Rites-of-Passage and The Lord of the Rings

Our oldest son, Cyrus, turns 13 this year. This is a significant time in his life, to say the least. He is transitioning from boyhood to manhood, a process that will no doubt take years to complete. But 13 is right around the age when it all begins. It’s both an exciting and challenging time, and I think a lot of parents are intimidated by their child’s adolescence and coming-of-age. Count me among that group. I’ve never done this before; Cyrus is our first child. But he’s never done this before, either. I’ve been where he is. I’ve gone through adolescence. (Some might say that I’ve never left it!) Part of my job, as his father, is to lovingly walk with him through a confusing, but crucial, period of his life. My job is to walk him through rites-of-passage, to help my son become a man.

How does a father help his son become a man in a consumeristic, suburban culture like the one in which I live? There are no rites-of-passage in our culture. There is no hunt, no warrior training, no vision quest designed for 13 year old suburban American boys to become men. Quite the opposite, actually. It seems as though our culture would prefer for its men to stay in a perpetual state of adolescence, an eternal arrested development. American rites-of-passage are most often passive events, more likely to be a matter of vice (first experience with porn, first drink of alcohol, first sexual encounter) than virtue. Boys who are initiated through pornography, sex, and alcohol become the sort of men who elicit #metoo stories, who become abusive, or who withdraw into distraction and entertainment. But that’s not the kind of man that I want my son to become.

I want my son to become a man who respects and honors others, especially women. I want him to be a man who uses his strength to protect the ones he loves by fighting for them, not with them. I want him to be wise, courageous, and just. I want him to be self-controlled, faithful, hopeful, and loving. That’s the kind of man the world needs. We have enough small men – insecure narcissists who think strength is expressed through rage and courage is found at the bottom of a bottle. We have enough disengaged, disinterested, and distracted men. We have enough blustering, arrogant bombasts. We need men of character and integrity, not perfect men, mind you, but good men. I want my son to become a good man.

But he’s not going to get there without me. Not because I’m a good man, but simply because I’m his father. He needs me to show up for him, to be there for him all the time, and take the initiative with him. He needs to know that he can trust me, and that I will use my strength on his behalf. With all of that in mind, I’m focussing my attention this year on initiating Cyrus into manhood. Each month we’re going to tackle some project or go on some adventure together. I don’t know what all of those things are yet, but I have a lot of ideas. We’ll probably do a lot of things around the house – we need to finish the baseboards and trim around the windows and doors. We need to demo the kitchen to make way for new cabinets and countertops. (We’ll do the demo and let the pros handle the installation.) If anyone has some good ideas, I’m all ears.

But it all has to begin with love. He needs to know that I love him unconditionally, and that I delight in his presence. I love being with him. And so we started this year off this past weekend, when all of the girls were out of the house, by doing something he loves: We watched all 3 Lord of the Rings movies – extended editions, of course! Cyrus is a big Lord of the Rings fan. He read through the books last year, and has already seen all the movies. (Yes, I made him read the books before he could watch the movies.) He loves it, and he always has questions about the history of Middle-Earth for me. “Dad, who was Fingolfin? Can you tell me about Gondolin? Where did Celeborn come from?” It’s been too long since I read The Silmarillion! I can never answer his questions! But we had a blast! We ate pizza and chicken wings and Chipotle. We laid on the couch and soaked in the epic tale of Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, and the whole cast of Middle-Earth. It was wonderful!

Toward the end we had a good chat about virtue. I asked him if he had learned what the virtues were. Of course, he hadn’t. So we talked about temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice. We talked about faith, hope, and love, and how all of the virtues show up in the Lord of the Rings. We talked about temptation, and particularly the temptation to wield power that the ring represented. Why were so many tempted to take the ring? Why were some, like Gandalf, Galadriel, and Aragorn able to resist the temptation? So we talked about temperance (self-control) and wisdom. We talked about how Frodo had courage and Sam had hope. It was a wonderful conversation, and I hope that it will be something that stays with him for the rest of his life.

Rites-of-passage are hard. To be honest, I’m just kind of making this up as I go along. I hope that a year of adventures, power tools, and time with dad will help my son become a good man. I hope that it helps me become a good man! And I really hope that it’s just the very beginning of a long journey that we can travel together as men.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

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