I’ve spent my life living, working, and growing with other men. I’m the oldest of five boys and was raised by a career Paratrooper. Push-ups, rope climbs and sit ups were how we were punished, and boxing was how us boys grew up settling our differences. (Sometimes with gloves, sometimes without…) Later I went into the Marines and despite ASVAB scores that qualified me for every job in the military I chose the Infantry. As a young team leader and squad leader I learned early on at an instinctive level in that dog-eat-dog world that respect was only gained through “strength, courage, mastery and honor”, what Jack Donovan later defined as the “Tactical Virtues” in his book “The Way of Men”. While respect is an obviously important trait when we are talking about leading other men, it’s just as important for a subordinate leader to foster the respect of his superiors as well. If both the superior and the subordinate leaders respect each other because they both embody the Tactical Virtues then their team will be a strong one. The best command relationships are based on respect both up and down the chain of command, and this in turn benefits the men in the field doing the heavy lifting.
As I moved out of that chapter of my life I became a tradesman, working everyday for my education as an apprentice, which was provided by older and more experienced men sharing their knowledge and wisdom on the job – but only if they thought I was worth the effort. The amount of knowledge they were willing to share was usually proportional to the amount of effort and reliability I displayed as an apprentice, and later when I had apprentices of my own I only invested time and energy into the ones I felt were worth it. That’s the thing about an apprenticeship, the “teacher” isn’t under any obligation to teach you a single thing. You have to prove yourself to be worth the effort first before any training even starts, and if you should prove yourself to be a waste of their time you’ll just stay a laborer. That’s one problem with our modern world, people think paying for something equates to earning it. A good apprentice will be wanted by the best crews, ensuring the best opportunities to learn with them on the best jobs and building a great foundation towards their own mastery, and he’ll have earned it every step of the way (and gotten paid for it too..). This method of getting an education is far different from the main stream norm of going to college with the expectation of a professor “teaching you” just because you showed up to class.
So why do I bring all this up? Only to show that I’ve had a pretty good background experiencing masculinity yet at the same time not fully understanding what I was experiencing. Majority of my life has been spent in groups with other men, doing hard and uncomfortable work while being completely separated from women. Despite what society wants us to think, there are very stark differences in the chemistry of a group depending on whether women are present or not. Anybody who tries to tell you different should at first be a man, since it would be impossible for a woman to know what it’s like not to be around women just like it is impossible for me to understand what childbirth is like. Women can never be a part of an all male space because their very presence negates the status of “all male.” For instance, as much as I enjoy time “with the guys” I also enjoy a different, equally special time “with my woman”. I personally am happiest when I choose both, as well as time by myself, in their proper proportions. There are many examples of these sorts of differences between men and women, it’s part of the beauty and symmetry of life. To try to “equalize” these differences would be like trying to delete colors from nature, which would only serve to reduce it’s beauty instead of enhance it.
There’s always been a certain kind of mystery and magic that even though I know I was experiencing something, I never could fully explain when part of a solid group of men. There’s a difference between just a group of men, and a solid group of men. It’s the cohesive bond created amongst men as they endure and face challenges and hardship together; those of you who have experienced this will without a doubt know what I mean. There’s a mutual respect that emerges between men, despite their rank or position in a group, when they are shoulder to shoulder and working towards the same goals while enduring the same hardships. That’s how a subordinate man proves he is valuable to the more senior men, and while they may not fully respect him for his mastery, yet, they do respect him for his courage, strength, and honor. That sort of respect is hard for people to understand if they’ve never experienced it, and as far as I can tell many haven’t. British Anthropologist Victor Turner, who spent his life studying rituals and initiation has defined this cohesive state as communitas, a Latin word referring to an “unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community.” Although while in this state Men will not be equal in station, there will still be an equality of respect amongst them.
As I have started conducting my own training, I have seen these bonds being created as my students faced their fears, overcame obstacles, and ultimately left as more competent and confident men. I knew when I started putting on classes that the experience was just as important as the content of the class itself, if not more so. Quite a few students have later described the experience akin to “being on the surface of the moon”. While this is in part due to the difference in terrain compared to where they live, I also think it is partly due to the psychological feeling of being separated from their normal lives. It’s one thing to teach a man a technical skill, like how to properly use a ferro rod, but it’s quite another to do it while helping him forge his character into something stronger, if only by a small margin, then he showed up with. In this way I have had a great opportunity to further see communitas grow during classes as the men show up to learn skills, but often end up experiencing and learning a great deal more about themselves and what they are, or aren’t, capable of.
“No man is more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.”Seneca
I think this is why my classes differ from some others. I could easily teach the technical skills that I normally teach in class in a classroom or at a city park. What I can’t do is take men into a place where their egos, false self-images, and distractions fade away so that they can truly be honest with themselves and learn lessons that are nearly impossible to learn any other way. Often these lessons are deeply personal as students are put into situations where they have to face individual fears and challenges while either reinforcing, or deconstructing, their own narratives about their skills and abilities. This process is critical for each student if they are to leave better than they arrived and if you aren’t attending training with the goal of growing and improving you are just a tourist recreating.
In a philosophical sense, this place where ego’s fade as fears are faced is the Void. As Ken Curry defines it:
“The Void is actually designed to be a strong and valuable companion through your life. We have two choices as we move through life; embrace or avoid the Void. My challenge is for you to embrace the Void throughout your lifetime.
Purposefully embracing your Void experiences in life will bring you more depth, maturity and substance than anything else you will ever encounter.
The opposite is true as well, avoiding your Void experiences will result in shallowness, addiction, immaturity, and stagnation.”Ken Curry, “Embracing the Void”
The Void is a personal and spiritual place where all your uncertainty, emptiness, limitations, and discomfort lie. It’s where hypothetical “What if?” fears of death, injury, embarrassment, rejection or failure originate. This is not the same as the real, survival “fight or flight” fear like that experienced when you are facing a bear or are in a gun fight. Despite where the fear comes from though, both types of fears need to be faced in order to accomplish what needs to be done. Metaphorically, the Void is the dark and cold woods outside the safe and comfortable perimeter, full of the things that scare everyone inside. To face this Void is to purposefully and intentionally face fear, discomfort, and potential destruction themselves in all their different forms. Facing the Void is how we grow as Men, and it’s usually the most difficult things that will also help us grow the most. Even if we fail, we will never be the same as we were prior to facing it.
Facing the Void is usually very uncomfortable, but as the old Infantry adage says, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable…”. This discomfort is of course caused by our fears, but also our doubts. Doubts caused by a lack of confidence in our ability to successfully face the challenge we are facing, but also a lack of information or understanding about how to do it. I’m sure we can all think of a time in our lives when we’ve had to face a Void without knowing how it will end up. Every girl we asked out, job we interviewed for, proposal we made, or risk we took is an example of this. I intentionally do this to my students by only giving them a gear list, but very little information about what, how and when we will be doing things in class. As humans, we want to satisfy the rational part of our brains with order, and as men it is in our nature to create order from chaos. While being orderly seems to be readily understood by most people, since it is their default state, I’m more interested in making the students operate in a state of chaos. If you can’t handle chaos, you can’t create order after all. John Keats, 19th century poet, defined this ability to operate without certainty as “negative capability“.
“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”John Keats
Everyone knows what is meant by the term “Fog of War”, and “Negative Capability” is very similar. I like the term better though since it is a little more useful in circumstances that don’t pertain to combat. While it may be surprising to some, I have had a number of students and potential students who had great difficulty getting used to having to operate with Negative Capability. All of these students were well educated professionals with PHD’s, or were career military Officers. No doubt these men were highly intelligent, motivated and disciplined. I suspect that by virtue of their careers they had become accustomed to operating with as much information as possible in high stress environments, and being sent into a situation with so many unknown variables made them very uncomfortable. By facing the Void we can learn to operate with Negative Capability, enhancing our resourcefulness and reinforcing our resilience, forcing us to focus on process instead of outcome.
To leave the comfort and security of home and move into the Void to face fear is the quintessential process of developing masculine confidence as a boy moves into being a man. When this process is done intentionally, and guided with compassion from more experienced men, or even just ourselves, it is called initiation. Traditionally, Initiation is the process where a boy is taken from his current order, for instance the comfort of home and mother, and forced through chaos, discomfort and fear in order to elicit a certain amount of growth and maturity as he faces his fears in the Void. This isn’t some abusive cult-like ritual, but a process that is structured to help him develop and grow into a stronger man. No doubt when people hear the word initiation, they think of all sorts of ideas that Hollywood and corporations have pushed over the years. There are a lot of faux-initiations, things that give a sense of belonging yet fail to make the boy into a man. Getting jumped into a gang, being hazed during a college frat party, getting drunk or “scoring” with a girl are all examples of faux-initiations since they don’t elicit any actual growth towards masculinity, towards strength, courage, mastery, and honor, but just keep the boy caught in the perpetual state between a boy and a man, or as I think of it a man-boy. These faux-initiations give way to faux-masculinity, which if left uncorrected has very real consequences for the man-boy as he grows older and is an actual form of “toxic masculinity”, since it is toxic to both himself, and later if he should have a family, to them as well.
Initiation isn’t only restricted to “boys” though, it really has nothing to do with age but rather pruning and growth as we start handling our lives like men, facing challenges, instead of boys running back to soothers like mommy, alcohol, video games or porn. As men it is a process we will continually face until we die. As men we will never be fully “initiated” in our lives, and if we seek to continue to grow we instead will continually have to go through many different initiations, since no single initiation can fully cover all the aspects and challenges we will face in life. We have to continue growing into our masculinity, learning and developing along the way.
“Initiation is the only way to build a masculine soul.”Ken Curry
In other words, what you’ve done in the past isn’t nearly as important as what you are doing now. To sit back and say you’re good to go “because I did _______ back in the day…” is the lazy route and the path to stagnation. I get it, I’m not getting any younger either, but your people need a leader now, and simply handing them a history lesson on your achievements isn’t how to inspire them. For instance, my children weren’t alive while I was doing some of the most important things I’ve done in my life, and while I could regale them with tales of my exploits (and sometimes I do..) I would rather show them everyday who their father is than tell them about who he was. For example, just this morning (5/17/23) I was up at 5 AM (which isn’t that early..) and I very badly wanted to keep sleeping. I just finished a particularly challenging Fieldcraft Course on Monday, and I’ve been running my butt off at work since. I’ve also been fasting from supper until 1 PM the next day, everyday (except at class) for the past few weeks. I can feel myself being worn down a bit, but the thought that shot my eyeballs open as I shut off my alarm is that I owe it to my family to lead by example! Improving my health and setting a good example for my family is well worth the sacrifice of getting out of a comfortable bed. If you love them and are grateful for them you owe it to them to be healthy and capable so that you can take care of them.
I’ve done a lot of training in the past where I was wet, cold and tired for no conceivable reason other than being miserable. I don’t mind being wet, cold and miserable if there is a purpose, but to do it for the sake of misery, and then to call it training is just lazy and dishonest. Sometimes, this type of suffering is necessary to see who will quit, like during a selection, but any other time I think it’s a waste. This kind of reminds me of the whole “take a cold shower so that you can do something challenging every day” crowd. If your resilience is so weak that all it takes is a cold shower to build it up you have got some serious work to do. (I do understand that there are physiological reasons for a cold shower as well, but I’m only trying to address the psychological side of the cold shower.) Often, I think it’s done with good intentions, with the thought process being something like “miserable training = good training”. Where this idea falls short is that there needs to be a purpose to it. The training itself should have a purpose worthy of the sacrifices needed to attain it. Good and strong men will sacrifice everything if they believe the sacrifice is worthy. But this isn’t a mindset you are just going to automatically adopt when a crisis or situation arises. Sacrifice has to be a part of your experience and life if you expect yourself to be able to perform when needed. The willingness to face adversity for the benefit of those that you care about must be ingrained into your very being as a man. It’s been said that “adversity introduces a man to himself” and I think that is as true a statement as any. But just throwing a man into a tough situation isn’t always enough. I’ve seen this while being trained, and while it does teach a man to endure and cope, it doesn’t always build him up. Visit any Infantry barracks on the weekend and you’ll find plenty of examples of half-grown, drunken, man-boys (admittedly, this is an example of the pot calling the kettle black..) who know very well how to endure and cope yet have poor character.
So what does it look like when you train, whether it is something you do personally like exercise or skill development, or some event you attend? Do you come away feeling like a stronger, more confident man, or just like you learned some new ways to skin a cat? How capable would you be of actually “skinning the cat”? How “initiated” do you feel, and what areas in your life could you be more initiated into? While my blog and training classes have always focused on Fieldcraft skills and equipment, there is a side to living a rugged, unsupported life that requires solid, confident masculinity, and if you don’t possess that you will never be able to function in a dangerous field environment, working with, and if necessary leading, other men. It doesn’t matter how many classes you attend, what gear you research and buy or what friends you make. At the end of the day your character, the very essence that is You, is weak and will be the failure point of any expedition you try to make. Should you find yourself doubting your abilities it would be wise to honestly evaluate yourself, just as I do myself, and see where you can make improvements. Find ways to challenge yourself (or better yet do it with your buddies) to face the Voids you find. If you’ve ever read Rudyard Kipling’s “If” and at the end wondered “How?”, I think the concept of initiation, with it’s facing of fear and the unknown, and it’s continual nature, are a step in the right direction for an answer.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, a continual source of inspiration.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”Marcus Aurelius
6 thoughts on “Opinion: Thoughts on Initiation and the Void, and their roles in Training and Masculinity”
Thank you for writing this. I needed to hear all of it.
“adversity introduces a man to himself”
That’s a motto worth keeping.
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You’re welcome, thanks for reading!
I can only relate this to my own experiences and all of it rings true, you hit the nail on the head. From the military, to prison, to construction sites and more recently training classes where there was true adversity and challenges, each held meaning in learning about myself. There is something innate and ancient in being pushed past what one thinks are their limits, and I think harnessing that growth is key. Thank you for putting into words what many need to hear.
No man is free who is not master of himself. -Marcus Aurelius
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Thanks brother, I’d love to hear your stories!
The Clay Hayes quote I’ve heard you mention ties in here too. “Every man should experience true hunger once in his lifetime”. It probably applies to being uncomfortable as well. Makes a guy realize, that it can always be worse!
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So true, it can ALWAYS be worse!