HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE
March 11, 2007
It’s that time of the year again and I can’t help but smile at the memory of it. At the onset of summer, I can’t help but think of the time-honored rite of passage young boys in the Philippines will be undergoing.
When I was a kid, there was an ad that appeared in the papers as early as March that read, “It’s summertime! We offer painless, bloodless circumcision, tule.” It was posted by Dr. Garma’s Clinic in Cubao and it instilled terror in many young boys who shuddered at the prospect of having their foreskins surgically removed, even if it was supposedly ‘painless and bloodless’, as the ad claimed. After all, circumcision strikes at the heart of manhood and all of its Freudian implications.
I was eight years old. My brother Gabby, who is four years older, grimly announced to me and my younger brother Raffy that we were going to be circumcised that summer. I remember being in the shower and taking a deep breath as I swallowed my fear even as tears flowed down my cheeks. My brother Raffy screamed in terror and tried to bargain for another year before undergoing ‘the cut’. After all, he was only seven years old.
The doctor who was going to do the procedure was a family friend, a genial man named Dr. Jimmy Rivera whom we privately called “Doctor Scissors’ because he had also circumcised two of my older brothers. He was kind and friendly, doing house calls when we were sick and looking after the health of the family. But to Raffy and me, his friendly and reassuring demeanor completely vanished overnight, at least in our eyes. All of a sudden, we feared him. The very mention of his name struck absolute fear in our hearts.
I remember having sleepless nights before the procedure. But on the day itself, I surprised myself when I meekly volunteered to go first, even as I let out a big scream when the first injection penetrated my flesh. That must have hexed Raffy big time since he started yelling even before it was his turn, trying to convince Doctor Scissors to delay the procedure shouting, “Next year na lang, Doc!”
That summer stands out in my memory as an important year when I experienced the same rite of passage my kuyas had gone through. Being circumcised was a big deal. I felt big and strong like them and even if I was not yet a man, I felt I was on the way to being one.
It’s funny how the simple cutting of the foreskin can mean so much to a boy. Years later, I discovered why that small procedure has such important significance. Definitely, it is intrinsically linked with being a grown man. Reading Joseph Campbell, I found out that earlier tribes in many cultures established the practice of flagellation of young boys for a logical purpose. Mutilation changed them. The very act changed their appearance and the ritual itself converted them psychologically. It signaled that they were now young men.
But why did they punish their young bodies with piercing (as in tattoos, earrings, wounds, scars and the like)? The reason was so that their own mothers, who were their primary care givers would not ‘recognize’ them, since they now looked different. Gone is the boy. He has become a man and therefore must now look like a man and behave like one. It’s an elaboration on the theme of the death of innocence. The infliction of pain is the gateway to the adult world.
When I had my own son, I made sure he went through the same ritual my brothers and I did. I was lucky that his pediatrician immediately discouraged early circumcision since I had decided to make the event a bonding experience between us when he came of age. And that is exactly how it turned out when he went through it the summer when he was 11. He went through the whole gamut of emotions — anticipation, dread and excitement. After the procedure, which earned him a Playstation from an uncle, there was a noticeable confidence and pride about him, the same feelings I remember having many summers ago.
If you think that I am batting for the late circumcision, you are correct. Whatever medical reasons there may be for circumcision at birth, I believe that it deprives our sons of an important experience when we succumb to the practicality of getting it over with before they can even feel the pain. I suspect that when we deprive them of this rite of passage, they grow up less sure of themselves and their place in the world. At the very least, when boys are circumcised at birth, they and their parents lose a great opportunity to bond later on.
Rituals are important. When I was in grade school, we had to wait till Grade Four before we could wear long pants. In my family, we had to wait to be 18 before we could drive. There were clear markers and delineations that put us in a sure place even before we crossed them. It was clear exactly when we became ‘adults’ – when we ‘earned’ the status. The world itself confirmed it with its rituals.
So much is lost when we make it too easy for our kids by giving them forged licenses to drive, allowing them to take alcohol too early, showering them with too much material goods or becoming overprotective. We undermine their growth when we shortcut the protocols or worse, ignore the rituals they need to assure them of where they are in the world.
The problem lies in the fact that so many rituals have become meaningless and not enough new ones are taking their place. For example, the debut, which announces the coming of age for young women, is fast fading away.
Some old rituals are mutating to new expressions which we can only begin to recognize and make sense of by paying attention.
For example, Joseph Campbell suspects that teenagers are getting their bodies tattooed and pierced for the same age-old reason that earlier tribes and cultures did. They are announcing to the world through self-mutilation that they are no longer children. They are now part of the tribe of people their age. They are letting us know that they no longer want to be part of the safe and innocent cradle of mother and father and childhood. And true to form as the archetypal parents, we are ‘shocked’ since we do not ‘recognize’ our own children when they do it.
If we don’t give our children the opportunity to grow up and find their place through the rituals of entering adulthood, they will go and create their own rituals that mean something to them and their milieu.
So to all my fellow parents, especially fathers, who will be bringing their sons to Doctor Scissors this summer, this is one of those times when it’s all right to make a Big Deal of a small matter. ###