Yearning for Rites of Passage in a World with Too Few Mentors

Rites of passage

As adolescence ends — if there is no effective initiation or mentorship — a sad thing happens. The fire of thinking, the flaring up of creativity, the bonfires of tenderness, all begin to go out.

—Robert Bly

What would you do if someone told you your son would never become a man? That your nephew would never experience maturity? That your cousin or grandson would never feel from the inside the beating heart of what it really means to be an adult male? Well, it’s happening right now, in our country, today.

Millions of boys—black, white, Asian, Latino, rich and poor boys, good boys—smart, sensitive, and loving boys, vulnerable and open boys, are not fully growing up, are not accomplishing the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Without initiation and mentorship, these boys will never know what is sacred about their own masculinity. They’ll never know their own unique mission in life, they’ll never know what it is to serve family and community rather than self, they’ll never know their place in the order of things, the depths of their own greatness or the true limits of their own reach, and they’ll never know what an empowering gift their own feelings can be – how they can learn to master them through acceptance; how their tears, their shame, their anger and fear can ignite the fires of passion, and can actually set them free.

I relate to the plight of teenage boys. I myself was a confused and “difficult” teenager, struggling with drug abuse and delinquency, living in a fatherless household and a mentorless social world. This piece is I wrote this piece partly as the logical product of my professional and personal work to understand my own adolescent life and that of others. It is also an exercise in active mentorship, reaching out to “father” those who themselves may never have been fathered.

Throughout history, across cultures, ethnicities, and religions, men have initiated boys into manhood. (Of course, women have initiated girls into womanhood too, but the focus of this piece is men and boys.) Given all the residual harmful effects of patriarchal culture perpetrated by and on men and boys, this particular emphasis on males seems appropriate.

Bar and bat mitzvahs, Catholic confirmations, Boy Scouts, urban gangs, fraternity hazing, team sports… they all reflect—some for better, some obviously for worse—this need a hunger for initiation. The structural similarities of initiation rituals are inescapable, and usually involve variations on three discrete stages: separation, ordeal, and return.

  • Separation usually entails the complete disruption of the youngster’s ordinary life, the removal from everyday affairs, surroundings, and support, and “re-placement” into an isolated location, usually in nature.
  • The ordeal usually includes some test of physical stamina that induces a heightened emotional state. Initiates are instructed to seek an awakening to their life’s purpose or mission, a revelation of their place in the order of things, an illuminated direction for their lives.
  • Finally the return, often led by elders, reunites the initiate with family and community. With reintegration, the initiate’s new-found sense of purpose and his emotional grounding now guides and deepens his connection to family, community and society.

Our world today is in dire circumstances. Much of the exploitation, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, and warfare we face is a function of uninitiated men acting out their suspended adolescence, especially men in positions of leadership. This kind of “leadership” is about domination. This domination, this dysfunctional leadership, is leadership from those—the uninitiated—who unconsciously act out their own fears, projecting all evil onto “the other.” We need leaders who understand that real leadership starts with owning one’s own projections and “shadows,” facing first what is dark and scary within before looking without. Real leadership is also about?service. Real leadership is conscious stewarding of the planet for the good of humanity. Real leadership  comes from heart-centered mentoring. Real leadership is not about domination. Ultimately, initiation-mentorship is about creating a new kind of leadership where all are leaders are servant-leaders who steward the planet for the good of all—not just humanity but for all life on the planet.

Academy award-nominated filmmaker Frederick Marx (“Hoop Dreams”), founder of
Warrior Films, is at work on a new documentary about initiation for young people. It’s called “Rites of Passage: The Right of Every Child Born” and will profile innovative programs from around the country for both young men and young women.