Thursday, 13th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Why do boys leave home?

Posted on 05. Apr, 2017 by in Alfred Russel Wallace

Throw a party for young men coming of age.


The rite of passage and the teenage imperative

BATANG AI, Sarawak, Malaysia

I stood on a ridge near the border between Malaysian Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan.  I had been gone half the day and had not brought food.  Time to return to camp, a damp grouping of leaky impromptu shelters made out of saplings, leaves and a few scraps of plastic fashioned by Iban tribesmen who obliged me in my desire to sleep rough.  I knew where I was and was confident I could retrace my steps.  But then I got ambitious.  “What happens if I go down there instead?” I asked myself, heading towards a steep, trackless hill that my instincts told me would eventually connect to a tributary of my campsite river.

So I scampered, glided, bounced, scrunched and thoroughly dirtied myself down the side of the mountain, finally reaching a meter-wide stream and a series of ridiculously-pretty, pristine small waterfalls, which I slid down, with otter-like joy, but without otter-like grace.  Chasing waterfalls.  I was making no contribution to humanity in doing so, but I was fulfilling one of my basic needs — to get away from the crowd and do something modestly dangerous.

* * *

Why travel far, leaving behind comfort, friends and security?

Peter Kedit, former director of the Sarawak Museum, feels my Asia travels are comparable to the concept of berjalai among the Iban tribe, the rite-of-passage for young men which in previous generations often ended with the taking of a human head.

My mini-adventures are less bloody, but serve a similar purpose.  By leaving home and going off to the distant corners of the world, I have put down a marker.  Without saying it, I am saying that when I return I will have been changed.  It is a desire to move towards individualization.  He left and did exciting things that our left-behind friends can only dream about; they stayed and worked in the post office.  Think of Kipling:  “All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world — those that stay at home and those that do not.”

Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky discussed voluntary exile and adventure-seeking in the context of young male primates leaving the nest. “Another key to our success must have something to do with this voluntary transfer process, this primate legacy of getting an itch around adolescence,” he wrote.  How did voluntary dispersal evolve?  What is going on with that individual’s genes, hormones, and neuro-transmitters to make it hit the road?  We don’t know, but we do know that following this urge is one of the most resonantly primate of acts.  A young male baboon stands riveted at the river’s edge; an adolescent female chimp cranes to catch a glimpse of the chimps from the next valley.  New animals, a whole bunch of ’em!  To hell with logic and sensible behavior, to hell with tradition and respecting your elders, to hell with this drab little town, and to hell with that knot of fear in your stomach.  Curiosity, excitement, adventure — the hunger for novelty is something fundamentally daft, rash, and enriching that we share with our whole taxonomic order.”

* * *

Couch potatoes who nevertheless want to experience some form of individuation might turn to collecting.

People collect matchbooks, stamps and Elvis memorabilia. They collect numbers on locomotives and first edition books. They collect rare Greek vases and beer mats and countless other things.  Perhaps collecting exotic artifacts is sublimation for physical adventuring?

As a boy I collected rocks — I preferred the gaudy quartz varieties which shone with color and mystery.  I collected insects. I collected baseball cards and comic books.  None of this is exceptional.  Of all those collections the only thing that has remained is my collection of ancient Roman coins. I was a bit of a nerd — the first article I ever published, at age 15, was about Roman denari.  Imagine, I thought, somebody 2,000 years ago used this coin to buy lunch, or rent a donkey, or pay off a bet.

Collecting gets interesting, at least from the psychological angle, when it becomes obsessive, when a person’s entire life is taken over by, say Star Wars toys or golf balls with logos of famous courses.

Sigmund Freud, himself an avid and sophisticated collector of classical, Egyptian, oriental, near-Eastern and South American antiquities, suggested that collecting with great intensity was an outlet for a frustrated libido.

But Freud recognized that collecting couldn’t be dismissed easily.  “The psychoanalyst, like the archaeologist, must uncover layer after layer of the patient’s psyche, before coming to the deepest, most valuable treasures,” he wrote.

Janine Burke, author of The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Art Collection, observes that a person’s collection can reveal hidden personality traits. “The popular image of Freud as austere, remote and forbidding is contradicted by the collection,” she wrote, “which reveals a very different personality: an impulsive, hedonistic spender, an informed and finicky aesthete, a tomb raider complicit in the often illegal trade in antiquities, a tourist who revelled in sensual, Mediterranean journeys, a generous fellow who lavished exquisite gifts on his family and friends, and a tough negotiator for a bargain. [Freud’s] own therapy was shopping. Arranging choice items on his desk, Freud confessed to Carl Gustav Jung, ‘I must always have an object to love.’”

* * *

Society forgot to stage a ceremony just for me. I came of age without a party.  I was denied the vigil in the desert, where I was expected to kill a lion, fast for three weeks, have a vision, return to the village to get tattooed, become cleansed in a sweat lodge and decorated with feathers and body paint and invited, finally, to eat with the grownups.

We modern boys and girls lack rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies where we clearly shift from childhood to adulthood.  Instead our life-passages are fuzzy.  Girls in Western societies begin to menstruate many years before they are old enough to bear children in a socially-acceptable context.  Boys might be old enough to drive but not old enough to drink, old enough to kill/be killed in the army but not old enough to vote, old enough to father children but not old enough to leave school of their own volition.

If society doesn’t offer us clear rites of passage we tend to create our own.
Some boys will go into the army.
Some boys play competitive sports.
Some boys join gangs, or fraternities.
Some boys break into their fathers’ gun cases and commit mayhem.
Some boys write novels, or sing on stage, or get a real job.
Some boys don’t worry about it.
Some boys worry about it too much, and become dreamers.

Or, as T.E. Lawrence wrote:

All men dream: but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty
recesses of their minds wake in the day
to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers
of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes,
to make it possible.


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. His website:

This article is excerpted from Paul Sochaczewski’s new book: An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles.  Available on