Raising Your Ceiling
The Masai of Africa have an ancient ritual for passing into manhood.
First, the boy who wishes to become a man must give away everything he owns.
Then he’s decorated with a ceremonial cloak and face paint to head off into the wilderness. He can’t return until he’s killed a lion.
Once he returns with his lion, he’s brought into the ritual tent and is circumcised in front of the other men in the village. He receives no painkillers, and if he reacts during the circumcision, he fails the ritual.
Finally, he wears all black for the next few months while his body heals from the ordeal, after which he’s considered a warrior and has successfully transitioned into adulthood.
The whole ritual, including preparation, can take up to a year. It requires incredible physical and mental fortitude, but once completed, the boy knows he is a man. He’s earned his place among his peers and has achieved a new perspective on what his mind and body are truly capable of.
Do you know what your mind and body are capable of?
I’m not one of those Trad LARPers who thinks everyone should leave the cities and live on a self-sufficient homestead. I like living downtown, I like air conditioning, and I’d prefer not to have part of my dick cut off in front of the HOA. But it does bother me how soft we’ve gotten.
Ancient puberty rites were powerful for two reasons. One, they proved you were an adult to your peers. The difference between child and adult wasn’t some arbitrary age threshold. It was when you proved it. And the only way to prove it was by going through the same gauntlet as the other adults.
But more importantly, those rituals proved to you that you were an adult. Navigating great challenges earns you the confidence to handle whatever life throws at you. If you fought a lion with a spear, you can probably handle people ending text messages with periods. If your greatest struggle in life was finishing an uncensored copy of Huck Finn, you’re not going to have that same level of resilience.
We no longer live in a world that requires you to prove you’re capable of adulthood. There’s no draft or public service, no rituals, you can just slide into maturity after four years of getting blacked out at frat houses. But without those rituals, there is nothing to give you that baseline sense of competence.
If you yearn for a life in the WALL-E recliner, mainlining media carefully curated to dole out your daily dopamine drip, then no, there is no reason to challenge yourself. But I suspect most people, even the ones well down that road, want something better.
Unfortunately, that flabby life is the default we slide into without a deliberate struggle against it. You are always getting weaker unless you’re making efforts to get stronger. If you aren’t finding new ways to push your physical and mental limits, or at least maintain their capacity, they are shrinking. Your capacity is unlikely to be stretched for you.
We all have a ceiling on what we believe we are capable of. The more we push that ceiling up, the more competent we perceive ourselves to be. You get stronger when you push your strength to its limits. Your art improves by pushing it in new directions. Your relationships improve by stressing them. A life without these struggles may be easy, but is easy what we want? Treading water in a comfortable mediocrity, wondering why we aren’t going anywhere?
Modernity hasn’t made us weak, it’s given us the option to be weak. To stop treading water, you need to do hard things, whatever hard means for you.
Not for Instagram, or the medal, or other extrinsic rewards. But for your own sense of self-worth. For pushing up the ceiling. For knowing you’re a competent adult, worthy of respect.
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Today, most tribes have abandoned the lion killing part out of a combination of optics and conservation.
Just read The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter (https://amzn.to/3bWjmoN) and it hit on similar themes. Not a must-read by any means, but sharing in case anyone wants to explore this topic a bit more.
What I'm reflecting on is the difference between artificial/manufactured challenges and real challenges thrown at you by life (or the Masai elders).
An illness or death of a loved one forces you to confront the challenge and inevitably grow as a result. The Masai boy 'must' succeed in his quest -- there is no alternative or backup plan.
On the other hand, can we get as much from manufacturing challenges with growth as the intended outcome? Training for and running a marathon would teach most people to their physical limits, but in the end isn't life or death.
Awesome. An old friend asked if I liked my marriage and children and I said of course. It's the hardest thing I've done, but so worth it. I had been thinking of that all morning and I see it reminded in your post. Things that are hard are where 'it' is at. Thanks for the share!