By Frederick Marx

(Excerpted from Rites to a Good Life: Everyday Rituals Of Healing And Transformation.)

What would you do if someone told you your son would never become a man? That your nephew would never experience maturity? That your cousin or grandson would never feel from the inside the beating heart of what it really means to be an adult male? Well, it’s happening right now, in our country, today. 

Millions of boys – black, white, Asian, Latino, rich and poor boys, good boys – smart, sensitive, and loving boys, vulnerable and open boys, are not fully growing up, are not accomplishing the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Without initiation and mentorship, these boys will never know what is sacred about their own masculinity. They’ll never know their own unique mission in life; they’ll never know what it is to serve family and community rather than their own self; they’ll never know their place in the order of things, the depths of their own greatness or the true limits of their own reach and they’ll never know what an empowering gift their own feelings can be – how they can learn to master them through acceptance; how their tears, their shame, their anger and fear can ignite the fires of passion and can actually set them free. 

This was less true in Western society before the Industrial Age. Boys raised on farms or learning crafts were apprenticed by their fathers and other men. While they were taught practical and professional skills, they were also taught by men what it is to be a man, what civilized behavior is – the rights and responsibilities of adulthood, the kuleana. Once men started moving off their farms and out of their shops and studios to work in factories, that ancient system broke down. Couple that with the destruction of indigenous cultures across the planet by colonialism and imperialism and there now remain few organic links through the chain of time to the practices and wisdom of the past. 

My close friend Tom Pitner and his friend Jim Warner designed a ROP program for boys in 2000. They called it “Becoming a Man – A One-Year Rite of Passage for Adolescent Boys.” They wrote an incredibly useful manual on how they did it. I would have re-published it here in the appendix were it not 67 pages long. Get yourself a copy. You will find it enormously helpful in constructing similar programs for boys you know. They begin the handbook with these remonstrations, presumably to help recruit men as mentors. If ever there were phrasing to make literal what Joseph Campbell termed “The Call to Adventure,” starting a man on his “Hero’s Journey,” this is it! 

British Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton placed this advertisement in London newspapers in 1900 in preparation for the National Antarctic Expedition (which subsequently failed to reach the South Pole). Shackleton later said of the call for volunteers that: “It seemed as though all the men in Great Britain were determined to accompany me, the response was so overwhelming.” 

Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

Both boys and girls, men and women, need initiation and mentorship. But I believe boys and men need it more. Especially in these times. [Generalizing alert! I will now make sweeping statements about men and women, even more than before. I get how risky this is given our present cultural climate, where any statement made can and will be interpreted in zero sum terms, as exclusionary or detrimental in particular to women. Please note that I am in no way saying these statements apply literally to all men or all women. These distinctions certainly do not apply in every circumstance. Nonetheless, I think making them can be helpful. You don’t have to read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus to understand that.] 

Men are primarily the ones in positions of power in countries around the world, in governments, corporations and institutions of all types. The vast majority are of course uninitiated. Though living out their suspended adolescence in “adulthood” may be no more statistically common than women, the repercussions of their dysfunctions are far greater. They are the ones who are mostly to blame for the slew of problems presently facing the globe: climate change, extreme wealth inequality, warfare, violence of all kinds, asserting dominance over others. Given all the residual harmful effects of male dominant culture perpetrated by (and on!) men and boys, this chapter’s emphasis on what males in particular need to become fully mature seems appropriate.

Watch for continuations of this excerpt series or purchase the full Ebook, Audiobook or paperback hard copy today!

“Filled like a banquet with rituals, stories, medicines, quotes and models, recipes for genuine growth and transformation... Rites to a Good Life is a call for us all to reflect on our own personal journey and its place in the culture and cosmos around us.”

- Jack Kornfield, bestselling American author and legendary Buddhist teacher