Manhood, “Into the Wild” & the Hero’s Journey

Via elephant journal
on Oct 19, 2008
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Blog posted by Jayson Gaddis, LPC

This past Friday night my good friend Tripp Lanier and I led a discussion at the Boulder Integral Center on how the movie “Into The Wild” may represent one man’s unconscious attempt at self-initiation. This is the third formal dialogue between Tripp and I on the subject of the journey into manhood. Tripp is the hilarious host of the popular show The New Man Podcast. You can check out our past dialogues here. Or you can check our interview in What is Enlightenment Magazine.

The discussion centered  around the movie’s main character Christopher McCandless and how his tale is akin to The Hero’s Journey as discussed below. It was a lively, intimate discussion about a man’s search for meaning in his life and how he approaches relationship and purpose. Several young men in the audience could really identify with McCandless and his wanderlust. An older man could relate as well and even went to homestead in Alaska in the 70’s. Few of the men however, remember having such an unflinching, almost pathological desire to follow a mission or calling like McCandless.

Throughout my 20’s I was searching. I hitchhiked across Alaska and Central America for months. I lived and worked in the wilderness for over five years. Between jobs that never lasted more than 4 months, I traveled the States and Mexico to rock climb the coolest crags and mountain bike the best trails. I met amazing people and had beautiful, but short-lived affairs. I could really relate to McCandless’s wanderings but I lacked a clear goal. Mine was more ambiguous. Most of the time I didn’t even know what I was searching for. Although I was having a blast at times, the search was painful and because I couldn’t put my finger on what I wanted, I was quietly depressed and carried some existential weight on my shoulders.

The only thing I was clear on was that I couldn’t buy in to the American Dream. It made no sense to me. So, at the same time I was searching, I was running. The author of “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer in an interview was asked the question, “Was Christopher just simply running from his family and his pain?” Krakauer acknowledged this was part of it, but reminds us to think about the notion that McCandless was also “running to” something. He had a clear vision. We could say that most ambitious men are running from their past in some way or trying to prove that they are worthy of the love and respect they so desire.  Can it not also be true that for many of us men, we are equally running toward a deeper sense of meaning and fulfillment that so eludes us?

Ironically this is the work I do with adult men. I help men that are just collecting a paycheck go from a life with little meaning, to one that has the depth of meaning they so desire. I also help that ambitious searcher, to settle down and listen to the call within. In both cases, men realize that what they’ve been looking for all along is found within the space of their own heart and being.

The sad reality in the modern man’s journey is that he has little guidance from older men and little support from the community. Not only is there no defining moment where we can say “I’m now a man,” but there is no rite-of-passage to guide us there.

How much does McCandless’s character relate to some part of you now or when you where his age? What part of his journey represents a healthy male rite-of-passage? What part is unhealthy? How can we learn from his vision and his mistakes?

A few important points about this ongoing dialogue.
1. In this culture men have no formal initiation practice where a young boy becomes a man.
2. Men are unconsciously initiating each other or themselves such as McCandles in Into the Wild.
3. Because of the absence of these essential Initiations, a large percentage of adult men in our culture are developmentally much younger than their current age. Look at the leadership and behavior of many men in positions of power.
4. There are few elders willing to provide an conscious initiatory experience for our young men.
5. I have come to realize that our co-opted attempts to address this issue such as vision quests, the military, sports teams, do not fully meet the desired outcome.

Let me explain…
Joseph Campbell, a classic mythologist who did a great series with Bill Moyers on the Power of Myth, outlines what he calls the Hero’s Journey. George Lucas drew from this model when he made the Star Wars epic. It can also be teased out of movies such as The Lion King or The Matrix.

The Hero’s Journey has three basic stages:  1. Separation, 2. Initiation and 3. Return. Campbell asserts that all cultures across time have one thing in common—a ritual marking some kind of passage into another life phase. This ritual asserts that in order to successfully move on to the next developmental stage in our life, we have to go through a rite-of-passage.

Most traditional cultures have specific rites wherein a boy becomes a man. In going through this rite, a boy receives some kind of training or transmission from the elders of the community about how to be a man in their village or tribe. Not only is the elder’s role pivotal, the separation from the mother is poignant and a necessary moment in a boy’s life. He leaves the safety of the womb of the protective mother and village and must leave to be tested by the wilderness and the men in the community. As long as humans have been around, boys have been cast into such rituals to become a man. How does this all fit into the modern situation? Quite simply, in our culture no such ritual exists.

If it is true that initiation is a necessary step along a man’s journey, what happens if he does not receive an initiation? If it is also true that in this culture there is no formal initiation into manhood, how is he supposed to know that he is a man?  Is it when he first gets drunk? Leaves for college? Loses his virginity? Gets his first job? Gets in a fight and wins? We could go on guessing, and in our modern situation I doubt we would find some moment, some event that helped this boy understand that he was now a man. Whereas in other cultures, it is obvious, known and acknowledged.

Is it possible then, that men in western culture are unconsciously seeking out initiatory experiences that come from deep within their psyche, and that they actively engage in risky behaviors to meet this end? Is it possible that men are longing to be initiated, to be held, pushed, challenged into an ordeal that would give them meaning, understanding, validation of themselves, their community and their world? Is it possible that the role of the military, gangs, athletic teams and the collegiate fraternity has become initiate boys into men through being pushed, challenged, abused and hazed? How can we address this issue and use the story of Christopher McCandless to initiate men consciously into adulthood, so that they can be the fathers and leaders that can make a real difference in our world?

Jayson Gaddis, LPC


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6 Responses to “Manhood, “Into the Wild” & the Hero’s Journey”

  1. Pete says:

    Congratulations on a terrific posting! Keep on doing what you do, you are an inspiration to many!

  2. Matt Leiphart says:

    I’m pushing 40, and am a father. Ask me when I passed the test of manhood, complete with the responsibilities it entails, and I couldn’t tell you. Yet I’ve done the fraternity initiation thing, traveled the country in a van for a few months, lived independently before marriage, and have paid my own bills since college.

    Is the key to find different ways to initiate, or provide appropriate meaning to things we do now? Field and Stream a few months ago had an article about a boys’ first kill, and what it meant to be shared by both father and son. With an elder present and guiding the mission, could that provide an improved experience over peers initiating peers?

  3. Great read,

    This got me thinking. I am totally comfortable “In the wild” having take many adventures and self imposed “rites of passage” in nature from hunting trips, to commercial fishing, to living in the woods.

    Where I have not experienced initiation, and where I am struggling most in life currently, is in the professional world.

    I feel alien in the constructed reality of business, finance, and the marketplace, yet i realize it is essential to my existence in society.

    I suppose there are rites and initiations in this world, but I am getting a late start at it and am finding it difficult to negotiate.

    My connection to the natural world will undoubtedly serve me well when I learn to integrate the adult responsibilities of business money management etc.

    How do I get there?


  4. Nate says:

    Great post and and thrilling evening!

    Jayson and Trip teamed up like Pippen and Jordan. Personally they brought the balancing act of “running from” and “moving towards” so strikingly to my awareness.

    Many Thanks…

  5. […] week and I have so many questions for him. I want to ask him how his story is different from “Into the Wild” and whether he considers his quest a rite-of-passage and what younger folks (specifically […]

  6. Araz says:

    Jayson really like your post. How did you learn about Campbell's work? I haven't met a lot of focus working in human development that refer to Campbell.