From Boys to Men: Rediscovering Rites of Passage

By Israel Helfand and Jon Bliss

Voice Male

What does it mean to be a man—not just legally, but ethically, morally, emotionally, and spiritually? How does a young person today come of age in our fast-paced, info-overloaded, materialistic, and highly technical American culture? And most important, what role do adults play in helping boys assume the mantle of manhood?

We recently asked a group of adolescent boys what it means to be a man. A boy responded by saying, “I’m a man when I can do whatever the hell I like, and don’t have to answer to anyone.” It’s tempting to draw back in the face of such a statement. And it’s truly frightening to think how many adolescents subscribe to this anthropocentric—not to say brutal—view of life and adulthood. But this scenario didn’t write itself overnight.

In basic developmental theory, human beings are inherently self-centered at birth, and it is initially through this “narcissism” that we learn about ourselves and about the world by constantly probing limits. But sometime during adolescence, it all changes—at least it’s supposed to. In reality, children become teenagers, and teenagers can be easy marks in a culture where instant gratification and self-delusion are too often substitutes for maturity.

Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa pointed out that all children, regardless of ethnic milieu, come to a watershed moment, during their teenage years, when they begin looking beyond themselves. In a very real sense, they awaken to the rest of society. This awakening is a time to celebrate their gifts, look for ways to fit into their community, and grapple with how to make the world a better place. But adolescence is a delicate time, far more tender, in some ways, than early childhood. The boy is not a child any longer, and he is not a man. Developmentally excluded from the community of childhood, ambivalent about adulthood, he faces two choices: to join the ranks of responsible adults (provided such exist!), or to band together with his peers in an alternate society, parallel and in many ways counter to the rest of the culture. Without guidance, too many of our boys choose the second option by default. While some traditional societies mentor the young through these “years of change,” in America this most important life passage is often treated like an extended period of sickness, to be endured with much complaining on all sides until it (hopefully) passes.

Imagine the pain of the adolescent trying to find his way. Imagine a boy relocated to a new school, a new town, in a new state. Suddenly, everything in his world is unfamiliar. Imagine that his mother is divorced and is moving in with her new boyfriend.

Continue by picturing this boy coming home to an empty house after school and cooking his sister’s dinner until his mom comes home from work. Where is this boy in the here and now? Probably spending considerable time thinking about what he left behind. At a time when he should be getting help figuring out who he is, he’s alone, trying to keep his emotional head above water.

It has been estimated that after divorce, 50 percent of adolescents have no contact with their father, 30 percent have sporadic contact, and 20 percent see their dad once a week or more. Truth is, even if our imagined boy’s father is still at home because our society dictates that men spend long hours away from home working, an average dad spends less than a minute a day with his infant son and one hour a day with his adolescent. Research psychologist and Harvard Medical School professor Samuel Osherson, in Finding Our Fathers, says if you average it out, fathers spend approximately ten minutes a day with their children. “A psychological time bomb within the younger generation of men and women now coming of age” Osherson calls it. Alexander Mitscherly has studied fatherless men over the last 30 years. He discovered that when a boy did not see his father work, and did not spend time with this father, a hole, or a space, opened in the boy’s psyche. This hole was not filled with a sense of his father being a white knight or a hero. It was filled instead with a sense of demons, of suspiciousness of older men, and of insecurity. The desperation and confusion this boy feels will color his world and his entry into manhood like a veil. Imagine the man he is to become.

Culture, it has been said, is like a veil. Our upbringing, our life, and work, how we speak, how we integrate our own experiences—all these elements of our lives are woven together to cocreate our view of the world. The adolescent latchkey boy we speak of had, in his veil, threads of divorce, relocation, blended family, loss of father, and physical and emotional distance from mother. His view of the world is a shadow view. Is it any wonder, then, that statistically, he has a 60 percent chance of attempting suicide before he’s 20, a 30 percent chance of developing an addiction, and a 15 percent chance of committing an act of violence against a peer before he reaches adulthood?

French author Arnold Van Gennep, in his 1908 work Les Rites de Passage, points out that it is not enough for young people to receive the empathy and understanding of caring adults. In the traditional mentoring process, the mentors have themselves been mentored. One must have a personal experience of the Rite in order to offer it to the next generation. The problem is that our culture has not been kind to traditional Rites. What may once have been effective personal and collective passages have too often been marred by commercialism, and molded through generations of blended families, overpopulation, and reduced community involvement.

Israel writes this about his own coming of age:

I was Bar Mitzvah on January 20, 1968, in Yonkers, New York. The man who taught me was bitter, impatient, and intolerant of my endless curiosity. My family’s involvement was more about choreography—where to stand, what to say—than spirituality. They never discussed with me what it meant to be a man. They didn’t discuss anything. Even the gifts of money I received went to pay for the party—if they’d communicated with me I might have taken a trip to Israel instead. I struggled with mixed messages: was this really for me, or for my family’s honor? The 10 or so minutes I was alone on the Bima in front of the congregation were powerful and I knew I would never be the same. But I had little understanding of the ceremony as my passage to a healthy, meaningful adulthood.

Changes in body size and emerging sexuality are pivotal developments in a boy’s life. The cultivation of friendships, the development of physical strengths, the awakening of intellectual curiosity, and the differentiation from family are other developmental signs. In fact, a major task of adolescence is for both young men and women to develop their self-identity. Boys who are helped through these crucial steps have an easier time asking the larger questions necessary for full maturation and individuation: Can I make it on my own? Do I have what it takes? And then perhaps the ultimate expression of existential uncertainty: Where do I fit in? Conversely, a boy who does not have guidance throughout this life-defining time tends to remain “stuck” in adolescence—quite literally, a “man-child.” Having asked the questions, having reached out for help and been ignored, his only option is to make the worst of adolescent behavior—its self-absorption, its aggressive nature—into a way of life. Hence, Columbine. Hence, addictions of all kinds. Hence, domestic violence. Hence, thousands of men identify themselves as human “doings,” and struggle with what it means to be.

Sometimes, though, a boy literally finds himself in the midst of a loving community. Jon writes about a pivotal summer in his own coming of age:

The summer I was fourteen I had my first kiss, won a cross-country race, learned how to rebuild a carburetor, and was admired by my friends. That summer somehow, I think, through the forethought and wisdom of my parents, I came in contact with an unusually large and colorful group of older people whom I admired so much, I practically worshiped them. The people around me seemed to understand how ready I was to be treated like a mature person. That’s how they treated me, like a mature person. It was as if I had experienced a formal rite of passage that summer, but I didn’t consciously know it until much later.

Educators, therapists, and culture watchers mostly agree on the problem. And to a large extent, we agree that radical changes are called for as men prepare themselves for a new role in society. While fatherhood is now coming to a select group of older men who have already dealt with their midlife exploration of meaning and purpose and have committed to being active in raising their children, it is still far from the norm. The trends we must assume and work with are the dual career, single parent, and blended family lifestyles.

As two therapists who have seen thousands of men and boys in the confusion and pain of growing up, we believe any attempt to re-vision our lives, as men, will fail without the incorporation of a Rite of self-discovery. Like those found in every ancient culture and every surviving piece of wisdom literature, this Rite involves stripping away the layers of self, family, and worldview (the veil of culture) to discover, fundamentally, what we’re made of and who we are. It is a journey of soul and spirit.

Here’s how one adult began that journey of self-discovery:

The year is 1990. Israel travels into the Adirondack backcountry to meet with other men and undertake a vision quest. As he’s preparing to hike out to find the site of his four-day solo, a group of sport hunters walk through the camp, their faces set like masks. As he watches them, fear rises in Israel’s chest. It’s as if these men signal not only the possibility of physical violence, but also the threat of some deeper turmoil, unforgiving anger, and sadness each of us carries within us. Later, in the sweat lodge, as the singing and chanting of his male comrades begin to strip away defenses, Israel feels himself visited by a spirit who calls him into atonement with his ancestors, and he passionately gives thanks.

At sunrise, he starts out upstream. Over the next several days he is visited by fear, elation, and, finally, peace. Alone on a rock in the middle of the rushing water, Israel cries and sings, and at night he dreams that the animals have come to be his teachers. He chants, weeps, and is silent. On the last day of his solo, he writes in his journal, “Our hearts can ask for help through our words often cannot. Surely we need the guidance of the soul of the earth as well as the spirit of the sky…. All people need to feel the miracle of creation, their lives reflected back to them, miraculous and creative…. Be true to your heart and accept the love of the world around you. Bless all children and parents with the truth only the heart can speak.”

Being a man is more than turning 13, 18, or 21 years old. It involves having the courage to be open to who we truly are as our souls journey toward love and compassion. We are challenged to shed light on the shadows of all life. We are held accountable to bring justice where none appears. We are blessed by the ability to make a difference and entrusted by our ancestors to preserve the most holy of their teachings.

Every boy is worth saving. Every man is worth loving, every family is worth supporting. Our challenge as elders is this: To model a rigorous and compassionate inner journey and to share and witness the fruits of that journey with our youth in training.

Jon Bliss, M.A., is a husband, father, and farmer who lives in Andover, Vt. Trained in the ministry, he now works in community mental health, and in private practice with boys and young men. Israel Helfand, M.S., Ph.D., works for Four Seasons Healing, Inc. He guides fathers and sons through Rites of Passage, runs men’s retreats, and teaches ecopsychology with his wife Cathie at their family farm in Cabot, Vt. He can be reached at