Modern Day Rites of Passage for Boys/Men

The ultimate form of preventative medicine

By Dr. Arne Rubinstein 
Published Friday, 20 April 2007

The difference between a man with a vision who wants to make a positive mark on his world and one who is aimless with no hope for the future is immeasurable. The aim of Pathways to Manhood is to bring out the potential in young men and have them full of inspiration as they look to the future.

Consider if you will your own early teenage years. Did you feel comfortable in your body? Were you inspired about your future? Was there someone there to answer all your deepest questions? Did you feel at ease with members of the opposite sex? Or were you like me and the vast majority of people who struggled through those years battling a mixture of loneliness, confusion, depression and sheer frustration. Did you also pray for the time when it would all end and you would finally grow up, feel like an adult and start living the life you’d dreamed of with all that other stuff left far behind in your past? And by the way, has it happened yet?

Why did all indigenous societies and communities place so much emphasis on Rites of Passage? It was recognised that the stages of life often meant great changes in the psyche of the individual and the marking of these points of change with a ritual or ceremony was in order to facilitate this. Birth, marriage and death were obvious times but there were many others that we now ignore in modern Western society. Initiation of boys was performed throughout the world and of all the Rites of Passage this was the one that often took the most effort and energy. It was recognised that the future of the community depended upon having healthy men as opposed to overgrown boys. The shift from boy to man was seen as being so fundamentally important that the boys were removed from the rest of the community and taken away not to return until they were on the pathway to manhood.

The difference between Boy Psychology and Healthy Man Psychology

Boy Psychology

    •    I seek acknowledgement
    •    I want it all for me.
    •    Power is for my benefit
    •    I am the centre of the universe
    •    I believe I am immortal
    •    I take no responsibility for my actions
    •    I want a mother

Healthy Man Psychology

    •    I seek that which I believe in
    •    I share with my community
    •    Power is for the good of all
    •    I am just part of the universe
    •    I know I am mortal
    •    I take full responsibility for my actions
    •    I want relationship with a woman

Of particular interest is that there are cross-cultural commonalities to the processes used in different parts of the world:

•   Boys were removed from the community.
•   The relationship of boy and mother with the boy as an infant finished and a new one based
    on respect began.
•   The history and ways of the community were passed on through song, story and dance.
•   An event was crafted that showed the boy his mortality.
•   The return of the boy as a young man to the community was celebrated.
•   Afterwards the elder men in the community watched over, supported and if necessary
    disciplined the young man.

What happens if we don’t create Rites of Passage for our youth?

Do you know of any men who, despite being adults, still function on the model of boy psychology described above?  Imagine the frustration and internal stress of a man still continually seeking acknowledgement and power, wanting to be number one all the time, thinking he is the centre of the universe, believing he will live forever, taking no responsibility for his actions and then on top of that looking for a woman who will mother him? It is a disastrous combination and one that often leads to either drugs or alcohol to numb out unhappy states of mind or the setting up of artificial environments at work or in relationships to create a false sense of success.

Put simply, a man cannot lead a healthy and fulfilling life if he is still functioning at the level of boy psychology and his community will also suffer, as he will not provide a positive contribution.

There is a strong belief that much of the risk-taking behaviour displayed by teenage boys is in fact their attempts at self-initiation. Fast cars, binge drinking, fighting in the street and taking drugs are just a few examples of ways that boys try to prove their manliness. Unfortunately the results can be disastrous and have long-term consequences.

Creating contemporary Rites of Passage

A Rite of Passage is a marking of the passing of a particular phase of life.  Their creation requires first recognition of the old and new phase and then some way to symbolise and reinforce that change. Ideally someone other than the person going through the change creates the Rite of Passage. Pathways to Manhood is a project that has been running since 1993 around Australia. An initiative of the 4th annual Australian and New Zealand Men’s Leadership Gathering it creates appropriate facilitated Rites of Passage for boys between 11 and 15 years of age. All boys attend with either their father or some other significant man in their life such as a grandfather or uncle. It is designed to assist the change from boy to healthy man.

Pathways facilitates growth by taking the boys and men to a bush camp and:

•  Creating a sense of community
•  Public acknowledgement of the boy by his father and/or other men

•  Allowing boys to hear the stories of older men

•  Modelling respect as a primary learning tool

•  Challenging the boy to determine his own future, to be a positive, responsible member of
   his community and to live his life to its fullest potential
•  Creating a community celebration upon the return of the young men
•  Setting up of an ongoing supportive environment (all men who attend are aware that they
   do so not only for the boy they come with but also for every other boy in attendance)

Rites of Passage as the ultimate form of Preventative Medicine

Given that much of the health dollar is spent on dealing with the long-term effects of addictive behaviours such as cigarettes and alcohol, it is reasonable to say that anything that decreases their use will improve the overall health of the community. An inspired man with a mission in life that is rewarding, a healthy relationship, family and a strong sense of belonging is much less likely to partake of self-destructive behaviours. This man will have an interest in his long-term health and an awareness that his future impacts upon those around him. Rites of Passage at appropriate times in his life will strengthen his connection with himself and his community.

Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 3, September 02

Article by Dr. Arne Rubinstein

Dr Arne Rubinstein (MBBS,FRACGP) is the National Co-ordinator of Pathways to Manhood, a unique program that creates contemporary rites of passage for adolescent boys. He has been working with teenagers since he graduated from the International Institute for Youth Leaders in Jerusalem in 1982. Arne worked as a General Practitioner for 11 years specialising in Adolescent Health