chief jobs of any good Fianna.
With no viable Fianna to turn to many young men will create a way to join the world of adulthood for themselves. I know that pain of feeling stuck somewhere between childhood and adulthood. The drive to move forward is maddening. Not every young man will turn to killing to attain adulthood, but some will and they will do so in the manner of our day. They will express their journey into adulthood reflecting the culture we have collectively made for them.
They will use the tools adult men have created to express their masculinity and use them in the way they were designed. In our American culture that means high powered weapons capable of annihilating dozens of people in just a few moments. These are the weapons of Rambo and other supposed great icons of masculinity. We’re more than happy to give them what they’re looking for.
This is the process of self-initiation they have at their disposal. Nothing else makes sense to them. They will achieve adulthood at all costs. Everything in our culture supports this direction for them. Our films, entertainment, gaming life, all of these point to greater and greater violence. We fight harder and harder to protect weapons that have only one purpose: to kill as many people as possible. We are creating a world in which violence is the default initiation for any young man not guided by the forces of other communities.
The deep change that is needed will take decades to achieve. If we find a way to get rid of the millions of high powered assault weapons we will greatly reduce the number of casualties. We will not stop the killing, but we can dramatically reduce the number of deaths. We should do that. It sends the right message to our young men: that we are responsible, caring human beings who do not approve of murdering people en mass. Right now we’re sending them the opposite message.
The deeper work, the work on us and our culture, that takes real time. The truth is we all experience many initiations throughout our lives. Caring for my wife as she died, helping our kids through that process, was my greatest initiation into adulthood. It’s not that I wasn’t already an adult, I was. But I learned an even deeper dimension of adulthood. Real initiations can’t be easily made. We can’t, unfortunately, gather together some old men, various theatrical elements and magically manifest a transformative initiation for these young men. Especially young men who have been hurt and suffering for so many years.
I don’t think you can initiate a boy into manhood who has not been genuinely loved.
That really is where the deep work has to begin. If you see a young man who is not loved, has not been loved, you have to start loving him. Even if you don’t know him. That is, I believe, how we find our way out of this. We must all become his Fianna by loving who he is and where he is at. This may not be realistic for many of us, but it is the work of the world. A loss of being loved for who we are is at the heart of much suffering in the world, especially for men in my experience.
I have come up with some other suggestions though. They are practical and I hope thought provoking. They are an effort to work against the culture of violence that is so much a part of our American way of life.
If you’re not able to be warm and affectionate with kids, please don’t have kids.
I know that first one out of the gate sounds harsh, but I think we need to start thinking this way. Don’t have kids by reflex, don’t have kids because you think you’re supposed to. They need love. If you don’t have it to give them, avoid having kids. You can learn how to be loving, but make sure you can pull it off first.
Don’t vote for politicians who promote gun violence to get elected.
Game hunting is not necessarily gun violence. Some is, some is not. Target practice using pictures of your political opponent or something symbolizing their values, is glorifying gun violence. Staging a mock military assault against your opponents headquarters is promoting gun violence. Stand against politicians who use glorified gun violence to get elected.
Boycot movies that promote gun violence.
Especially those that depersonalize killing. It started with Dirty Harry. These people must be “bad guys” who deserve killing so its OK to celebrate killing. Bullshit.
Boycot video games that promote gun violence.
I use the “Pew-Pew-Pew” scale. I do let my son play first person shooter games, but they fall along the lines of violence that is not believable. If you remember the very first Star Wars movie released, the blasters used to shoot people looked straight out of a 5 year olds fantasy. Totally unrealistic. You could just imagine little kids pointing their fingers at each other saying “Pew-Pew-Pew.” There are many video games on the opposite end of this spectrum. Don’t tolerate them.
Talk to your kids about mass shootings as they happen. Every time.
The time to develop empathy in your kids lives is now. You’ll know how young you can start at, and what kind of language to use. But it’s especially important to talk to our sons about gun violence. Find out what they think about it. Let them know how deeply this kind of violence wounds entire communities. Make sure they know that you’re there if they ever have thoughts or feelings about wanting to hurt other people.
Be willing to look at the violence that is at the heart of American culture.
From the way many raised their kids, to how we took over these lands, how we cultivated them with slavery, to how we enact our foreign and domestic policy today; violence has been a constant aspect of American life. We need to acknowledge that violence is part of our culture and its not OK. Hiding from this will never work.
Young men need to dance.
Or read and write poetry. Sometimes both. Embodied self expression matters. It is healing, regenerative, and nourishing. If your son doesn’t dance or engage in the arts in some way, find a way to bring him into that world, even peripherally. One of the many wonderful things about the arts is that artist communities often comprise Fianna’s of their own. Many forms of art are deeply socializing.
Of course I have to end with this. Love your sons. Hold them, wrestle with them. Tell them how important they are to you. Tell them that when they grow up and become the man you know they will be you’ll be proud and heartbroken all at once. You will miss them so much you don’t know how you’ll make it. Just love them.
Blessings to you and yours in this time of great change. And stay safe.