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National Service or Rites of Passage?


A General Election is coming.. There’s plenty of chaos, uncertainty, delusion and fear.  There’s also hope that things will change for the better.

 

I’m not going to enter the political debate. But I will say one thing. The Tories want to ‘bring back’ National Service.

 

This is easily dismissed as a cynical attempt to woo older voters by appealing to conservative values. But perhaps there’s something in it. The Tories say it’s not going back to how it was. There’d be alternatives to military training including community service, environmental work and apprenticeships. They intend for it to tackle youth unemployment by bridging the gap between school and work. They hope it would foster social cohesion.

 

This is, at least, an admission that for many the transition from teenager to adulthood is not working well. But it doesn’t, in my view, address the deeper need. In many cultures around the world this period of life was dealt with by offering young people ‘rites of passage’. Before dismissing such practices as ‘primitive’ it’s worth looking more deeply at how they worked, what they achieved and how they could be adapted today.

 

Twenty-five years ago, as a result of my experience of working in Aboriginal communities in Central Australia, I thought a lot about what we could learn from indigenous peoples. One lesson boiled down to ‘rites of passage’. Some of what I wrote then it seems as relevant now as ever.

 

So let this be my contribution to the political debate. Written around 2004.

 

 

 

THE RITE STUFF

An Initiative to Renew Rites of Passage for Young People

 

"I cannot think of a single culture that handles this crucial stage of life more abysmally than we do. The consequences of our folly are to be seen all around us in the violence, neurosis and loneliness of our youth, our adults and our aged, some of whom never even approach the fullness and richness of life that could have been theirs had their adolescence been handled with more wisdom, understanding and gentle respect."

Colin Turnbull in "The Human Cycle"

 

PROPOSAL

 

Drawing inspiration from the forms and functions of traditional youth rites of passage - practised in numerous cultures around the world and throughout time - we propose to develop contemporary forms of rites of passage, which will help to meet the pressing needs of young people in the 21st century.

 

RATIONALE

The Problems

 

Making the journey from the dependence of adolescence to the responsibility of adulthood is never easy, but today it is exacerbated by many factors, including the following:

 

*   bewildering complexity of educational pressures and choices, making it hard to see the wood for the trees:

*   extension of youth into the mid-twenties and beyond, with many young people showing a reluctance to "grow up":

*   for boys, fewer traditional male work roles, with more women doing "men's work", but not vice versa; no "job for life":

*   a lack of socially useful work (the electronic culture, some say, is a "dismal substitute for the real thing") leading to uncertainty around roles, purpose and values:

*   the contemporary emphasis on fashion, celebrity and image is superficial and unfulfilling, leading to feelings of emptiness and irrelevance:

*   in a consumer culture that measures worth by material possessions young people may become frustrated and angry if unable to purchase these symbols of value:

*   this has led to increasing adolescent crime (by those who hit out) and suicide (by those who turn their feelings inward):

 

It may "only" be 12% of young people who are driven to extremes of crime and suicide. However research suggests ("Leading Lads") that another roughly 60% of young people are not coping well and have problems of low self-esteem. This is especially true with boys, whose self-confidence decreases through adolescence and reaches a low at age 19 when they leave home. Their problems are compounded because most boys are reluctant to talk about difficulties. Many appear fine from the outside but may be falling apart inside.

 

The Time Honoured Solution

Though we live in rapidly changing times there is much about the process of growing into adulthood that is the same as ever. This is why examining how rites of passage worked in other times and cultures and applying those lessons to today can be of value. Most cultures recognised the potentially de-stabilizing force of undirected youth, of young men in particular, and devised clear, firm and creative ways to constructively channel these energies to bring about a purposeful and responsive adulthood. Here is a brief summary of the form and functions of traditional rites of passage, abstracted from several pre-industrial cultures from around the world. The focus is on how it was for boys, but today much would be relevant for girls as well.

 

Form

*   When a youth (between 13 and 17 years) is deemed ready by appropriate elders he is removed from his cosy family circle and, with the co-operation of the grieving women, taken "away".  Classically this is the severance or separation phase.

*   He then enters the threshold phase where he becomes the dignified and highly valued focus of a series of ceremonies that at times involve the whole community.

*   He is intensively taught survival skills - tracking, hunting lore, communication, making fire, building shelter, crafting tools and weapons - and the sacred topography of the surrounding landscape.

*   He is subjected to tests and ordeals that force him to confront his fears - especially his fear of separation from mother and the fear of death. Indeed, he will go through a "death", the death of himself as a child.

*   He is exposed to rapid-fire secret teachings from his culture's mythology, which shows him who he is and where he comes from.

*   He may be encouraged to seek a vision of his identity, purpose and connection with the natural world by fasting alone in the wilderness.

*   Towards the end of the threshold phase his adult responsibilities - to himself, to society and to the natural world - are emphasized.

*   Finally, in the return phase, he is re-integrated to his community where his new adult status is recognized, honoured and celebrated.

 

Functions

This rites of passage process achieves transformation from an individual being to a social being, from one living just in the present to one who sees the past and the future, from one who only consumes to one who also creates. In particular the young person:

 

*   learns how to survive independently and with confidence in the wider world:

*   by experiencing ordeals and the love of his elders, learns how to deal with difficult emotions (fear, pain, anger, grief, greed, boredom, loneliness) and to feel and express positive states (respect, appreciation, love, courage):

*   experiences a "spiritual awakening" by meeting with Ancestral Spirits or the Divine or by seeing himself, for the first time, as a valuable part of the beauty and splendour of Nature and the Cosmos:

*   by being exposed to the powerful stories and strong traditions of his people, comes to feel a deep sense of his cultural and individual identity:

*   through the process of "seeking a vision" finds a sense of purpose in his life and begins to realize his adult responsibilities:

*   becomes an integrated member of his community.

 

In summary we could say that initiations teach independence, emotional resilience, spiritual awareness, a sense of identity, purpose, responsibility and community involvement. Another benefit of the rites of passage process is that the adults involved make extra efforts to purify themselves. So, while the boys are learning adult values, adults try harder to practice those values. The growth of children into adulthood is therefore part of the continued growth of society as a whole.

 

What about Western Traditions?

Some may object to this emphasis on drawing inspiration from pre-industrial cultures. It’s a long time since such rites of passage were practiced in Britain. That's a fair point. Here for a long time Work (especially apprenticeship) and the Services have provided the two main rite of passage experiences for most young men. Both fulfilled some of the functions of traditional rites of passage and had comparable forms. But with the changing nature of work and the scaling down of the Armed Forces these options are now less available another reason why we need to develop contemporary forms of rites of passage.

 

A Note on Ritual

For some the concept of "rites" as contained within rites of passage may have negative associations. In its primary meaning “ritual” refers to “formal acts set by tradition, usually performed for a religious purpose”. Rituals - particular words and acts - are used to consecrate or make sacred a place, a time, a person, an object or a being of nature. They have the effect of intensifying experience, of charging a person with feelings of reverence for creative forces greater than themselves, be they “divine”, “supernatural” or “ancestral”. Rituals work by using symbolism. They are, in essence, about making meaning. They do not have to be attached to specific faiths, but, as the word "spiritual" suggests, can simply be practices which help a person spirally ascend to a heightened sense of being. They are, some say, as fundamental to human culture as language itself. In traditional rites of passage every lesson, ordeal or song is part of a sacred ritual clearly designed to consecrate the life of the initiate.

 

Today many traditional rituals have lost their value. However the need for ritual persists. Many people are now experimenting with creating new rituals, drawing on the principles and practices of the past but adapting and devising forms that meet the needs of the present. This is a necessary and healthy development. Making new forms of rites of passage is part of that process.

 

METHOD

The 21st century world is vastly different from that of pre-industrial cultures where rites of passage were a conscious and common practice. We live in a complex, information saturated world and can easily be bewildered by an overwhelming array of choice. As a consequence we often can’t see the wood for the trees. But there are many domains of knowledge and ways of working that can contribute towards a rites of passage type experience for young people today. None, on their own, provide the complete experience. Brought together, integrated by a rites of passage perspective, their effectiveness and potency could be increased many times. The principle domains providing sources for the renewal of rites of passage are as follows.

 

Sources

*  Anthropology It’s by studying other cultures that we know about the widespread practice of rites of passage. The variety of approaches, rituals and accompanying mythology can be a source of insight and inspiration to us now. Not that we would lift complete processes from one culture into our own. But we can glean ideas and perspectives. We may be able to benefit from the direct teachings of, say, Native American, African or Australian Aboriginal elders. We may also rediscover the traditional practices of early British peoples such as the Celts.

 

*  Youth Work Whereas anthropology provides theory, youth work is about grass roots practice. Youth workers are faced with the everyday reality of how it is for young people. They learn non-patronising ways of "being with" them and regularly discuss and deal with the pressing issues of sexuality, pregnancy, family breakdown, anger, conflict resolution, racism, drug and alcohol use, delinquency and the police, survival skills, work, leisure and how to relate to adults.

 

*  Outdoor Activities Many outdoor education establishments originally had rites of passage as an implicit part of their agenda. That has lessened due to pressures of time and money, but nevertheless taking young people on adventures into the wilds often involves them facing their fears, learning survival skills and experiencing directly the awesome beauty of Nature. It can suffer from a "macho" approach with an over-emphasis on skills, but recent initiatives have been concentrating on the spiritual potential of the outdoors.

 

*  Environmental Movement This encompasses a wide range of activity for young people which includes: exploring natural habitats and developing the skills of a naturalist; being involved in nature and wilderness conservation; campaigning with environmental organisations; practicing "deep ecology" to expand awareness of how we are part of a living planet; knowing the scientific story of the origins of the Earth and the evolution of Life. All this can lead to a deeper connection with Nature and help individuals see how they are part of the wider world.

 

*  Creative Arts Most arts originated in a ritual context and had a spiritual purpose. Now creative works are made for an audience, but use of symbol and metaphor in the act of creation still expands a person. Listening to stories may deepen a sense of cultural roots and awaken the idea of life as a heroic journey. Writing poetry values the individual's experience. Participating in drama brings confidence and can enlarge the sense of self. With sculpture and art people create meaning with their hands. Making music and dancing is freeing and joyful.

 

*  Psychology In the last 30 years there's been a huge increase in understanding of the human psyche and methods for personal growth and development. These include listening, empathy and communication skills, assertiveness training, anger management, relationship and family counselling, gender awareness, emotional literacy, techniques for self-realization, group dynamics. There are many models available to assist insight. These can be helpful in work with young people.

 

* Survival Skills Skill training today includes such skills as computer literacy, self-presentation, interview technique, budgeting etc. But young people also often enjoy learning the more traditional arts of survival such as map reading and navigation, fire building and making shelters, finding wild food and cooking.

 

* Spiritual Approaches All the faiths make contributions here, teaching lessons in respect and self-acceptance, learning to love, prayer, meditation and stilling the mind, the vision quest, nature as teacher, timeless values of beauty and truth, the perennial philosophy....

 

This is not a complete list of sources to be drawn on in renewing rites of passage for youth, but it is enough. Many of these areas of knowledge are peripheral to mainstream education, seen as optional extras. From the perspective of rites of passage they are central.

 

CONCLUSION

 

We live in exciting, but dangerous, times. As the Earth is assailed by an unprecedented array of de stabilising forces, so Society is being unpicked from below by a chronic lack of heart, particularly in the downcast and the young. If we are to reweave the web we need to spend more time and effort with our youth. We need the growth of people to be higher in value than the growth of material wealth. At the moment there is something desperately important missing in the way we bring up our children. It has to do with how much we challenge them, how much we love them, how much we guide them. It has to do with putting people first. The special challenge is to work with those who are in the testing time of moving from childhood dependency to being self-reliant, inter-dependent, creative, active adults. We believe that a "rites of passage" perspective adds potency to this work, and ultimately not just for disadvantaged youth, but for all.

 

If only we could get this transition right, then how much else would fall into place. We wouldn’t have to keep sucking at our mother’s breast any more; we wouldn’t have to keep playing tin soldiers. We could live together on a healthy, wholesome, humming little planet that would still be beautiful one thousand years from now.

 

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At Cae Mabon we have been exploring rites of passage, especially for boys and men, since 1989. Currently we are hosting Mandorla, the Kingfisher Project 'Call to Adventure' for 13-16 year olds, Menspedition and Wombspedition. Here is a pic of the men and lads from the 2023 Kingfisher crew.



 

 

 

 

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