Monday, April 26, 2010

Hatchet: Boys to Men

I'm always on a hunt for good books to read with my 5 year old son. I recently ran across the Art of Manliness blog and their list of books for boys. On this list was the book Hatchet. It's your basic "lost in the wilderness" survival story - except that the main character is a 13 year old boy. With recently divorced parents, he's off to visit his father in Canada. The pilot of the small plane has a heart attack, veering the plane hundreds of miles off course in the Canadian wilderness. The boy survives the crash, with only his Hatchet to help him endure the rugged nature. 

Now stay with me here, because though the story is interesting (and kept my son UBER engaged… especially since I skipped over most of the divorce parts) the more relevant part is his journey of self-discovery and what it says about the modern man.

Leanord Sax, in his book Boys Adrift (which I HIGHLY recommend to all parents of boys) tries to get at the root issue behind the increase of apathy among boys. He says "the boys I'm most concerned about don't disdain school because they have other real-world activities they care about more. They disdain school because they disdain everything. Nothing really excites them." Why is that? He cites a number of factors: changes in the education system, video games, medications, foods. He has a chapter on each of these topics, as well as one addressing the issue he calls "Failure to Launch," where boys are not launching into manhood until their late 30's.

I believe there are two main contributing factors to this increase among elongated adolescence: excessive consumerism and the fact that most boys are not being called up to anything of significant value in their minds. Consumerism: my friend David Sims, who did a PhD on the effects of affluence on children, says "consuming deadens the senses." Makes sense. If you always eat sugar, you'll never want vegetables. If you always watch dribble on the tube, you'll have little interest in fine literature and poetry. If everything is handed to you, then why work for it? (as Matthew McConoghay said, "It's gonna take a stick of dynamite to get me out of my parent's house"). The increase in boys having little drive for things of significance is striking. For instance, very few boys have interest in pursuing traditional "trades" (electrician, plumbing). College is often promoted as the only real option in schools if you want to really be somebody. Yet the trades are often the most satisfying jobs for men, because of the immediacy of seeing the results of your work. Matthew Crawford, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft argues that a career in the trades is "better for both your net worth and your self-worth." These trade jobs are increasingly more secure, since "You can't hammer a nail over the Internet. Nor can the Indians fix your car. Because they are in India."

The appeal of cubicle life is declining as well. The combination of the two declining interests leaves many young men with little interest in pursuing anything. Combine this with a free ride at mom and dad's, and you have a legion of 30 year old boys. Men and boys alike long for the kind of work that William Voegeli describes in the Claremont journal as "the kinds of work we can most readily imagine ourselves getting lost in and being proud of." But how does one find this kind of work?

Leonard Sax, in his previous book Why Gender Matters (a must read for ALL parents) address the ability of boys to concentrate for extended periods. Most boys, especially those with ADD/ADHD are not able to concentrate for extended periods. But Sax's contention is that they are able to concentrate on the things that interest them. He tells the story of a young boy with ADD on multiple meds. His grades were suffering and he was depressed. His parents sent him to South Africa for the summer to work with a safari guide. He was there two days and the guide said "get rid of the meds, you don't need them." The next day he followed a group of natives in the woods and sat motionless for hours as he prepared to kill a bird with a spear. This is the same boy that one week earlier couldn't sit still 10 minutes in the classroom.

And here is where Hatchet returns. This 13 year old boy, having had everything handed to him and done for him up to this point in his life, for the first time becomes aware of all of life's basic necessities that he has taken for granted: food, shelter, protection from harm. He quickly gains great interest in providing for himself and works tirelessly, day after day to make sure he survives. He went through a long process of "inventing" the bow and arrow to learn to catch fish and birds. But he notices a point where he changes. He turns from the "old Brian" - a boy that passively passes through life, noticing little about what occurs around him, to a boy-man with sharpened senses. He says, there was now a "changed part of him, a grown part of him, and the two things, his mind and his body, had come together as well, [they] had made a connection with each other that he didn't quite understand." He observes, after being rescued and returning home, that he "gained immensely in his ability to observe what was happening and react to it; that would last him all his life. He had become more thoughtful as well, and from that time on he would think slowly about something before speaking." He returned home and spent hours researching all the things he consumed and experienced in the wilderness - learning their real names. His interest and focus sharpened because he was forced to survive. And this changed him.

Muscles grow under tension, and we often remove this necessary tension from the muscle of our minds in a consumer based society. I can say from experience that my seminary education meant FAR more to me and I was much more intentional with it than my college education partly because I had to pay for it! [not that I'm not grateful for college mom and dad!] My decisions about classes and dollars spent were very different when I was footing the bill. As a result, my views on the necessity of a college education are evolving - especially knowing that many parents are primarily bankrolling a 4 year party (listen to this episode of This American Life.)

So read Hatchet to your boys and enjoy it as well and ask yourself how you can reduce excessive consumption in your life and the lives of your children and reduce the clutter in your soul.

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