Photograph by Richard Quinn
Stand up, line up and shut up: Marin's Mark Schillinger introduces the radical notion that young men are already just fine as they are.
First came the women's movement, followed by the men's movement, the first seeking to redress generations of inequality and oppression, the second working to salve the emotional wounds and role confusions caused by decades of newly empowered women telling jokes about how men are just the worthless piece of skin at the end of a penis.
While no one was looking, the men's movement and the women's movement had a baby (lots of them, actually), and that exuberant burst of tentative, testosterone-powered hollering and soulful wailing you hear is the sound of that offspring taking its first complicated steps away from the nest and out into the world. Call it the boys' movement (there's a girls' movement too, but that's another story), and you'd better cover your ears, because the freshly unleashed howl that all those young men are making—the whoops and hollers of socially orphaned boys morphing uneasily and unstoppably into manhood—is about to get much, much louder.
"For years, young men have been in a state of crisis because their needs have not been met, and they have not been properly instructed in how to become young men," says Dr. Mark Schillinger, a San Rafael chiropractic physician and the founder of the Young Men's Ultimate Weekend, a rapidly expanding rites-of-passage program designed to encourage mentorship of teens and to initiate young men into adulthood with a sense of integrity, respect, energy and community involvement.
"We've tried and failed," explains Schillinger, "to control young men's impulses and force them to be good, well-behaved boys, and when they've acted out, we've tried to control that behavior with psychological procedures that don't always work, like talk therapy. If we are going to be effective in getting our young men to be respectable and responsible adults, to be responsible for their own youthful energies, then we have to start from a position of respecting them, recognizing that there is nothing wrong with them, that they are already free and enlightened, that being male is not a liability, that testosterone is not a disease."
The first Young Men's Ultimate Weekend (www.ymuw.org) was held in Marin County in 2000, and now Schillinger oversees several similar weekends all over the state (the next weekend takes place in Fairfax the weekend of Oct. 19–21). According to Schillinger, YMUW is visible evidence of a powerful national trend in which boys, after years of societal neglect, are benefiting from an increased focus on their healthy transition into manhood. In August, a provocative cover story in Time magazine made the case that generations of boys have suffered from a kind of national disregard, a situation that, according to Time, is now finally being corrected.
"It is men's obligation to initiate young men, to pass down to them their role in society, which is to make the world safe and secure—that's the primary role of the male, and it has been for thousands of years," Schillinger says. "Initiating young men is not just some nice thing to do; we're saying it's a necessary thing to do. When a community is safe and secure, when the world is safe and secure, then all men and all women are free to creatively express who they are.
"This is not coming from some chauvinistic perspective. Not even close! We tell these boys that men and women are absolutely equal, but we express ourselves in very different ways, and that's OK. We are saying that it's the job of the men to make the world safe and it's the job of the older men, the mentors, to initiate the young men to do that in their place when they are gone."
Impressed by a similar initiation event he witnessed in Canada in the late 1990s, Schillinger, a single parent of two grown children, organized the original 2000 YMUW in part so that his own son would have the opportunity to express his fears and concerns about becoming a man, to witness examples of older men expressing their emotions and to learn basic leadership skills he would need for responsible male adulthood. At that first weekend, Schillinger and a core group of mentors—all YMUW mentors must now undergo a thorough training process—developed what Schillinger calls the R.I.G.H.T. Way. R.I.G.H.T (and, yes, that's been trademarked) stands for "Respect, Intelligence, Gallantry, Humor and True."
While some assume that the YMUW is aimed at "at-risk" boys, low-income or otherwise "troubled" kids who've been referred by the authorities, Schillinger says that the average attendee of the weekend—and there have been thousands over the last seven years—is your average young man, age 13–20. Many of them come from stable families with modest to high incomes.
"The thing is, in our society, every young man needs to be initiated into adulthood, not just the boys whose parents think they have problems. All children are at risk, and every boy needs men who are not his parents to organize an initiation. These kids are bursting with energy they are told to suppress, stewing in a bath of testosterone they don't know how to handle, bursting with feeling and emotions that are too big for them and certainly too big for their parents. I've traveled all around the world. I've watched how other cultures initiate their young men, and the parents are never around when that initiation thing is going down. It is done by the wider community in which the young man lives."
With the YMUW, boys are initiated by experienced older males who know what they are going through and who are trained and prepared to give those boys a weekend crammed with the one thing they most crave: the unconditional respect of adults, especially elder males.
The heart of the YMUW is the initiation ritual itself, a "ceremony of grieving," which takes place at a bonfire near midnight on the second night. The initiation has come to be known as the Hundred Man Ceremony, because of the presence of a large number of men from the surrounding community. The initiation allows each boy to individually express everything he is angry, sad or unhappy about, and to grieve loudly and openly, with as much intensity as necessary, for the losses and sorrows he has known and to mourn the end of his childhood.
"It's all very Lord of the Rings–ish," Schillinger laughs, "but I can't tell you how powerful it is to watch these young men be welcomed into manhood by this ring of men, to watch boys stepping up to adulthood and changing into responsible, respectful men right before our eyes."
Perhaps the most significant part of the weekend occurs the next day, when Schillinger meets with the attendees' parents, charging them to try to see their sons with new eyes.
Says Schillinger, "I always tell them, the mothers and fathers who've come to pick up their kids, 'Your sons have just gone through a life-changing experience. This wasn't easy. Can you look past the boys they've been and respect them for the men they are? They are only 20 or 30 years younger than you, and in a 15-billion-year-old universe, that ain't very much. Can you stop making your kid your therapist, can you stop taking out your life frustrations on them, can you model what is right for you all the time? Can you inspire them to live the right life?'
"Young men want to make their communities and their families and their world safe," he continues. "They have been suffering because society, in general, has come to look down on young men, viewing them as potentially dangerous, as lazy, as stupid. So why are we so surprised when our sons start acting that way?"
Schillinger, who sees YMUW as the blueprint for a kind of alternative Boy Scouts that he predicts will be developed over the next decade, and who plans to launch a Young Women's Ultimate Weekend in 2008, believes that these structured initiations are just one more sign that the days in which boys were left to fend for themselves, or to find their own initiation though gangs, drugs or violence, are coming to an end. It's up to the adults, he says, to force themselves to see the man in the boy, and to make a conscious effort to give the young men of their communities the benefit of their own experiences.
"Young men don't need to be fixed," he says. "They need to be told that they are already fixed, that they are fine, that there is nothing wrong with them. Young men today need to feel that they are worthy of respect—because they are."
To learn more about the upcoming Young Men's Ultimate Weekend, to inquire about volunteering, or to ask about joining the ritual as one of the 'hundred men,' visit www.ymuw.org or call 800.719.9302.