Excerpted from Frederick’s book Rites to a Good Life: Everyday Rituals Of Healing And Transformation. If you haven’t already, please read part 1 of this excerpt series.
I was working with a group of young boys. I was working with them through goal setting. “Where do you want to be in five years? Where do you want to be in ten years?” And a young boy wouldn’t do that assignment. He wouldn’t do the exercise. I didn’t want to put him on the spot so later on I pushed him and said, “Hey man, what’s up?” He said, “Brother Chike, no, I don’t want to do that.” I said, “Come on, what’s going on?” He kind of looked at me and said, “Nah, I’ll be dead, you know, I don’t want to do that.” And he just walked off.
As I was driving home I suddenly found myself literally shaking. I had to pull over. Mind you, I had been in the U.S. barely three years. I was shaking. The gravity of what he said hit me. Not only was it what he said but the way he said it. He could have just said, “Oh, I’m just gonna go get a drink of water.” It was so cavalier. It was so certain. And it was just okay and that was life. And we’re talking where would you be in just five years. I couldn’t wrap my mind around that. I just couldn’t. I was completely crippled by that experience.
I remember getting on the phone with my father and saying, “My life has no meaning if I’m operating in circles such as this.” I was confused. That was the beginning of this journey to what we call a Rites of Passage program. And two, three years later this Oriki Theater Rites of Passage program was born.
What came out of that conversation with my father, and the series that followed it… he was basically saying, “Create a space for that young boy and he will live to tell his own story.” I said, “How can I create a space for this boy?” It wasn’t just about going back to him to lecture him, “No, you’re not going to die! No, you’re going to do this…! No, no, no…” That was not what my father would say. He would say, “Create a space. Create a space.” And that kept gnawing at me. As I went back to my father and we kept talking about this, all of the sudden it began to make sense – what “create a space” was supposed to look like or mean. And I never forgot that. – Chike Nwoffiah
“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
If you’re thinking, “Oh, that’s clearly a low income, inner city boy of color that Chike is talking about.” It may well be. He works largely with African-American teens in East Palo Alto, CA. But stop right there if you think that higher income, white suburban boys don’t face their own dramatic coming of age challenges. Theirs just come in different forms. It may not be death by gun violence. Theirs tend to come with greater likelihood of alcohol and drug addiction, greater likelihood of suicide, greater likelihood of committing armed violence on a massive scale, greater likelihood of dying while drinking and driving. Rich white boys are category leaders in a number of scales of dysfunction. They may be well educated but they are no wiser than any other boys in avoiding the pitfalls of their unconscious drive to be initiated.
That’s the complacency I often face when addressing largely well to do, largely white communities. “Oh, that’s an issue for them. We don’t have those problems in our community. Our kids come from good homes.” Dream on! Many parents are fooled by the unconscious protection that privilege affords. Money and skin color and social status might protect some boys from facing certain kinds of self-destruction, but not others. The statistics don’t lie. Privilege is not a dysfunction deterrent.
I filmed a case in point. In my TV mini-series Boys to Men?, Spencer was a fine Jewish boy who was Bar Mitzvahed at 13. Bright, funny, sensitive, affectionate, and caring, he had a lot going for him. He came from a “good home” in a “good community.” Both his parents were regularly present – his father was even working at home – and both were thoughtful and loving caretakers. His largely white New Jersey suburb had good public schools and was considered relatively safe. There was only one problem. As a 15 year old, Spencer was obsessed with the idea of going into his school armed with semi-automatic weapons to shoot and kill his teachers, administrators and fellow classmates. Not long after I started filming his year-long story, I started to think of him as the prototype Columbine killer.
Fortunately, Spencer, as far as I know, never committed acts of actual violence; he did eventually transition into adulthood. But his story is nonetheless exemplary. He had seizures from the time he was a small boy. His physical limitations kept him from participating in sports with his peers. When I met him at 15, he was somewhat overweight and “schlubby,” not physically coordinated or adept. Despite the fact that, like many boys his age, he was into violent video games and the World Wrestling Federation, due to his physical limitations he was largely ignored, humiliated or outright bullied by male peers most of his young life. He was largely ignored by girls or was too inhibited to approach them. He was a seething cauldron of resentment and rage.
I started filming his story about a month before he underwent brain surgery. Modern medicine has attributed certain kinds of seizures to abnormalities in the hippocampus and has had tremendous success by simply removing it. The family understandably hoped the surgery would be a game changer. They fully expected that after his surgery Spencer would eventually assume a life of physical normalcy for an average teen. And that’s what happened. Eventually his seizures stopped and he was able for the first time to pursue many previously forbidden physical activities. But the accompanying windfall of emotional and psychological shifts did not materialize. Spencer still fantasized repeatedly about violence and revenge on all those who judged, excluded and humiliated him.
Receiving some adept mentorship and a real ROP could have made all the difference. Spencer needed rituals of new physical challenge. An alert mentor might have insisted that Spencer accompany him on a backpacking trip. Spencer needed to experience being away from home, away from monitoring machines and away from Mom in wholly new and significant ways (Separation). He needed to experience his new human body in ways that would test and prove its new capacities and resilience (Ordeal). He needed a chance to bond with a man, or men, in ways that had been previously forbidden – out in nature, under open skies, without the comforts and confinements of home – in order to begin to recognize his own deeper nature and see himself as a true male peer. He needed to return home and be celebrated and honored by his family and community as a man among men (Homecoming). This ROP might have accomplished what no successful surgery ever could. He needed the symbolic death of his old identity as “a boy with seizures” and a rebirth as “a young man capable of anything.” I hope Spencer eventually found his life’s true calling.
It’s arguably more important for men to have a sense of mission or purpose in life because they’re more dangerous without it. Men have a strong built-in desire to want to serve someone or something, to know that their life has meaning and is of positive purpose. This is no less true of women of course, but it is fair to say that historically much of that sense of purpose for women came through child rearing and service to the family. There’s a longing in men to feel part of a team or a group outside the family, to work together with others to realize a common purpose. A man’s gaze tends to be outward, toward making an impact, toward how he can provide for his family, yes, but also for his community. He tends to want to effect change in the greater world. This is a large part of how a man gauges his own power. Obviously, this drive can take very positive or very negative forms. But the drive itself is very much inherent in the nature of men.
Very few people understand this anymore. Many missionless, purposeless men in their own bitterness, depression and addictions – due to drugs, alcohol, sex, work, food or TV – have given up on themselves. At some deep unconscious level, they know what they’re missing in life, how they themselves were never taught by other men how to be a man, how to reach for and find fulfillment in life, how to understand and utilize emotions effectively, what spiritual connection and contentment feels like and where to find meaning. No one was there for them so why should they be there for someone else? How could they be?
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