Summoned by her high-pitched whistle, the boys, carrying brooms and burlap sacks, marched single-file into the school’s courtyard behind the stern figure of first-grade teacher Fräulein Lise Jhort.
They had completed their duties: swept the neighborhood streets and stopped at butcher shops to collect animal bones which would later be crushed for oil to lubricate the planes of the Luftwaffe, Germany’s mighty air force.
In short pants and a white short-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way up, my father lined up in tight formation with the rest.
The boys watched four officers march in. The heel taps of their high black boots struck the concrete floor filling the courtyard with beating metallic echoes. From all the photos hung in shops, lampposts, hallways and people’s homes, my father immediately recognized one of them — Adolf Hitler.
“Sei ruhig!” Fräulein Jhort yelled, shushing the boys.
My father nestled the broom handle between his jaw and shoulder, looked down, and opened the heavy sack hoping his cache of bones would please the Führer. He winced at the stench of marrow and blood.
While few years shy from joining the ranks of the Hitler Youth, the boys — standing squarely in two short lines with their brooms and sacks — were beginning their march towards becoming soldiers. One day, they would fight to ensure the glorious future of Nazi Germany.
The year was 1937. My father was six.
“Pass auf, der Führer kommt!” whispered the boy standing next to my father, nudging him with his elbow, then adjusting my father’s red armband emblazoned with the black swastika they all wore while on duty. My father closed the sack and pressed it tight against his chest keeping his gaze cast at his scuffed black shoes.
Crested by a visor cap, a long shadow slithered across the courtyard floor, then stopped. A cold, bent finger lifted my father’s head by the chin. His nervous glance slowly swept the six feet of Hitler’s towering presence clad in a simple light brown uniform ending at the sun-god symbol on his cap. The midday sun was blinding, making him squint, unable to discern any of the Führer’s features except his dark, toothbrush moustache.
“Zeigt mir, lieber junge.” Hitler said, smiling thinly, staring at my father’s darting blue eyes like a hawk examines his talon-gripped prey.
My father rested the broom handle on his forearm and opened the sack with a light tremor of hand. Hitler pried it further open to inspect the bones. Without blinking, he held my father in his diabolical gaze for a few, excruciating seconds.
“Gut gemacht!” he praised, nodding at the others while tousling my father’s wheat-blonde hair. Raising his hand in salute, he marched off, hailed by the boys’ single shout of “Heil Hitler!”
My father was lucky. Two years before the start of World War II, he was smuggled out of Germany inside an overhead train compartment. Others were not as fortunate. They would soon be indoctrinated in a hateful ideology narrowly defined by race, blood, and soil, surrendering their individuality and humanity in service to the Third Reich and its self-proclaimed savior.
“The main plank in the National Socialist program is to abolish the liberalist concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil and bound together by the bond of its common blood.” — Adolf Hitler 1930s
Indoctrination is the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.
Initiation, on the other hand, signifies a transformation in which the initiate is ‘reborn’ into a new role through a rite of passage marking that transition. In traditional societies, these rites of passage were, and still are meant to initiate young boys into men and into their culture.
Besides helping boys safely navigate across the often bewildering time between puberty and adulthood and transform them into responsible and contributing members of society, initiation rites serve a deeper purpose. They introduce the initiate to the spiritual values of the community, the sacred myths and traditions of the tribe, the sanctioned customs in relationship — to women, elders, nature — and serve to instill a sense of the world as sacred.
It is not only the teaching of the group’s revered history which imbues the novice with a sense of the sacred, but also the series of ordeals he must go through.
“These ordeals constitute the religious experience of initiation — the encounter with the sacred,” writes Mircea Eliade in ‘Rites and Symbols of Initiation.’ They are symbolic of one’s death, followed by rebirth. Initiation rites symbolize the death of the novice — marking the end of childhood, ignorance, and the profane — as well as his rebirth — marking their return to the tribe transformed into another mode of being. Out of this symbolic reenactment, a new individual is born.
This cycle mirrors Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey, whose basic pattern is found in many myths around the world and which Campbell describes in his famous book ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Mythology, says Campbell, serves four functions:
1. To reconcile the individual to the nature and harsh realities of life — pain, suffering, decay, death.
2. Introduce the individual to the mysteries and creative power of the universe to elicit a sense of awe and wonder.
3. Share the traditions and customs upon which the individual’s particular social unit depends for its coherence, and,
4. Assist the individual through the stages in life — from birth through maturity through senility to death.
“Myth is not a story told for its own sake,” says Karen Armstrong in ‘A Short Story of Myth.’ “It shows us how we should behave. It puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action. It helps us cope with the problematic human predicament [and] to find [our] place in the world and [our] true orientation.
“In the pre-modern world, mythology was indispensable. It not only helped people make sense of their lives but also revealed regions of the human mind that would otherwise have remained inaccessible. It was an early form of psychology. The stories of gods and heroes descending into the underworld, threading through labyrinths and fighting with monsters, brought to light the mysterious working of the psyche, showing people how to cope with their interior crises.”
For thousands of years, humanity has relied on initiation rites and group-centric myths to ensure cohesion and survival. Tribalism was a winning strategy especially when competing groups lived in small, nomadic bands, and it continued serving its purpose when we settled in villages, towns, cities, and through the establishment of civilizations.
A shared story keeps people together.
However, when taken too far, or accepted uncritically, a collective mythology can be ruinous.
Under the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority, six million Jews perished.
‘The White Man’s Burden,’ famously coined by Rudyard Kipling, was used by European powers as justification to colonize and exploit the African continent.
During the early 1800s, ‘Manifest Destiny’ fueled the westward expansion of white settlers in America but marked the beginning of the end of the American Indian. Ironically, the settlers used the Indians’ monomyth of the Buffalo as a weapon for their annihilation. Realizing how central the buffalo was to Indian culture, its near-extermination precipitated its unraveling.
“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground.” — Crow Chief Plenty
On a personal level, the persistent American myth of ‘The Rugged Individual,’ while serving a purpose during the westward expansion and life on the frontier, now obstructs collective action, communitarianism, empathy, and compassion, and makes men ashamed and reluctant to seek help, leading to depression, addiction, suicide, and violence.
“The myth of the rugged individual is nothing more than a salve we put on our collective conscience to avoid the hard truth that a fair and just society needs to ensure the most vulnerable are given a little extra help along the way.” — Michael Ungar Ph.D., author of ‘Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success’.
Hand-in-hand with the myth of the rugged individual is ‘The American Dream,’ which, given the country’s growing inequality, was recently called “Baloney!” by Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.
So are we better off without myths?
I used to think so, once agreeing with human rights activist Chetan Bath who said we should dare refuse our identity myths.
“What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood,” Bhatt questioned. “One responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the oppression of women and girls, and accelerating inequalities.”
In a utopian, borderless world, that would be the ideal.
But we’re not yet ready (probably never will be) to join hands with the rest of humanity in a collective ‘Kumbaya’ moment. For that to happen, I’m afraid we’ll need an alien invasion or worldwide climactic collapse.
We are tribal by nature and human beings have always been mythmakers. We are meaning-seeking, imaginative storytellers. And given the current state of the world, we need myths more than ever.
Referring to the importance of myth, Joseph Campbell said, “these bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported man’s life, built civilizations, informed religions over millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage. And if you don’t know what the guide signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself.”
And that’s what happening now, especially with young boys in America.
About the only initiation rite they experience when approaching manhood is the ordeal of obtaining a driver’s license, or their passage from middle, to high school. Rooted in such meaningless, infertile ground, it’s no surprise they are killing themselves at increasing rates, venting their suffering through mass shootings, falling further behind at school, crowding our prisons, and twice as likely to be labeled “emotionally disturbed” than girls.
“If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.” — African proverb
“Nearly every problem we face in our civilization right now intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America,” says Dr. Michael Gurian, New York Times bestselling author of ‘Saving our Sons.’ And America, like no nation in history, is led by uninitiated men,” wrote Barry Spector in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City.’
How do we save our boys, then, and for that matter, the world?
“What’s needed,” says Steve Biddulph, author of ‘Raising Boys, “is something that will engage the spirit of a boy — pull him headlong into some creative effort or passion that gives his life wings. Many of the things that parents have nightmares about (risk taking, alcohol, drugs, and criminal activity) happen because we do not find channels for young men’s desire for glory and heroic roles. Boys look out at the larger society and see little to believe in or join with. They want to jump somewhere better and higher, but that place is nowhere in sight.”
When they do jump, it is often into the jaws of hate groups led by dark mentors who use the promise of belonging, power, and respect to lure boys into their sordid, dangerous world. My father came very close to such a world and would’ve been a Nazi had it not been for his timely escape.
“We cannot counter these bad myths [like the Aryan myth of racial superiority], with reason alone,” says Karen Armstrong, “because [reason] cannot deal with [our] deep-rooted, unexorcised fears, [prejudices], desires, and neuroses. We cannot completely recreate ourselves, cancel out the rational bias of our education, and return to a pre-modern sensibility. But we can acquire a more educated attitude to mythology. That is the role of an ethically and spiritually-informed mythology.”
Armstrong’s “ethically and spiritually-informed mythology” is the place Steve Biddulph wisely calls for: a new, or updated mythology delivered through meaningful initiation and rites of passage.
Humankind, I argue, needs an evolved story to move past the often dangerous confines of a particular tribe, nation, culture, and ideology. This is one of my main goals for ‘The Hero in You.’
My book, intended for boys about to reach puberty, addresses Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, and begins at the beginning of time. For if you don’t know where you come from, I tell boys, you won’t know where you’re going.
My aim is to situate and anchor the boy within a universal narrative, imbue him with a sense of awe and wonder, and stir his curiosity, imagination, and eagerness to play a constructive role in the unfolding story of the cosmos.
As a warning to boys of the dulling effect of wanting life to be an easy, unobstructed, and frictionless slide to the land of plenty, I present the tumultuous munificence and astounding creativity which gave birth to the Universe, stressing the need for resistance and opposition for the emergence of creative beauty and complexity.
“Our universe is like one ginormous, never-ending fireworks display. An enchanted story of beauty and creativity as well as extreme violence and destruction. That’s what makes it such a good story. A fairy tale without thunder and lightning, or without epic battles or fiery dragons, would not be a good story no matter how pretty the princess is. Life without struggle would be as boring as playing Monopoly or watching paint dry.” — Excerpt from Chapter 1.
Humanity’s kinship, on the atomic scale, with the elemental building blocks of all matter, highlights the singularity of human origins thus dissolving the imaginary barriers which create a false and pernicious ‘Us vs Them’ dichotomy:
“We are all made of stardust,” said Carl Sagan.
When I first learned this — that all the atoms in you and me are the same as in everyone else — it made me think of Lego blocks. Although they come in different colors, they’re basically the same. Say you were to build an awesome castle or cool spaceship. You wouldn’t use Legos of just one color, right? That’d be dull. Same goes for people. If I was in charge of populating planet Earth, it would be pretty boring if I only used one color to make humans. Or think of painting. Imagine you take a big, white canvas and paint it white. What do you get? The same bland, white canvas all over again. I’m thrilled Earth decided to use not only white, but also red, yellow, brown, and black to paint us humans.”
The origins and the evolutionary story of humankind are next presented to develop in the boy’s mind a sense of gratitude in the face of the improbability of our presence on Earth; a sense of humility when considering how recent humans emerged on the cosmic stage, and to dwell on the unique opportunity we have as the only species capable of reflecting the universe’s beauty. Our choice, I say, is either to continue spoiling the cosmic story, or contribute to its magnificent unfolding.
“…even though humans might be secondary characters in the story of the Universe, we are the only ones telling the story as far as we know. We’re the ones sending telescopes into space to take pictures of the dazzling spectacle and then watching them with mouths open and dropped jaws — sometimes with tears of wonder in our eyes — because we can’t get over how elegant and graceful everything is. Just like the magic mirror in Snow White, we’re like the mirrors upon which the Universe can finally reflect itself and see how beautiful it is. We are the Universe’s best ‘selfie.’ That’s awesome! Because it means we now have the opportunity and responsibility to make sure we continue making it a wonderful story. It’s like we’ve been given a beautiful garden to care for and must decide whether to be bees, or locusts.
Bees pollinate and make gardens flourish. Locusts are mean, rapacious, and ravenous grasshoppers who swarm into a garden, destroy it, then fly away to look for the next field to consume. They’re like those death-dealing aliens in science fiction stories who go from planet to planet laying waste to all life to feed their insatiable appetite.”
Our lives as hunter-gatherers during the 99% of the time modern humans have been present and thrived on Earth is narrated with two objectives: To introduce the Life Force of Grit, and to underscore how being out in nature helped us develop our creative imagination, social intelligence, and survival and adaptation skills. I do so as a warning to boys against under-nourishing these intrinsic traits and skills with a life spent mostly indoors, and with a steady diet of media and video games.
“We moved all the time and learned to read the land — the jungles, forests, mountains, oceans and streams — by being closely connected to Earth. We learned to adapt to different terrains and climates. We were fit, adventurous, rugged, healthy — eating different kinds of food which helped our brains grow larger to the point of sparking something no other animal appears to have: a creative imagination!
For 99% of modern human history, or, like forever, we kept living as hunter-gatherers, roaming the Earth with our 30 or 50 clan members, carrying very little, owning nothing but the animal skins which protected us from the elements, our stone tools, light hunting weapons, cooking vessels, and our inventiveness. We survived through scary droughts and bitter ice ages. We were, and still are, a gritty species. The Life Force of Grit is one we all have but few choose to use. Above all the other Life Forces, Grit is the one you never want to be without.”
Nature’s wisdom of balance and sustainability are used as a counterpoint to human greed and intemperance leading to the degradation of our environment and the genesis of armed conflict. The Life Force of Temperance is later explained.
I end the chapter with a contrast between humankind’s most ruinous mythologies and those written by some of history’s great sages.
The myth of ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ for example, is challenged in Chapter 3 with the story of Gandhi:
“During most of Gandhi’s life, India was not independent but ruled by a group of people who came from far away and who had the strange idea that because they were the most powerful empire in the world at the time, they could go around the world taking over other people’s lands. Another dumb human story.
These people were the British, who rode horses, spoke funny, liked to gossip, drank too much tea, played bridge and cricket, and wanted Gandhi and his people to bow down to a woman by the name of Victoria whom they called ‘Queen,’ and who waved to the crowds by stiffly rotating her hand as if she were turning the pages of a book suspended in mid-air. The British also insisted Victoria had blue blood which is something I’ve always found strange. I think someone should have just pricked her thumb with a needle to discover that her blood was red just like everyone else’s and be done with that nonsense.”
The misguided, all-too-common and harmful masculine stoicism under the myth of “rugged individualism” is turned on its head in Chapter 8, stressing the critical role played by a Mentor, a Wingman, and a Fellowship, in the fulfillment of any worthy cause.
I also prepare boys for the growing failings of “The American Dream” and resulting disappointments, disillusions, frustrations and anger.
“We’re failing in the most basic aspect of teaching kids about the human experience. Disappointment is more common than success, unhappiness is more common than happiness. It’s the first insight of every religion and robust philosophy.” — Dr. Leonard Sax, author of ‘Boys Adrift.’
“The world owes you nothing — zero, zip, nada,” I tell them. “Remember… you are lucky to be alive on this magical planet and must honor that gift by contributing to the unfolding story of the Universe.”
To inspire boys, even against the greatest odds, I use stories of past and present individuals who managed to turn lemons into lemonade. These examples are not intended simply as icons to admire but to guide boys into tapping into the vein of heroism within themselves.
Finally, to address Campbell’s second function of mythology, which is to reconcile the individual to the nature of life, e.g., suffering, decay, and death, I tell boys:
“Nothing lasts forever; neither a sand castle or an ice cream cone. Neither empires, fame, nor fortune. Many people suffer a lot because they don’t accept this rule. Much like a sandcastle is eventually washed away by the ocean, everything in the universe must vanish, including stars, trees, animals, including you and I, to make room for something new to emerge. Doesn’t matter. Like a sandcastle, everything is temporary. We build it, we tend to it, we enjoy it, and, when the time comes, we let it go.”
In many ways, I wrote ‘The Hero in You’ as a book for my younger self. Having never been properly initiated into generative manhood nor with a broader perspective of the world around me, I paid a heavy price. I also wrote it in the hopes of preventing young boys to be indoctrinated with hateful myths and ideologies just like my father could’ve been. I was careful, though, to strike a proper balance between a group’s need for a shared story to maintain cohesion and the need to maintain an open, but critical mind.
Avoiding the extremes of individualism and herd-like “groupthink,” it is my hope that ‘The Hero in You,’ will initiate boys into an evolved conception of manhood and inspire them to lead spirited lives of noble purpose.
Our world, I’m afraid, can’t wait any longer.