Many of us will have either heard, or seen a dramatized version, of the young tribal man, who having just finished puberty, is snatched out of his bed by the tribal elders and sent to complete some daunting task, often on his own and in legitimate danger of losing his life. While to some of us this may seem like something out of a horror story and in opposition to our modern sensibilities, there is a beauty and even necessity in these rituals that has been lost in our modern society.

In ancient mythology, there was a concept of the “Puer Eternaus” which was a god of eternally childlike visage. Carl Jung appropriated this term to denote the individual that occupies the body of a man but has never truly matured past the adolescent. Speaking from personal experience both internally and from others in my life, as well as countless anecdotes, I believe that it is fair to say that this is a concerning phenomenon that plagues much of our modern culture.

For myself, for half a decade I struggled with being the “Puer Eternaus” myself. I fell into this mode of being through my addiction – through a constant intoxication that prevented the both my desire and ability to engage in voluntary suffering, the necessary ingredient into becoming a man (which I touch on in other posts). At the age of 23, I made the decision to get sober, and one of the steps in this process was attending therapy. One of the first things I was told was that I had not matured beyond 15 years old. While I had been told this many times, it was the shock of hearing it from a trained and seasoned professional that caused me to begin to challenge my adolescent behaviors. I am still working on this, even after 3 years of sobriety – I imagine that I will be for decades to come.

Another term described by Jung and one that I think is prevalent in today’s proliferation of these adolescent men is the idea of the Devouring Mother. While he offers an understanding of this term that is certainly more comprehensive, intelligent and lasting than mine, I am obligated to offer my own description, as I do not completely agree with the one offered by Jung. For me, what this term represents is a parent, of any gender who, in perhaps good faith, overbears on the child to the degree that thet do not have the chance to mature past their necessity to rely on the parent for all things – all answers, physical necessities and emotional security. While this is (I believe) relatively in line with Jung’s definition, I want to expand this understanding. While there is an immense amount of responsibility to be placed at the feet of parents who play a role in the stunting of their child’s growth, I believe that there are two more aspects of the Devouring Mother that have emerged in our culture today.

The first is, again, within the individual. However, this does not lay at the feet of the parent but of the child. Again, here I am speaking from some personal insight. If this is my own foible and no others, then so be it, but I do believe that there are other men out there who have struggled with something similar. Here, I would like to call this new aspect Starving Loneliness. Even when a child has a plethora of friends, this phenomenon can begin to encompass their lives. This loneliness that seeks to devour everything in its path is spurred by arrogance. This arrogance is centered on the belief, usually with little to no proof, that the child is better than the others around them. The child may imagine themselves as the hero of their lives, often conceptualizing their lives as a story. In this, the child becomes to believe that they are the hero and thus above the others around them and likely entitled to things that others are expected to earn. This hero complex then follows this intentionally lonely child throughout their lives, until they are challenged to break it through some external cause. If there is no external force that causes the child to move past this phase of life, then there will be no end to it.

The second new development of the Devouring Mother that I believe has manifested since Jung developed this term is based not in the individual, but in Western culture as a whole, particularly American culture. This second development is a bit of a paradoxical one. In our culture today, there is a prevailing belief that both men and women should be self sufficient, independent to a degree rarely seen in history and contribute, in a meaningful way, to society (although this “meaningfulness” is left intentionally opaque). These requirements by our society, for a not insignificant portion of our young people, are simply unattainable, either in part or whole, in our modern society. When we are taught that we are to achieve certain things, which for many are impossible, the lives of our young people seem to indicate that the opposite will instead be enacted. If one is prevented by the culture at large from contributing in a meaningful way that is idiosyncratic to their nature, then they will instead use their idiosyncracies to tear down the structures in their way. If they are unable to become independent to such an insane degree as is espoused by our society today, then they will go to college for a decade, or live with their parents into their thirties, or find a way to live off the goodwill of others.

In order to counteract this inability to leave our cultural adolescence where it belongs, one aspect of the solution will lie in reestablishing meaningful, challenging (perhaps mortally so) ritual into the lives of our adolescents. However, this immediately poses the question of what these rituals should look like today. They will not look like living in the savannah, surviving off the land and avoiding predators. They will not look like going raiding with your Viking fathers. What, then, will they look like? How can we integrate our modern culture and infrastructure to create an environment that can be used in such a way so as to encourage those in our society to leave their childhoods behind and take on the responsibilities of modern society adulthood? Or do we need to redefine these responsibilities?

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