I believe that in our frenzy for modernity, we have collectively lost a fundament of parenting: our obligation to initiate our children.
In ancient times, tribal groups understood both the obligation and imperative of turning naïve, inwardly directed children into highly functioning members of society … through an initiation ritual.
Rituals of primitive initiation are mythologically grounded and in essence, involve killing the infantile ego and bringing forth an adult. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the world, leaving childhood behind.
I have long been fascinated by the importance of initiation, the hero’s journey and rites of passage. A couple of years ago my wife, Nola, and I conducted a three day rite of passage ceremony to initiate our then 18 year old son, Ryan. The ceremony modeled the classic initiation rhythms including the separation from the mother; the imparting of tribal wisdom (not rules or laws, but ethos – our own unique tribal mythology, our truths); and rebirth (in this case a baptism).
My wife and I consider the experience to be the most significant parenting we have ever done and are now working on a similar event for our daughter Madelyn (17).
I believe it’s harder for a boy to be initiated than a girl because ultimately life overtakes the girl. There is a definitive physical change that marks her transition to adulthood. Boys do not have a similar conversion. A little boy has to intend to be a man. So the boy must be shown how to be a man and voluntarily become a servant of something more important than himself.
To evolve out of the position of spiritual immaturity and into the courage of self-responsibility and assurance requires death and a resurrection. It is always the false self that has to die. This is major surgery for the ego, a procedure we all avoid if we can. But to be truly initiated, something always has to die, and until you have lived through that dying, you can never know the truth.
And that’s the basic motif of every rite of passage; the universal hero’s journey – leaving one condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth into a richer and more mature condition.
That richer more mature condition summoned us to initiate Ryan. We did not ask Ryan for permission to initiate him. We did it because we knew it was essential. Not just for his own spiritual well being but to establish a tradition and legacy of passing on our tribal wisdom.
The imparting of the tribal knowledge included presentations from a “band of brothers” – men revered by Ryan. Because I believe the origin of manhood does not lie with a boy’s father, alone. But only in some greater masculine source … the bonds of male tribal fellowship. The communal dimension of manhood.
The rite of passage was all about taking Ryan back, through myth and legend, and personal experience, to the source of his masculinity, and finding the power and vitality of the warrior within.
I believe that because he is an initiated man, my son has the courage, grace and wisdom he needs to manage the new passages, obligations and challenges of life.
To this day, none who were involved in that weekend have recovered. My fondest wish is that every child and parent would be given an opportunity to experience the same.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.