From Chapter 3
Loss of Initiation
Adulthood vs. Manhood
Initiations were designed to help create a healthy and successful transition for boys from adolescence into manhood. One of the underlying concepts to these practices is the understanding that there is a marked difference between becoming an adult and becoming a man. In modern Western society we tend to lump them together.
Becoming an adult is reasonably easy in our country. One need merely live long enough to gain the appropriate age-related reward or responsibility: getting a driver’s license at sixteen, signing up for the draft or, in some states, drinking at eighteen, or getting the whole package dropped in your lap the day you turn twenty-one.
While it may seem harsh, I contend that this philosophy of “everyone succeeds” builds false self-esteem and conflicts with the reality of survival of the fittest. The recipients of these modern rewards and responsibilities “earn” them by merely collecting enough birthdays. There is no trial, no test to show that the young person has the maturity and understanding to use his newfound privileges wisely.
Becoming a man requires a deep emotional and spiritual transition, an internal shift that cannot come from an arbitrary bestowing of legal rights. This self-transcendence is most likely to take place in the course of an extraordinary experience, often in a single, memorable moment in time. In our Western culture, we have lumped age-related rewards and self-transcendence together, mistakenly believing that one naturally leads to the other.
So what are the results of allowing arbitrary, age-based signposts of manhood to replace authentic initiatory practices? One is that we get a never-ending version of adolescence, for without any clear finish line, boys are never really sure when they make that transition--or if they ever do. Another is that we are now seeing multiple generations of uninitiated men. It’s similar to making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy: each copy loses clarity and quality from the one before it. Without a culturally accepted norm for the transition, how can anyone know if they’ve made it? If a boy, or an arbitrarily rewarded adult, is uncertain of his manhood, how can he know how to behave? Without an accepted picture of how and who they should be, many men tend to wander aimlessly down the path of manhood. There is no closure, so the process persists.
Even more basic than that, perhaps, is simply having the feeling of belonging and being needed. In past generations, teens were constantly in the throes of responsibility, which was necessary for family and community survival. Today our modern education gives them abstract skills that they may or may not use in the future: “one day you may need this algebra . . .”
Bill Kerewsky, editor of The Early Adolescent Magazine, writes:
We are the only civilization in history to have created a whole category of people (adolescents) for whom we have no real use. In times not long gone by, fourteen-year-olds helped on the farm. They assisted with the animals, cared for younger siblings, and helped get the crops in before the frost. If they lived in the city, they found jobs as apprentices, helpers, stock clerks, or custodians. They had a role in society--and they understood that hard work and responsible behavior were the keys to future success.
Now, however, we have “protected” them out of jobs, and relegated young adolescents to the roles of pizza consumer and videotape junkie. . . . Children this age need to be needed, but we have institutionalized our rebuff to their pleas to be of service.
Once again, we see how taking away someone’s responsibility has simply made them irresponsible.
Survival vs. Thrival
Survival seems paramountly important in preparing our children for entry into the “real” adult world. In the traditional cultures using initiatory practices, it was clear to all that children needed to be taught survival skills for that culture, and that they were not “promoted” until they were ready and had been properly tested. This seems to be almost the opposite of our educational approach.
About 50% of all 19-year-olds return home at least once. What this tells me is that both good kids and bad kids are unprepared for what lies ahead, and that their survival skills are lacking. In traditional cultures, the initiation was more of a confirmation that the initiate knew what was needed to know. Upon entering his initiation or rite of passage, it had been determined that he was prepared for life as a full adult and a man. The initiation was the culmination, the blend of training with implementation.
For example, if a 14-year-old Apache boy passed his initiation, he was declared a man and an adult. It had already been determined he knew the survival skills necessary to live as an Apache, or he wouldn’t have been allowed to pursue his initiation. In theory, if all the rest of his tribe disappeared somehow, he would be able to survive. He would know how to feed and clothe himself. He could create and maintain some sort of shelter, and he could read seasons and weather patterns. In essence, he could survive on his own with the knowledge he had been given while growing up.
Now imagine a typical 14-year-old American boy, who finds himself the sole survivor in his community for some reason. Has he been given the direct knowledge needed to take care of himself? Where would he plug in his boom box, buy new CD headphones, or get a new skateboard? Does he have the technical skills to fend on either a survival level or a societal one? Will his nine years of classroom education be enough to propel him successfully through the demands of adult life? Is this where that algebra will finally be of use? As evidenced by the above statistic regarding the high percentage of 19-year-olds being unable to survive on their own, it seems we are not preparing our children properly.