The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Rites of passage

"I think few men, or women, really, are across the board alpha. Most of us are situationally alpha at most."

This actually touches on what I believe, and am verifying through interviews (and those interviews have been fascinating!) is that a HEALTHY person can play either Alpha or Beta, depending on the situation. But the term in general applies depending on the percentage of time that the person is in one or the other role. A "pure Alpha" who is healthy can still play Beta--for instance in a military or other hierarchical situation, it is necessary to follow for the good of all. In other situations, it is necessary for someone to lead, and a "pure Beta" who is healthy could still take that position if, for instance, they have specialized knowledge that makes them the natural person to decide.

From this perspective, an unhealthy version of either is "stuck" in either being "in charge" or pathologically avoiding leadership positions. Bad. Alphas are no more intrinsically unethical than Betas--both will lie or cheat to achieve their aims. It might be said that Alphas are more likely to force their aims through intimidation, Betas through undermining and back-stabbing.

Every Alpha I've talked to so far has zero problem being a follower--if the leader is a real leader. So that would be my sense of a healthy human being--able to switch back and forth depending on the situation. But in some senses a Beta is a "dialed down" Alpha, and I feel like more useful information on Maleness is revealed by studying the latter than the former.

Clearly, these definitions are very flexible, but everyone understands them (kinda roughly, perhaps) so they are useful, and that's what I want--a useful perspective. I've noticed that many Betas seem to be retreat from leadership or conflict because of specific pain lessons gained along the course of their lives. And Alphas are what they are at least partially because of positive feedback from family or environment. I'd bet older brothers are disproportionately Alphas, just due to birth order.

Another thing I've seen is that women who have been hurt in one relationship by a dominant Alpha will often seek Betas for their partners thereafter. Makes sense to me, but we have to factor that in when we solicit opinions. And I'm delighted to hear the comments about Alpha females finding Beta males attractive. Good.

Can't forget a comment I got from an Alpha female of my acquaintance. She basically said: "what I'd really want is a man who would stay home, do the cooking and the cleaning, and then when I come home he'd throw me on the bed and power-#$%$ me."

I had to shake my head. I sincerely doubted she would ever find such a thing. Make sweet gentle love to her, perhaps. But she wants a man who is a Beta in the kitchen and an Alpha in bed. That is pretty freaking unlikely, and she never found it. She is, on the other hand, currently involved in a gay relationship. Maybe she managed to find what she was looking for, after all. Have to ask her one day.


Clearly, the ability to un-program the negative lessons is critical to being a healthy human being, not just male or female. That has to be addressed, there is no question. I've simply met too many men who aren't sure what being a man is, or if that's what they are. And I blame it on the lack of strong role models and a lack of rites of passage. On THIS side you're a boy. On THAT side you are an adult, and may marry, have children, and sit in the council of men.

Men, traditionally, are taught to repress their emotions. When you're hunting a tiger, no one cares how you feel. Only what you will or won't DO when the tiger charges. Scott Sonnon said that he's traveled the world seeking martial knowledge, hoping to find that levitating master of legend. And all he has ever found (and the man has moved in extremely elevated circles) is earnest, scared young men doing the best they can. We have the fear, but are discouraged from showing it. Or loneliness, or doubt. This, I think, is one of the reasons women are getting ahead of men in terms of understanding themselves and evolving--they actually share how they feel and allow their friends to touch their hearts.

Back in the 70's I remember some "men's movement" stuff that tried to take the iconography or external aspects of male behavior in traditional cultures, like drumming circles. Or providing "rites of passage" for young men. There is a problem here--unless these things are tied into actual performance or privilege, it rings a bit hollow. If we, as men, drum in a circle to synchronize our breathing and movement before we go on a hunt, that makes sense. If we do it before we go back to our cars and drive in a dozen different directions..? Not so much.

If I take a group of boys out into the woods and have them perform rituals, and on the other side of those fearful doings they can court a woman, or join the hunt, or build a house...great. But if the kids drive to the camp in their jeeps, they are already having sex, and they don't have to get jobs or apartments until they are 25...not so much. There's no "there" there. Nothing real. I think this is one of the reasons why so many guys are saying that they became men while actually DOING SOMETHING: building a house with their uncle. Training in the military for service. Working in a church with the deacons. Earning a black belt. Helping their wife give birth (!). Teaching in the inner city. Helping Mom and Dad run a business. Nursing ill siblings.

Doing something. Actually contributing to the flow of life, participating in their own maturation, learning who they really are, dealing with fear and doubt. Under stress, who you really are comes out, and under stress our fears and considerations just stop mattering so much. The voices in your head begin to quiet. And what often emerges is something you've never met.

Frankly, a lot of the "Betas" I've met have been crippled by such considerations. That isn't what they were born to be. Of course, we need more followers than leaders, but that's almost a different thing than fear to face confrontation, speaking your truth, facing your fear.

Human beings who reach the age of sexual maturity, and have any sense of the actual effort it takes to raise a child, and have reached the age where they realize their parents are aging...for such people, maturation into an adult is a natural thing, and the LACK of such maturation is a sign of dysfunction in the social fabric. We aren't providing leadership. Men and women strike me as damned close to each other, and I think we exaggerate male and female characteristics for the same reason assembly lines are more productive than individual craftsmen making a BMW from scratch. It gets more done, provides a higher standard of living for everyone if we specialize rather than generalize.

But men can raise daughters, and women can raise sons...especially if the community helps.


Would it be possible to create valid rites of passage for young people, to help them make the passage from child to adult? I suspect that those who have really taken responsibility for their actions and emotions, and understand life is finite, who are in those senses "adult," are automatically what most people would consider "Men" and "Women". The traits have to be innate, woven into our genetics, since the same patterns have re-emerged again and again, around the world, throughout all history. So what would it take? Is it necessary or even desirable?


Marty S said...

Steve: I'm not sure what you mean by an unhealthy version of either is "stuck" in either being "in charge" or pathologically avoiding leadership positions. In my career I attempted to avoid management positions with a passion. When I was put in them anyhow I indeed felt "stuck". I don't see anything unhealthy about this. I knew myself, what my strong points and weaknesses were and that I wasn't suited for management. I believe knowing yourself and making decisions based upon that knowledge is healthy not unhealthy. I also don't think this implies you are a beta. If you get promoted because you were asked to do a simple fifteen minute task, and you tell your boss that's not what you need from me and then convince your management and the project's management to take the project in a whole different direction, you are obviously not afraid of taking a leadership role.

Shady_Grady said...

I think rites of passage already exist for some ethnic or religious communities.

But I think the rites themselves, whether formalized or not,just recognize changes that are either already taking place or will take place and are both noted and supported by that person's family and larger community.

If the community is dysfunctional, the family is damaged or there is little ability or desire to recognize or reward successful transition to adulthood then the rite loses its value.

Robin James Burchett said...

Hi Steve,

I tend to the Beta end of the spectrum and my wife is a strong Alpha. We’ve made it work because we’re both capable of playing either role and have established clear understandings of who’s in charge of what where. She’s the boss of our business, makes the hard decisions, hires and fires, deals with angry patients, doctors, staff, vendors, etc. She is one tough cookie & can be like a mother bear protecting her young. And when she comes home, she needs a man who’s in charge. She doesn’t need an alpha - just an adult man, who’s responsible for himself and his family.

A simple illustration: I once had a friend over that spoke patronizingly to her. I thought nothing of it, since she deals with far worse all the time without breaking a sweat. She doesn’t need protecting from such things. Boy did we get in a fight over that. Fortunately, she’s responsible enough for herself to state clearly: at home, she needs to be protected and taken care of. She can generate the mother bear energy at work because she knows her home is safe and protected.

To put it another way, my alpha energy does not have to match hers in frequency or volume, but it needs to be reliably present when needed.

Robin James Burchett said...

On the title: Man Up! - Best of the bunch, by far.

And the subtitle - you’d had one about what my father didn’t know. That struck me wrong - I don’t want nobody dissing my daddy. The subtitle to Alfred Gingold’s Fire in the John is almost perfect: The Manly Man in the Age of Sissification. Our fathers did the best they could - it’s the culture that’s adrift.

(Ward Cleaver VS Homer Simpson)

suzanne said...

But she wants a man who is a Beta in the kitchen and an Alpha in bed.

hmmm well
steve I'm pleased to tell you
it's not an impossible dream

Steven Barnes said...

What I mean is that if you insist on leading even if you are incompetant, or refuse to lead even if you are the only hope, there is something very wrong.

Steven Barnes said...

And this is where the capacity to recognize damage is imperative. We must learn to seek out healthy role models if the ones offered us do not measure up. That's part of taking responsibility for our lives.

Steven Barnes said...


sounds healthy to me.

Shady_Grady said...

I don't disagree with anything you wrote Steve, not at all.

But I do think that the rituals, rites of passage are sort of like the priest's cross in "Salem's Lot". They only work if there's something behind it.

I had the best father in the world and I didn't need/want any rituals of adulthood. Would they have worked or been useful? Perhaps. Probably so, actually.

But if we have rites of adulthood divorced from that individual actually doing the work and taking on the worldview/responsibility expected from an adult, then the rites aren't going to mean much.

I think that formalized rites of passage are like the icing on the cake.

Marty S said...

Steve: Okay, said that way it makes a lot of sense.

Lobo said...

We have rites of passage all over the place. The closest thing to a universal one is getting your first drivers license. It used to be the first step toward freedom of movement. You get your license, you get a job, you save your money, you buy a car of your own, you are now free to move around. But when you grow up with parents who will drive you anywhere before you get a license and either buy a car for you or let you use a car whenever, it doesn't mean much.

The thing about our formalized rites of passage is that they are by and large empty gestures. A kid who just got bar mitzvahed may be a man according to Jewish tradition, but when he goes home, he's still the Jewish kid who has to do what his folks tell him to. We're up to our eyeballs in symbolic rites of passage, but not very many rites of passage that require a test of character, for example.

I'm skeptical about creating them from whole cloth. It seems like the kind of thing that has to occur organically. Setting out to create one seems sort of like choosing your own nickname.

Anonymous said...

desktop logged arts ncirddate districts heller urbanization dots senda kuzmenko mcwhinie
masimundus semikonecolori