The Importance of Cultivating Vulnerability in Manhood

Chase Replogle
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Each year, in the early spring on a remote island in the Vanuatu Archipelago, a group of young men participate in a rite of passage known as land diving. Villagers gather to construct a makeshift wooden tower, often more than 100 feet tall. The young men take turns climbing the tower, tying a single vine to each of their feet, and then diving headfirst from its peak. In this ancient form of bungee jumping, men prove their courage by attempting to fall as close to the ground as possible before being abruptly caught by their jungle tethers.

Snapped vines often leave men with fractured bones and, on occasion, some even die. But each year, more men volunteer for the honor of hurling themselves toward the ground from those towers. It’s easy to shake your head at such desperate attempts to prove manhood, but the truth is, I’ve done some pretty stupid things to try and prove mine and usually to impress girls who never seemed all that impressed.

Tests of Manhood

A few weeks before getting married, while serving as counselors at our church’s youth camp, I took on our local university’s star linebacker in a gladiatorial competition in which we attempted to knock each other off of spinning barrels with padded jousting sticks. It was all for cabin points, at least that’s what we said. It didn’t last long. I got hit harder than I ever have and landed harder still on the ground below. I don’t think my fiancée was impressed when two weeks later I was still complaining of pain in my chest or when we found out I had two broken ribs and was instructed not to lift any luggage on our honeymoon. That wasn’t how it played out in my head. I bet you have stories of your own.

Cultures of the world are filled with these feats of bravery by which men have long sought to prove themselves and mark their transition into adulthood. Often these tests form rites of passage by which young boys are welcomed into the community as men. In these cultures, maturity is awarded through the passing of a test, usually by means of pain, endurance, and self-determination. If you visit Vanuatu today, you can still witness young men jumping from those wooden towers. It has mostly become a tourist trap, with money replacing honor, but the questions those ancient men sought to answer still remain and I’m guessing after the crowds have left, the modern performers still think about it and compete for it too.

It’s interesting that no comparable rite of passage is recorded among the ancient Israelites. Circumcision marked males as participants in the community of God’s people, but circumcision was usually carried out just a few days after birth. The Bible doesn’t record any ceremony or test by which manhood was proven.

Many modern Jews mark a boy’s coming of age through the Bar Mitzvah ceremony. Unlike the feats of pain-filled endurance common in other cultures, a Bar Mitzvah records the passing of moral responsibility from a father to his son. At age thirteen, a Jewish boy becomes responsible for his own moral conduct. Up until that age, responsibility had been his father’s.

“Maturity always hurts. Growth requires pain.”

Bar Mitzvah literally means “son of the commandment.” A Jewish boy becomes responsible – a son – to the law. Traditionally, a boy marks that occasion by reading from the Torah and by a prayer in which his father acknowledges the passing of responsibility from himself to his son. “Blessed be He who has released me from being punishable for this boy,” the father prays. Now publicly acknowledged as a full male participant in the community, the boy takes responsibility for his own sins. He does not prove himself a man; instead, he takes on the moral work of being one.

Reluctant Responsibility

That transition into manhood is one of potential. It is not a badge he displays but a task to which he submits himself. His transition into manhood is one of accountability and submission to God. He takes on the work of self-awareness and personal attentiveness.

Why is it that as men we are often reluctant to take on that responsibility? Why is it we prefer an external test of courage to the internal work of self-awareness? I know many men who would prefer to leap from towers than risk the vulnerability of introspection and honesty. As the novelist Flannery O’Connor put it, “It’s easier to bleed than sweat.”

We want desperately to be recognized as men, but we are slow and often unwilling to take on the hard work of knowing our own hearts and bearing the responsibility of our own wayward interests. There is always something to blame. Always an excuse. Always a dismissive wisecrack. We are experts at what is wrong with the world and amateurs at what is wrong with ourselves.

Spiritual maturity is not a natural masculine instinct. There is no instinct for self-awareness. There is no instinct for facing our sins or for bearing moral responsibility either. As an adolescent growing into adulthood, you may wake up to discover that first hair on your upper lip, but you never wake up to discover wisdom grown overnight.  

Instead, maturity takes time and the growing pains of failure, correction, repentance, and transformed desire. Maturity always hurts. Growth requires pain. Oswald Chambers thus concluded, “The entrance into the kingdom of God is through the sharp, sudden pains of repentance.” And Chambers pointed out past generations of men “used to pray for ‘the gift of tears’” to find it.

For Further Reading:

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