Tribal wisdom warns that without special attention given at the right time in a person’s life, disastrous consequences can occur. What can be a life-enhancing transition — involving symbolic death and rebirth and a powerful sense of belonging and being valued — can quickly turn into literal death. When the elders don’t show up to initiate the youth, the youth will attempt to initiate themselves and these unconscious attempts can lead to violence against one’s self, others and nature.
One example of this phenomenon is the drive-by shooting “rite” utilized by gangs across the country as a way to be initiated and accepted as a trusted member. Asheville is not immune, as we saw in September 2007 when an eighth-grader shot and seriously injured three people at a birthday party. He was a member of the Black Out Mafia gang at the time.
I don’t condone this kind of behavior, but I think it is important to make note that gang culture is very much in touch with the power of initiation. It creates a felt sense of belonging by being deeply bonded to others and to something larger than the individual, while brushing up against death. The unfortunate thing is that this kind of initiation only leads to more blood in the streets. Conversely, traditional rites of passage are meant to alter one’s psyche in such a way as to lead to an enhancement of one’s life, ultimately benefiting the community at large.
The basic premise has held that without these ceremonial rites, a person’s life cannot access its fullest potential. In fact in Papua New Guinea, they say, “Real men are made, not born.” This idea implies the conscious participation of elders and mentors. Our ancestors understood that the living of a full life requires ongoing sanctification through the honoring of our personal struggles and suffering. Tribal knowledge goes further to say that without initiation the village eventually dies.
Rites of passage ultimately serve as a bridge that helps a person transition from adolescent dependency into self-responsible adulthood, where one’s attention turns from being self-absorbed to what one has to offer others. All too often, young people are criticized and rejected for their sometimes messy attempts at bumping up against their own inner obstacles or acting out in ways deemed inappropriate by the culture. Someone with ancient eyes can pick up the underlying message being sent — “See me and help me find my way!”
I have personally witnessed the healing effects of this work through a local nonprofit called Journeymen Asheville, which has been providing mentoring and rites of passage experiences in the Southeast over the past five years for teenage boys on their way to becoming men of integrity and purpose. The organization also sponsors a bi-annual event called the Rites of Passage Adventure Weekend, which models itself after the traditional stages of initiation: the calling, severance, ordeal and the return/reincorporation.
One of the things that excites me the most about the ROPAW is to see boys who have been initiated through this process return to help initiate others and to mentor those coming up behind them. It also provides an opportunity for multiple generations of men and boys to come together and have meaningful dialogue about real issues, something that I judge doesn’t happen enough in our culture of generation gaps.
Journeymen aims to meet the young person’s emotional and physical intensity and provide a “container” in which the big changes they are feeling inside can be matched by the intensity of the elders and mentors involved so that the youth’s fiery energy can be channeled in a positive direction.
The long history of initiation tells us that the releasing of a person’s potentials and gifts requires a decent and a series of adventures that awaken these latent inner resources. It involves an ego death where one part of us is identified and let go of in order for something more authentic to be born. Initiation means “to begin.” It’s as if the real business of life can’t begin until a person steps through the door of initiation. Another way to say it is, it’s the beginning of the discovery of one’s true self. However, this journey of awakening requires the community to show up and help guide the young people through this challenging terrain.
Journeymen Asheville’s next ROPAW is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, April 5-7. If you would like more information about the organization or the upcoming ROPAW, please visit www.journeymenasheville.org.
Jon Rousseau, MSW (Naturalist, Storyteller and Educator), is a Journeyman mentor and facilitator of rites of passage experiences for youth and adults.