(Editor's note: This article focuses on men and boys. But the film RITES OF PASSAGE: MENTORING THE FUTURE, now in production, will focus on both genders, in equal measure.)
Some of the great heroes in our world today are the men who are mentoring and initiating teen boys.
This is no small challenge, given that most adult men living today were not themselves initiated or mentored. They have no idea what to do, how to do it, or why it’s essential.
The chain of generativity going back at least 50,000 years in the lives of Homo Sapiens is now broken. The wisdom passed from individual to individual, from generation to generation, has largely been lost. In indigenous cultures across the world it used to be that young men were initiated into adulthood by the elders as a matter of course. In fact, most indigenous cultures don’t even recognize what we in the West call “adolescence.” You’re either a child or you’re a man. There’s no in-between. The rite of passage, universally applied, is designed as a mechanism to usher all children across that threshold into adulthood.
This was largely true even in Western society until the Industrial Age. Boys raised on farms or learning crafts were apprenticed by their fathers and other men. While they were taught practical and professional skills they were also taught by men what it is to be a man, what civilized behavior is – the rights and responsibilities of adulthood. Once men started moving off their farms and out of their shops and studios to work in factories that ancient system broke down. Couple that with the destruction of indigenous cultures across the planet by colonialism and imperialism and there now remain few organic links through the chain of time to the practices and wisdom of the past.
The byproducts are everywhere to behold. By not initiating and mentoring our young people we are paying a steep economic and social price: teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, drug and alcohol use, depression, ADD, ADHD, youth crime and violence… some estimate the cost to U.S. society at $1 trillion a year. The irony is that doing these “dysfunctional” things – getting pregnant, testing limits with alcohol or drugs, committing crimes, joining gangs, dropping out of school… young people, especially boys, are only asking, crying out really, for initiation.
Initiation is a biological, cellular level need. It accounts for most of where the pushback against parents and other authority figures comes from. Teens need to individuate. They push back to learn the limits of their own bodies, the reach of their critical judgment, their connection to nature and to spirit or god. This is how they learn who they are, what is unique about them. It’s also how they become validated. To be initiated is a fulfillment of their genetic inheritance – to be brought into the community of adults, to take their seat at the village table, to be honored, accepted and treated as equals.
Both men and women need initiation and mentorship. But I believe men need it more. Especially today. [Generalizing alert! I will now be generalizing about men and women. Please note that I am in no way saying all men or all women are like this. Or that certain traits are purely male and others purely female. It's important to recognize that traits generalized as "male" and "female" are part of a continuum; they manifest themselves to varying degrees in each unique individual. And if these distinctions don’t fit at all for you, dear reader, great.]
It’s really important that men have a sense of mission or purpose in life. I have written about this subject recently. They have a built-in desire to want to serve someone or something, to know that their life has meaning and is of positive purpose. There’s also a longing for them to feel part of a team or group, to work together to realize a common purpose. A man’s gaze tends to be outward, toward making an impact, toward how he can effect change in the world. This is a large part of how a man gauges his own power, by measuring his ability to effect change. Obviously this drive can take very positive and very negative forms. But this drive is much in the nature of men.
Very few people understand this anymore. Many men, in their own bitterness, depression, drug, alcohol, sex, work, food, and TV addictions, have given up on themselves. At some deep unconscious level they know what they’re missing in life, how they themselves were never taught by other men how to be a man, how to reach for and find fulfillment in life, how to understand and utilize emotions effectively, what spiritual connection and contentment feels like, where meaning is to be found. No one was there for them so why should they be there for someone else?
This refusal finds expression in all sorts of directives older men often give to younger men: “Don’t follow your dream!” “Settle for less!” “Happiness is not important.” “Take the money!” “Grow up; resign yourself to reality.” “Get a real job.” “Don’t take risks!” The truth is many older men are simply threatened by the exuberance, vitality, dreams, love, innocence, and happiness of younger men because it reminds them of what they’ve lost, how they’ve settled for so much less. Those older men still have a little boy in them who knows and remembers but those little boys are usually buried alive under mountains of passion-killing directives.
Which reminds us that the flow of gifts in a properly functioning culture is not just from the eldest to the youngest. The flow goes both ways. The healthy functioning of adults is dependent on youthful energy, ideas, and input. “Although, ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child;’ it takes the struggles of youth to raise a whole village." “If the deep conflicts of youth are ignored and left unresolved, the new adults will be unable to solve deep conflicts in the culture. If the adults feel they were not nourished, their elders will be ignored, and forgotten.” -- Michael Meade. So if there is no generativity there is no nourishing of life in both directions – for either the younger or the older. And on and on it goes.
The men who have not buried their little boys, who still receive nurturing from their elders, who have kept the flame of innocence, passion, and love alive in the face of enormous challenges – not least of which is a dominant culture that stultifies humanity, demanding that all answers be found solely in consumerism – those men are heroes. Yes, just being alive, truly alive to a world of possibility and adventure, and yes, to suffering and sorrow too, in a modern world that increasingly resembles THE MATRIX, that makes you a hero.
But say you’re doing more than that. Say you’re teaching yourself and others about what you missed out on, seeking and finding ways to initiate yourself, getting and giving mentorship, truly coming to be all you can be. That’s even more impressive.
Let’s say you’re doing still more. Let’s say you’re reaching down a generation or two and extending your hand to a younger man, to a group or groups of younger men. Then you’re a Hero’s Hero.
There aren’t many. But fortunately, there are some. I'll list here shortly some of the amazing men and women doing heroic work today to bring back initiation and mentorship in our time. I unhumbly include myself in this list because I’m now working on a film highlighting their heroic work, presently called Rites of Passage: Mentoring the Future.