Do We Need Rites of Passage?

The young native American teen sent off into the darkness with nothing but a bow and arrow and expected to return with a wolf pelt or two or three. The Masaai warrior tasked with stalking and killing a lion in single combat. The donning of a glove lined with stinging bullet ants to commemorate becoming a man. Ritualistic tattooing, branding, or mutilation upon reaching a certain age or completing a certain task. The bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, celebrations of a Jewish boy’s and girl’s respective entrances into adulthood. The Latin American quinceañera. Rites of passage are nearly universal throughout human cultures, both ancient and modern. Universally-preserved behaviors, whether physiological traits, or cultural artifacts, are usually there for very good, or at least very important reasons. So let’s take a closer look. Why do we have rites of passage? Are they still a significant part of growing up in the modern world? If not, should they be?

Most anthropologists (PDF), citing Arnold van Gennep’s major work, “The Rites of Passage,” will say that rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement. They’ll say that the smaller the group, the easier it is to have cooperation and social cohesion. Consider a single family of hunter-gatherers – mom, dad, son, daughter. The four people in this situation aren’t like family; they are family. Cohesion is built-in, it’s natural. There’s no jockeying for position, no confusion over who does what and who listens to whom. The parents protect and provide for the youngsters, the youngsters listen to the parents. This is biological. No artifice required.

Meanwhile, the larger a group gets, the more it requires formalized roles, boundaries, and relationships to enable the same kind of cooperation and cohesion. To maintain social cohesion and maximize survivability, hunter-gatherer groups composed of not one but five, ten, or twenty families are going to have to figure out how to emulate the familial ties and bonds. It will contrive and create social connections and establish roles and statuses for the members. You can’t have everyone doing their own thing without a thought to the group, because survival will be that much more difficult. Resources are scarce – or, at least, there are no guarantees, no grocery stores – and working together improves their chance at thriving and surviving. People in the group need to feel like they belong to the group. Everyone needs a stake in a tribe, and rites of passage help provide that by establishing and formalizing the roles at various life-stages.

I certainly won’t argue with that analysis. It’s well established that humans are social animals, hominids that fight and argue and bicker and laugh and cry and, yes, work together. That’s just who we are, and it’s who we’ve always been (as long as we’ve been human, at least). We form groups, we band together, and we feel intrinsic bonds with our family members. We cohere and cooperate, and I agree that rites of passage and ritual make these social ties stronger and easier to establish. But I suspect there’s more to it.

Humans are self-reflecting, introspective, eager to ascribe deeper meaning to everything, and convinced that we’re the center of the universe. After all, all we know of the world is what we can perceive; our perceptions and our thoughts and our language effectively form our world. The world, in that respect, revolves around us, and our thoughts are more gonzo journalist than impartial observer, running commentary, giving a subjective slant to everything, and shaping our experiences as we go about our day. Is it any wonder that we’d ring in our passage into adulthood with burning brands, stinging ants, huge parties, and complex and solemn ritual, rather than go quietly into the next phase? 

And of course, many rites of passage boil down to simple tests or indications of a person’s courage, fortitude, and/or aptitude. Going out by yourself and a spear and coming back with a lion’s pelt doesn’t just mean you’ve been ushered into the world of men. It also means that you are a capable hunter, a valuable addition to the group who can likely handle what the world will throw at you. Graduating college isn’t just a badge of honor; it (ideally) means you’ve garnered the skills necessary to flourish in your chosen field. Having your first menstruation isn’t just a symbolic shedding of your girlhood; it means you’re physiologically capable of getting pregnant. Rites of passage are also very utilitarian and practical, then.

Today, we have ID cards and social security numbers, badges and political party affiliations and Facebook friend lists, jobs and resumes and official titles to remind us and others who we are, where we are in the world, what we do, and who we know. Do these suffice? Or are we missing out on genuine rites of passage? Do we need the physical and mental ordeals? Do we need the formality?

Maybe. In many Western countries today, young people construct their own rites of passage, cobbling together experiences based on what they think becoming an adult actually entails. There seems to be some innate yearning for the rite of passage, some deep-seated sense that various “stages” of life exist, are real, and should be observed. “Am I a wo/man and no longer a child?” “When do I feel like a grown-up?” “What affirms this?”

I think we could all benefit from a rite of passage at one point or another to satisfy this yearning. But into today’s increasingly complex world there’s not going to be a “one size fits all” approach. We’re not living in small to large bands where you either take up hunting or fishing or medicine work, where what role you inhabit is limited by your immediate physical surroundings and the needs of your group. We have far more options and roles and jobs to fill, and we’ll have to find the rites that work for our unique situation. In that case, what would a modern rite of passage even look like?

Consider what Claire Potter did for her thirteen year old boy. She devised a list of thirteen challenges covering thirteen different areas of life for him to tackle and complete, including shopping for clothes on a budget, taking public transportation to far away cities, doing chores, learning a musical instrument and playing in public, and learning a language. He didn’t hunt lions or endure stinging ants, because he doesn’t “need” those skills. He’s more likely to use the skills he did learn in his life in this world.

This is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic, but I hope this gets a conversation going and gets you thinking about what role a rite of passage may or may not have played in your life.

What do you think, readers? Do we still need rites of passage? Do the old ones still apply, or do we need entirely new ones that make sense in today’s world? If so, what would they look like? Have you gone through a rite of passage? Tell us all about it in the comment section!

TAGS:  Grok

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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143 thoughts on “Do We Need Rites of Passage?”

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  1. Interesting question, I think there would be a lot of benefits to our culture having a rite of passage. The problem is finding an appropriate task to do. Anything hunting related would be protested by the liberals and I can’t see today’s parents allowing their kids to do something dangerous like camping in the woods for a few days by themselves or travelling to a faraway city while alone. The best rite of passage I can think of would be a physical test. For example a teen boy would need to be able to do 5 pull ups, 20 push ups and run 3 miles to “become a man”. With the crazy amount of childhood obesity I doubt many teens these days could do this but maybe it would motivate more kids to get in shape so they can become a man.

    1. Not all liberals are veg*ns. I’m about as liberal as I can get without actually packing up and moving in with the Zapatistas, and I have a very high opinion of hunting. In my opinion, it’s a. the most free-range, naturally-raised meat you can get and thereby the best for you, and b. pretty much the only way you can truly understand what is given up so that you can eat meat. If you’re not willing to personally take the lives of the animals with which you sustain yourself, you shouldn’t eat them. (Note that I’m not saying everyone needs to personally kill everything they eat; just that I think they should be able to, emotionally and physically).

      1. Fair enough, some liberals would protest a hunting rite of passage while cool liberals like yourself would not.

      2. Curious. Are you liberal in the true root of the word? As in an individual being “free”; hence the words liberate and liberty. Please elaborate.

    2. In Israel, males aren’t men until they’ve completed two years in the military. It may be the same in other places.

      1. Females are expected to serve in the Israeli army too–I’m curious if they are seen as women afterward?

        1. Real men and women love conscription. If everyone has to server, including the children of the politicians, it makes people take war, conflict, etc more seriously. It is a dept to society.

          Besides, the combat soldiers are all volunteers. Everyone has to server, but only volunteers join combat units.

      2. Eh. 3 years for men, 2 years (almost) for ladies. And it is a right of passage, yes.

      1. I hug the crap out of some trees. But I also eat utterly ridiculous amounts of (local, sustainable, naturally-raised) meat. Because it’s freaking delicious.

      2. P.S. you forgot gun hating. (Once again, Massachusetts: home to Smith and Wesson and the removal of the musket from the Umass minute man) PPS Cambridge sucks.

    3. I am way liberal and I don’t have an issue with people who hunt ethically.

      Both of my boys would be able to pass the fitness test you describe.

      I do agree that most parents would not allow their kids to travel by themselves.

      I have thought about this issue before and think I need to come up with something for my kids. It seems pretty important and I wish I had to do something like this when I was a kid.

    4. That would mean someone like Stephen Hawking would never be considered a man. Modern adulthood really doesn’t require physical prowess, nor is it restricted to boys/men.

      Modern American society has plenty of rites of passage, they’re generally broken down into smaller groups though and don’t necessarily apply to everyone.

      High school graduation is probably the most universal in the US, but I went through several others – Catholic confirmation, Eagle Scout and Order of the Arrow (we had to spend the night in the woods alone with no food or gear) in Boy Scouts, fraternity initiation, etc.

      1. Very good point, Mark, and it brings up a side that’s been left out so far (that I’ve seen) – what about rites of passage for people with disabilities or illnesses who physically can’t do something like stay alone in the woods all night (as something like that is invariably suggested in discussions like this)? Just offhand, I’d suggest something like planning and executing a cross-country or international trip by any means necessary, with someone along for material aid if necessary but otherwise alone.

      2. While your point is valid, your example is not. Stephen Hawking did not begin showing signs of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) until college. Prior to that, his physical abilities were normal.

        Now, as for rites of passage, a friend of mine and I discussed this issue several years ago. We concluded that our society is sadly lacking in rites of passage for many young people, aside from high school graduation. I wish we had a few more societal rites of passage prior to graduation.

    5. One of the nice things usually, about MDA is the lack of political name-calling. I am asking you nicely to keep it that way, Wayne.

      For the record, I am very liberal, I eat meat (obviously, as I’m here), all my liberal friends eat meat, I know vegetarian and vegan Conservatives and Libertarians, and the notion that the “liberals” are generally opposed to hunting is inaccurate. Lots of us hunt and fish.

        1. I repeat – why don’t you find another place to vent your frustration about the results of the last election. This is a post about rights of passage, and really has nothing to do with politics. There are a million places on the web where you can separate persons into political tribes, if that is how you choose to view the world.

          MDA is a supportive community that addresses the primal lifestyle and associated issues, and is refreshingly free of the kind of divisive crap you find just about everywhere else. I mean, do you really think persons who celebrate meat-eating and the other aspects of the primal lifestyle are really going to have the same views as a hyper-left wing vegan?

          Leave the political debate to the political sites.

      1. I find it funny how you applaud the forum for being apolitical and then toss in your political stance. Me? I make no qualms about it. I’m a political atheist because I believe in the individual, freedom, private property and private contracts. Being primal means one is born free. How about that for a ritual.

        1. Politely asking someone to consider whether this is the place to post partisan political comments, and explaining why his partisan comment is wrong, is not “tossing in my political stance.”

    6. At my kids school, they go away for 9 weeks when they’re in Year 9 (so 14/15 year olds generally), and while they’re away, they have to spend 24 hours camping solo (they also do a couple of other extended hikes/camping), they also cook their own meals, wash their own clothes etc. etc. for the whole time they’re away (part of it is also doing school work, but without their regular technology, so no computers, phones etc.) They get one phone call home a week.

      My kids haven’t done it yet (my oldest goes at the end of Jan next year), but I think the whole experience WILL be a sort of rite of passage for them. Apparently the experience is very transformative for the kids, who generally mature a lot in the time they’re away and get more appreciation for the stuff their parents do!

    7. i’m a mother of 2 grown children and a liberal. i thinking hunting is just fine as long as you are hunting for food, not trophies. i live in rural new england and it is hunting season right now. my brother-in-law is out in the woods every weekend hunting for his family’s supply of red meat for the winter. i’m not sure how old you are, but your comment leads me to think you still have some growing to do. a physical test for manhood may not be possible for every young man. i prefer claire potter’s approach. my kids did not have a test. they just gradually took on more personal responsibility until they were able to care for themselves. my son is getting married and is planning for a family- i see this as his “rite of passage”.

    8. I think the problem with imposing one test for all is that our current society has integrated so many people with so many different abilities that any one test will inevitably exclude some people who are capable of being an adult in the currently necessary ways, but aren’t physically able to pass specific tests. In the days most rites of passage were created, highly physical tests were necessary because the lives of those being tested had to be highly physical. While physical ability is still important (I would like to think that all physically normal adults can carry groceries up a few flights of stairs), it’s not required and so people who are disabled can still be adults.

      I like the idea the mother Mark mentioned in his post had – testing the skills her son would actually need in his adult life. By thirteen, most kids have an idea of what field they would like to go into (if not a specific job), so why not test those skills. A kid who wants to go into law enforcement should be able to pass your physical test, because any chase of a fleeing suspect would probably require most if not all of those abilities. A child whose focus is on computers and technology should perhaps be required to volunteer to teach computer classes, build his or her own computer, run a basic home server and/or build a mobile application.

      For what it’s worth, I went through many of the more typical and traditional tests. I went on camping trips on my own, took transport to other cities on my own, took care of myself, my brother and the family home on my own for a week. I didn’t do any hunting, but only because I don’t care to use guns and bow hunting is severely restricted where I live. I did prove at a range that I could take down a moving deer at 50 feet if necessary. None of those tests really made me feel like an adult, because they weren’t really relevant to the way I saw my future life going. What really changed my feelings was getting a job in a new city on my own, finding an apartment on my own, moving there on my own, having to figure out how to get to and from my work on my own, taking care of myself for months on end, and completely kicking ass at my job. That’s not easy to put into a rite of passage test, and it’s certainly not related to what I did go through. So while physical tests may have their place, they alone won’t really allow for that feeling of becoming an adult if a kid can’t see their relevance.

  2. Interesting Mark never really thought about it in a way of necessity. Enjoyed the Claire Potter article. What a great idea, If I had kids I’d do something similar. Gotta love the tshirt he picked out….

    I would say one particularly common American ritual is turning 21 and drinking. And sadly its not go out and have one drink its go get obliterated. Not sure what necessity that serves? Act an idiot so you don’t want to again?

    (not judging I did that too, swear I didn’t mean to though)

        1. Too bad tattoos are meaningless in our society; except perhaps as a rebellion against our parents, by imitating a feature of prison culture (particularly along with a shaved head.)

  3. I disagree. I think a rite of passage should, in some way, demonstrate your own capacity for self-reliance. As such, excursions into the wilderness or to far-away places seem entirely suitable to me. Remember,it is a rite of passage into adulthood. Therefore, the child must be old enough, mature enough, and intelligent enough, to take care of themselves. This age is different for all people. This leads to the need for parents with wisdom and a good understanding of their child.

      1. I am involved with a Boy Scout troup. I go as an adult chaperone, usually the only woman. I am always wanting to take things the boys need like soap, tissues, and allergy medicine. Thing they forget. I also enjoy cooking for the boys. But, the Scout leader insist the boys are supposed to be cooking for themselves, packing for themselves, learning to care for themeselves. It is hard for me to turn off the mothering and watch them become independent. I am trying very hard to comply!

  4. I think the feeling of acceptance, being unconditionally loved, being forgiven, being forgiving, and giving of one’s self is crucial to living a fulfilled life. I think a person has value before they are even born and should be celebrated for who they are as an individual and expected to contribute to their family, community, country, and the world. Not just a responsibility to self, but responsibility to others. For me, this happens on a daily basis and really does not need a rite of passage. When you place value on children and understand they can be contributors no matter what age, rites are not necessary. Are we living to live long or are living to live well? Hopefully both.

    1. It’s not to say that children can’t be contributors to society, I think. But childhood, to me, can start to be defined as a period of time when there is more learning how to contribute than actual contribution, although the learning process definitely continues (or should). So in that vein, a rite of passage would essentially be providing evidence to society and yourself that you’ve actually internalized all the lessons you’ve received since birth. Specific age doesn’t matter as much as ability and wisdom.

      There’s also the idea of moments of great meaning and epiphany – Mark wrote about moments of euphoria a while ago, and this seems similar. If every day is equally special, no day is special. But if there are specific markers and experiences that hold heavy meaning, we remember them, and how they change us.

      1. My son was a boy scout who earned Eagle rank. The ceremony was not as important to him as the journey he took to get him there, but it was an opportunity for him to understand the impact he had on his fellow scouts and his leaders. We were proud parents. If I asked my son what were meaningful, life changing makers in his life I do not think the ceremony or his eagle project would his answer. It be a natural life experience.

        1. I’d really like to know his answer to the question, actually. Of course I can’t speak for others, but if someone were to ask me what things (type unspecified) had the largest impact on my life, I know I’d respond with certain events, regardless of how long the journey was to get to those points. Graduating is one example – of course it takes years to get to that point, but the actual day of graduation is what sticks out.

        2. My son had the same experience in 4-H. Most of the skills that serve him well as an adult are those he learned in 4-H, which puts a lot of emphasis on letting kids do their own work and on public speaking and organizational skills. He also went to a Waldorf school. On the surface that’s a very liberal place, but they have lots of rites of passage built into their curriculum. Their twist to competition is not to force equalization in everything, like in public school, but to encourage the kids to help each other compete and then celebrate the winners.

        3. Hey are you Carolyn in Minneapolis? it’s River Your neighbor! And you’re kid was not only a good scout but an awesome neighbor.

  5. I think Rites of Passage are essential for all people, but especially the folks in Western countries. The stereotypes we have now are appalling and how we define, say, manhood, is either ridiculous or non-existant.

    Too many people think that being a man is not being a woman, rather than not being a child. So the manly arts (poetry, dance, drama, patinting) are left undone and are replaced with “manly” activities of lifting weights and getting drunk, all while watching NASCAR.

    A Rite of Passage should be confirmation that a boy is a man or a girl a woman. And we can never let them think that childishness is acceptible after they go through it. For the boy-to-man question, I think a ROP should include the tesing of courage, compassion, wisdom, self-sacrifice and physical ability. It is hard to call someone a man if they lack any of those qualities.

    1. That’s funny, I’d say the same tests would apply to women as well. Tesing of courage, compassion, wisdom, self-sacrifice and physical ability, to my mind should be the ROP of a child becoming an adult, be it male or female. Mind you, the tests should not be identical, as there are physical and emotional differences between the sexes that should not be ignored.

      1. I once spent the day with a woman who expressed several times that being in the military made a man out of her son. I kept wondering if the military would make a man out of woman who joins the military as well?

        The idea that ritual is more about going from childhood to adulthood than specifically becoming a man or woman seems to make more sense to me.

        I once read that if you don’t give your child a ritual into adulthood,they will make up their own ritual. Does this at least partially explain the drugs, alcohol, smoking and dangerous behavior of some teens?

        1. LOL, I’m in the Navy, and you would be surprised how many women came out of boot camp acting like men.

          I’m “just a musician,” and the MCPON is trying out complete men’s uniforms on the women. In Hawaii, San Diego, and Norfolk, the musician women are now wearing the dixie cup and cracker jacks. So, I guess to be in the Navy, you have to be a man. Even if you’re a woman.

          *steps off soapbox*

  6. I highly recommend anyone interested in this subject to watch or read “The Power of Myth” which features Joseph Campbell. There is a thorough discussion on the many forms and importance of myths and rights of passage in the psyche of a society. Overall a very interesting and enjoyable read (I haven’t watched the series, only read the published transcript).

    1. Yes! Joseph Campbell! Power of Myth is in my ‘top three eye-opener books’ list! Glad you mentioned it.

  7. Iron john by Robert Bly is about this very subject for the modern man from the perspective of a poet. Iron john, or iron Hans is a story from the grim brothers collection. Metaphor and story being the main ways in which young boys would grow into men. It’s available on the web in audio for free. Good/read listen for both fathers and mothers.

  8. I was just thinking about this the other day and trying to think what would be appropriate for our daughters. And would more than one rite be appropriate? Could we have one at 12 or 13 years old and another when they reach 18–the legal definition of adult?

    Many things to consider about the ritual but certainly something I want to do. There’s no doubt that it is something important to me. (Even though I never had anything of the sort. I attribute my new-found interest in this to the primal community.)

    Thanks for writing about this Mark.

    Oh, ya, I just recently saw something on some sects of the evangelical christian movement which now has rites of passage for both boys and girls.

    1. There are a number of rituals out there for menarche. Red tents, candle lighting, blessings… I kinda like the idea of welcoming a girl into the circle of women (lord knows, every girl is bound to need some wisdom at point or another, just figuring out all the different kinds of goo we make). But… then I had boys.

      1. One night in Los Olivos, CA, I got together with some friends and all the neighborhood virgins (a collection of about 11 young girls). We read poetry, lit candles, and danced and sang around the full moon. It was pretty fun. It was a celebration of pure and innocent young womanhood. Of course, it was during my hippie days…

  9. Vision Quest! A fine, American Indian ritual. Probably the most powerful thing I’ve ever done. Still affects me 30 years later.

  10. I think we could all very much benefit from such things.

    1. I think countries that require a year or two of civil service (Germany?) after high school/college probably achieve a greater sense of cohesion. I met one guy who instead of joining the armed forces drove an ambulance during his required time. Very cool.

    2. I think spending time abroad (e.g. min 3 months) should be required in high school and/or college in our society. I think this would serve this rite of passage purpose well.

  11. The LDS church continues to promote the selfless service of it’s full time missionaries as a rite of passage- and it’s usually spot on: 21 year old men come home after having done their own laundry, shopped for groceries, cooked, cleaned, and otherwise completely cared for themselves 100%.

  12. In the west, we have no official rites of passage. However, this need to test ourselves, and pass through in a concrete way may be imbedded in the human psyche. Western youth seem to have filled this need themselves with their own concoctions; Excessive risk taking activities, such as parties, drug experimentation, and promiscuity may be ways that youth are expressing their need to feel that they are challenging and pushing themselves, and entering into adulthood. In the last 150yrs, western culture has chosen to extend childhood, and ‘protect’ our youth from the adult world. Groks kids were ‘adults’ after puberty was nearly done. We’ve given kids precocious puberty, and, on top of that, we’ve extended their childhood. We recognize the need to ‘graduate’ from every man-made event, but have abandoned the tradition of graduation/celebration from all natural events. “Grok aware’ modern families need to recognize that, just as we risk ill health if we deny our bodies the nutrition that we have evolved for, we risk ill mental health in our youth if we attempt to deny them the guidance, empowerment and celbration that comes from a tangeable, biologically relevant passage into adulthood. This is their ‘right,’ aswell as a rite.

  13. The link to the 13 year old’s right of passage was quite entertaining and informative. And has me thinking for the (very distant) future….

  14. The question of “when do I become an adult” is one I’ve blogged about recently. I don’t think rites of passage are necessary. I think it would be more beneficial to celebrates accomplishments and “phases” as they happen, rather than at any pre-defined set point. Do all milestones have to be such a big deal? I think it adds more stress for modern adolescents, making them feel like they have something to live up to, rather than just fulfilling themselves.

  15. “America has lost its soul; now it’s trying to save its body” -George Carlin

  16. “Consider what Claire Potter did for her thirteen year old boy.”

    Must I?

    And to be frank what does it have to do with “rites de passage”?

    The social context has vanished.

    This is not something the older men of the tribe have arranged for him, and after which they will regard him in a different way. It’s something his mum has cooked up for him, which has no reference outside his family circle.

    Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it has nothing to do with “rites de passage”.

    1. I think the point is to think of a rite of passage in new ways. We obviously don’t need to have a man pass out some kind of test to boys in order for them to become men (as many of the comments have said). Or society has changed, and so have our rites of passage.

  17. Weirdness of todays western lifestyle:

    – Move out or be forced to move out at 18 from your house
    – Lead an extremely self-centered, individualistic lifestyle
    – Throw old parents in ‘senior living’
    – Get a dog(s)
    – Get mentally messed up, pay to see a therapist because there is no social and mental support system because of alienating close human interactions.
    – End up in ‘senior living’

  18. Interesting passage from a book called Testosterone Principles:

    This book is about manhood, and, well, other stuff. But let’s address the manhood thing first.

    And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking the type of manhood that worships monster truck rallies and nacho fries and fast cars; that paints its bare chest green and sits in the subzero stands of Lambeau Field with a hunk of plastic cheese on its head while bellowing like a gutted Klingon; that communicates largely by grunting, belching, or telling fart jokes.

    You know, all that stereotypical crap.

    But that’s not what I had in mind. In fact, I had this notion of manhood that combines the do-goodedness of the Boy Scouts with some heaping doses of self-determination and pragmatism, sprinkled with a dollop of Testosterone, and seasoned with a few fistful-size pinches of Howard Stern.

    From my experience and observations, men and boys are in some serious need of a new definition of manhood. Men by and large don’t have a masculine identity that’s much different from the one-dimensional and infantile masculinity epitomized by professional athletes or by the characters in Hollywood action movies or, worse, yet, television sitcoms.

    But there’s a yin to the masculine yang I just described, and neither side is very pretty.

    There’s a whole other breed of man who, despite rejecting silly Maxim Magazine notions of manhood, has gone completely in the other direction, only slowing down to do some occasional antiquing. Their balls were either cut off metaphorically by society, circumstance, or disapproving wives who put them in a Mason jar and stored them in the shed behind the pickled beets.

    As a result, many kids don’t have fathers anymore; the traditional American family consists of two “moms,” one with a traditional vagina and one with a penis and testicles that acts like a mom. A lot of wives don’t have husbands anymore – they gave their wedding vows to yet another son who, despite being in his 30?s or 40?s or beyond, has to be told what to do and scolded when he’s bad.

    The other type of man I described earlier, the beer-swilling, monosyllabic slobs? Oh, he gets married and has kids, too, but he doesn’t stay married very long — if his wife has any sense, that is.

    So I wrote the columns that make up this book. Most of the articles are about some aspect of my version of manhood, along with the occasional observation about new developments in science or psychology, along with a healthy dose of popular culture and sex (the “other stuff” referred to in the title).

    I’m hoping against all odds that it helps, at least a little bit, to set things right, or at least generate a little discussion and a lot of laughter.

  19. Unfortunately, while some paleolithic/hunter-gatherer types of rites of passage had a decent function (forcing an affiliation with the group, for survival purposes), the modern substitutes, in our fractured, diverse society, seem to just be a desperate attempt to hold on to their young members, and to forestall the centrifugal effects of society at large.

  20. I felt like I became an adult when I went from milk chocolate to dark chocolate.

  21. I go through rituals regularly. Just passed a 5th degree Black Belt test Saturday. Every year around my birthday I have a list of 12 physical challenges I test myself in. I say these things help me remember that I’m still alive.

  22. The Mankind Project and the Boys to Men mentoring program offer rites of passage weekends along with an ongoing support network. Many men such as myself have benefited from these organizations.

  23. Americans dont have a unique rite of passage the way that other cultures do. Some places it is hunting, ritual scarification, tattoos, slaughtering dolphins. I think it is different in this country because we have such an amalgamtion of different cultures that it is hard to point out anything that is uniquely “ours”

  24. According to Jon Young, who has been studying cultural regeneration and nature connection for 20 plus years, rites of passage are super important. He distilled it down to two life events: rites of passage when a child is 11-13 ish, which involves some kind of perceived risk and accomplishment. Then at around 16 there is an initiation type event that involves the child leaving the community, experiencing aloneness, and then making the choice to return and contribute. This is essentially a ‘journey through the wilderness’ type of thing. An example would be a vision quest, which is a shared ritual through many cultures worldwide. I personally think these things are super important. As others pointed out, people will initiate themselves, often through destructive means like binge drinking and driving too fast. Kids crave it, and it’s good and powerful work to try to provide it for them.

  25. I’ve noticed several people talking about “phases”, “unconditional love” and “acceptance.” I believe that these things are important for a well balanced human being, but they are the antithesis of a Rite of Passage.

    Take unconditional love, for instance. Unconditional love tells us more about the lover than the one loved. Unconditional love tells us that the lover (mom) loves their kid no matter what. I think that is vitally important for us to experience in our lives. However, come the teen years, unconditional love becomes a curse. I think this is why relationships (generally speaking) degenerate so quickly between moms and their teen aged sons. The sons want to know they are loved because they are worth something, not just because their mom is a nice gal.

    Conditional love (Father love, Rites of Passage) is also essential for human well being. We have to know we are worthy of love. And it feels good to know that people like you and accept you because of who you are and what you can do. Having something practical to contribute to society solidifies the mindset that one is an adult, a giver, rather than a child, a taker. And it feels good. The very nature of conditional love is what makes it so valuable. The fact that one can be rejected, fail and never achieve it is what calls out the best in a person.

    That said, I do believe Rites of Passage need to be achievable by 99% of the population, which is why I favor character qualities over more “macho” demonstrations. But physical tests are also valuable because it is hard to respect someone that doesn’t respect themselves. While someone’s body is not the defining factor of their personhood, it IS the ultimate first impression.

    I think thoughtful and creative Rites of Passage which allow the child the opportunity to fail would do more to better our society than almost anything else. Hopefully it would get rid of the “driftless 20’s” where people bounce around in life not knowing who they are, what they are about or if they are even an adult. Thoughts?

  26. I think rites of passage would definitely help my 15 year old boys. I like Claire Potters ideas. I plan on putting a list like that together for my boys to conquer before their 16th year is over. Getting a drivers license will be one of them. After the list is accomplished I will consider them a man and able to make decisions about their own life and help the family in making decisions. There is a site I like called The Art of Manliness that is great at covering what a young man should be able to do in every aspect of life, love it.

  27. you’re an adult when you don’t have to wonder if you are or aren’t- whatever you did to make you realize the fact that play time is over

    1. But according to the primal lifestyle, play time is never over 😉

  28. I believe that rites of passage are an important part of our society that is missing. I plan on doing something like Claire Potter’s idea when my son is old enough.

  29. Some Rites of Passage that we could implement to prove that our children are capable of surviving in the modern world:
    -The customer service phone call. A teenager would have to successfully order cable installation, dispute a credit card bill, or return a defective item from an online store. Any signs of impatience or frustration would be considered failure.

    -Cubicle endurance. 8 hours with minimal stimulation in a gray environment with no intelligent conversation. A truly grueling test.

    -Carbohydrate overdose. The teenager is fed large quantities of empty calories in the form of white flour, sugar, sodium, and fat. This will indicate that the child is ready ready for a lifetime of nutritional abuse as recommended by the USDA. Only the strongest survive.

    -A day without fun. American adults are not expected to manufacture fun; that’s already been done for us by the media and by our consumer culture. A child can prove their worth as adult by going an entire day without using their imagination or their physical abilities to have any kind of fun.

    -Self-reliance test. An adult doesn’t need to know about car repair, sewing, cooking, or home improvements and repairs. We just need to know how to use a credit card and exercise good judgment when paying others to perform these services for us. A test of these skills would include calling a furnace repairman, buying a new shirt instead of sewing on a missing button, ordering dinner from a drive-through menu, and finding a good deal on an oil change.

  30. I have a hazy vision of a weekend retreat attended by women who have had a significant role in my daughter’s life. Skiing in to a cabin, eating a satisfying and meaty meal, and sharing stories and discussion of what it means to be a woman around a fire. Then some sort of ritual at the end of the weekend to bring her into her new role. Good thing I have about ten more years to work out the details.

    I really appreciate the idea of making rites of passage more intentional. Mine passed across the fuzzy line from adolescence to adulthood without acknowledgement or awareness. Seems like we could do better.

  31. Excellent article Mark!

    Here in Australia, when someone turns 18, it pretty much involves a lot of alcohol (as it’s the legal drinking age here). It’s probably similar in other parts too.

    I’ve always felt that we’ve been a bit ‘culturally devoid’ of any rituals signifying the passage into adulthood, and we pay the price, with many young adults frantically trying to find an identity.

    My 2 cents…

  32. Years ago, in my 40s I crewed two of us took a 40 ft steel ketch from Suva, Fiji to Brisbane, Oz. Our one port of call was New Caladonia to get me a Visa. I was knackered and had stopped enjoying myself. As we moved thru another small squall I asked God/Spieri/my Self for help. I knew I needed something to mentally get back on track. As we sailed out of the squall I noticed the skt, Southern Cross and more stars than I could ever imagine. I started having fun again and realized I had made a real rite of passage… All by myself on watch.

    I’m quite sure I haven’t been the same since, thank goodness!

  33. It may not be ideal but it fits our culture: getting a driver’s license. Once you can drive you can date and get a job and make real money. It’s a big step up from the kid world to the adult world. True, it’s not physical and Grok-like, and not nearly as impressive as slaying a wolf or lion, but it fits, doesn’t it?

    1. I concur that it is not ideal. Since there are age discrimination laws, then why is there a “floor”? Isn’t that self defeating? If one can earn money through voluntary exchange then why prohibit them?

    2. Forgot to add, why does one need a state permitted license (for a fee of course) to exercise their right to assemble (dating) or sell an extension of themself (labor)?

  34. “our thoughts are more gonzo journalist than impartial observer, running commentary, giving a subjective slant to everything.” Yes sir. But most people cannot detect the slant. Everything about commericial society (schooling, government, media, advertizing, even parenting in most cases) trains the individual to be completely unaware of the slant. So people in industial society swallow it – hook, line, and sinker. But we are a critical moment in the history of civilization, where the decline of industrial society is an inevitable result, because people aren’t swallowing it anymore.

    “Graduating college isn’t just a badge of honor”. No sir. Unfortunately its mostly a certification that you are a good drone, devoid of critical thought, but capable of remembering some things that you have aquired no way of determining are true.

    Here’s an idea. One right of passage should be the proving that one is capable of independent critical thought and has and understanding of logic, so they can have a good basis for judgment. Consider what Jon Rapporto wrote: “Consider the amazing amount of information floating around in our culture. Books, articles, internet postings, television news, videos, lectures, seminars, political talk, sales pitches, public relations chatter, scientific claims, educational material, and so on. In this arena, there are HUGE numbers of logical errors.” But most adults cannot recognize them. We need ethical young men and woman to master this ability. The future of our civilization needs it. Jon Rappoport has a course on this (he has mastered the ability – just read his blog):

  35. I think rites of passage are vital in growing young people (particularly young men) into mature adults. The uninitiated are forever wondering if they’ve arrived yet.
    Although I didn’t plan it as such, my initiation proved to be the summer of 2002, which I spent volunteering on a hospital rehabilitation project in Afghanistan. It was life changing and provided for me that defining moment I can point to and say, “Yes, I’ve been a man since that summer in the desert.”
    I plan to lead my sons in initiation rites of some kind when they get older. Fortunately, I still have a few years to figure that out!

  36. For me, the birth of my children was a huge rite of passage. They were both born at home with a midwife and no drugs. It made me realize and accept that there are some jobs that I just have to do for myself. I’ve heard a theory that women have built in rites of passage (menstruation and birth), and so rites of passage were often constructed for boys. I wish my menarche had been a more meaningful experience. I wasn’t at all ready or interested in being a woman at that time (a month short of 12, and very tom boyish). In retrospect some sort of acknowledgement would have been nice.

    1. I know what you mean — I was even younger, and very much a child. My mom had arbitrarily decided I could get my ears pierced when I started my period. In retrospect, it seems both silly and wise.

  37. I think this is why connections (generally speaking) transform so easily between mothers and their teenager outdated children. The children want to know they are liked because they are value something, not just because their mom is a awesome gal.

  38. At the end of 90s we still had a obligatory conscript army service, which was removed since then. Remembering how many things in my life fell into place after my service – I finished my studies with ease and more or less did well in anything I set out to do, I am still grateful. I think the later generations are missing out since they don’t have to do it anymore. I remember how the attitute of the male part of my family’s attitude changed when I came home – They noticably treated me as an adult. Suddenly I’ve felt like a proper part of the pack 🙂

  39. As long as the “initiate” consents and isn’t harmed against his own will, then I can see no harm done and would actually promote rites as earned.
    However, when it comes to barbaric practices performed on people against their will e.g. circumcision, than I oppose them outright, no matter what the reason given.
    Rites and initiation is one of the best ways to keep members true to a cause and unfortunately, this is used in most power-hungry institutions like religion (hijacked teachings of former holy men), free masonry and most, if not all, secret societies.

  40. About the age of 13, as my body started the changed to being a women. My grandmother took me shopping for the day. We had lunch in a fancy restrant. And at the end of the day she before she took me home she gave me a “real” birthstone ring. And was told to ware it as a reminder that i was now becoming a woman and should act like one. She also did this for my sister.
    Many years latter my sister an I both still remeber it as a very special time in our life.

    1. I LOVE this. I *hope* my oldest daughter still has a few years (she’s only 8), but I could see this as being part of a rite of passage for my girls.

  41. A lot of religions have this. I’m Catholic, so when I was confirmed I was an “adult” in the Church. Jews have bar and bat mitzvahs. Religions have always had this sort of idea, I think.

  42. As an actual, practicing modern day wilderness rites of passage (aka the vision quest) guide, I have a few thoughts on this.

    Although there were tests of manhood that involve hunting, most American Indian rites of passage for young men involved them fasting alone and praying at some sacred place for four days or more. (For girls, the onset of menstruation initiated them into womanhood, and they then spent time isolated with the women in order to be instructed in what that meant for them and the group.)

    Ok, back to the young men. Young men are problematic – all that testosterone means all they want to do is fight and f**k. Which means they can be an internal danger to the group. Fasting alone served several purposes for the individual and the group.

    It demonstrated that they could control their appetites, and hence themselves. It demonstrated that they could function as adults – take care of themselves as adults. It demonstrated that they cared enough to pass the test of being initiated as an adult member of the group. It was also an opportunity for them to discover their ‘medicine’ – their gift to the community.

    All of this was seen and held and acknowledged by the community on their return! This is a critical piece, because a rite of passage is just as much for the community as it is for the individual. Initiated men serve and strengthen the community, uninitiated boys don’t.

    We’ve modifed some of that to fit our modern culture. The questers go without food, unlike the Indians, who went without food AND water. And we are more conscious about intention. These more traditional kinds of rites of passage programs are happening all across the world – for youth and adults.

    Rites of passage aren’t just limited to youth – although that transition is probably the most important for healthy development. I lead men and women of all ages on quests who are transitioning into different lives or life stages – like elderhood.

    And there are lots of men who have never been initiated, so they still a have some ‘boy’ left in them. Some of them have a lot of boy left in them.. we all know some of those.

    Anyway, rite of passage are alive and well. We just aren’t hunting wolf and lion. We’re in search of bigger game.

  43. I think 2 years of National Service, military or otherwise, would be in order. Preferably in an underdeveloped nation or in an extreme poverty area of the U.S. No exception unless disabled to the extent that it made it impossible/impractical to serve in any way. Then, after service, guaranteed admission to college or trade school at a subsidized rate.

  44. Mark:

    You might find James Hollis’s book “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Lide” interesting on this subject. He argues, based on Jungian psychology, that there is a spiritual component to rites of passage, as well as a teaching by adults of how to be a man versus a boy or a woman versus a girl.

  45. Yes we do. Rites of passage are important, especially for boys, I think. That is why my son will have several in the course of his life, starting with the ritualization of his first haircut on his third birthday (yes, he was frequently mistaken for a girl before then, but the ritual marking his passage from baby to little boy was important to me), and the ceremony in which he earned his black belt.

  46. I think our society is full of rights of passage, but we are very used to them. They mean less now because because we have found workarounds. For example, say what you will about morality and all that, marriage used to be a right of passage for the ability to have sex. I realize that marriage is way more complicated than sex but that was a big deal to men because they weren’t allowed to have sex before. I was never in the military but I feel like the military my grandfather was part of in WWII is different than the one I have seen my friends be part of today. My undergrad really didn’t do much for me confidence wise but eventually I went back to school and got a masters degree. My wife still says there was a marked change in my self confidence and demeanor once I put the work into that degree that I paid for myself while working full time.
    These are all rights of passage, but we miss out on the joys because we live together before marriage, drink our way through college, and expect everything paid for us after 4 years of “service”. I’ve found more recently in life after making some of these mistakes that my life took a turn for the better when I started holding out for what was better rather than immediately taking what was easy sooner. I was promoted at work to a new position that I didn’t qualify for because I did a good job in the position I was in. That did way more for me than switching companies for a huge pay raise because the people I was working with validated my efforts with a promotion.
    All that said, I wish my dad had been part of the validation process earlier so I could have skipped the nearly alcoholic almost-got-2-girlfriends-pregnant idiot phase.

  47. As Archie Bunker would say “We don’t need no stinking Rites of Passage!” We need people who work at achieving some level of maturity or wisdom that provides them the ability to live successfully in our world today. That may mean many things – we are all differently gifted and trained. Tolerance has never been more desired in our society that it is today – as are good communication skills. BTW, all most as much as the message, I appreciate Mark’s excellent communication skills.

  48. Off topic, but I had a total Blink moment with today’s photo. They’re all female. I had to study it for a moment to figure out why I Just Knew that.

  49. I am glad you are bringing this to light. I would like to bring up an amazing author, Bill Plotkin, who wrote two books:
    Nature and the Human Soul.

    He is a psychologist who leads nature excursions for the basis of soul development and letting go of old ways of being, thinking, and living.

    In Natur and the Human Soul, he specifically addresses the idea that our current society is immature in its emotional, mental, and spiritual development, and that this maturity happened more frequently in hunter-gatherer societies that performed these rites of passage. This immaturity is then reflected in our government, our treatment of the Earth, and our social interactions. But really, the book is there to provide a blueprint for how to bring maturity and these rites of passage into our society today.

    You should check it out, Mark!!

  50. It’s so funny that I just read this article today because just yesterday I was thinking about this same thing. I gave birth only 2 weeks ago in the privacy of my own home for the second time. Having a natural intervention/drug free birth is a truely grueling and yet incredible experience that has had a great effect on my life. I almost feel like, in a way, giving birth as nature/God intended it is a rite of passage into womanhood. It is physically demanding that requires months of physical and mental preparation. it requires faith in oneself and self sacrifice for the health of your baby. I am sad that so many women don’t even consider natural birth in our culture because they have been scared to death by the medical community about ‘so many things that could go wrong’ or they aren’t educated about the dangers of unnecessary intervention or they don’t even qualify for a natural birth because they aren’t healthy! I feel like some women are robbing themselves of one of the most phenomenal experiences they could have in life and are copping out of the climax of the rigorous physical process of becoming a mother.

    1. I totally agree (2 homebirths myself). I think women are largely forfeiting our power by acting helpless in our most profound moment. Giving birth naturally made me feel that I could conquer anything. And it really is best for the kids to be born without drugs, if possible.

    2. When I was having babies, in the sixties, it was perfectly normal to have your baby at home and I had two home births without any trouble. However I had twins in hospital which was just as well as I had full blown Eclampsia and nearly died. I dread to think what would have happened if I had not gone to hospital then.

    3. Couldn’t agree with this more. My first was a grueling hospital birth. My 2nd and 3rd were unassisted homebirths and there simply was no comparison. My first homebirth quite literally changed my life. I knew then that I could accomplish anything that I set my mind to. I was a mother before. I became a Mother. (Disclaimer: this is no judgement on how anyone else chooses to birth, or their experiences. It is simply a commentary on MY experience.)

  51. I think my rite of passage was not really fulfilled until I got my first black belt. The 2hrs or so spent sparring established black belts in rapid secession without any breaks, and then the 2hrs of curiculmn display in front of 100’s of people was the culmination of 4-5 years of training 10-15hrs or more a week.

    After that I learned so much about myself, and even though I was in my early 30’s I felt I finally knew I was capable physically…much like I am sure young warriors and hunters felt at the end of their youth.

    I really didn’t have that feeling at high school graduation, college graduation, or even really when I landed my first real job on my own. I think, there is just something primal and instinctual about physical rites that the more mental rites of passage cannot tap into.

  52. I support this post. Far too many good ideas here to list, but it’s one of the critical missing aspects of life. Poet and Men’s therapist Robert Bly hits all of this information spot on. His book Iron Jhon is an interesting read, in both his dissemination of the actual tale (and how it impacted this critical stage of a man’s life), and the impact overall of a lack of solid RoP in our lives in western culture.

    While our culture has many ways of challenging both men and women, and while many of them are very beneficial, they are still missing that critical element. None of them are really “connected” with our culture. there is no real transition into adulthood aided by the community. In most “primitive” cultures, it wasn’t just the mom or dad that did it. It was the community at large.

    the men of the community would take the boy away, and through either a physical trial, or through a ritualistic process, he was brought into the community as an independent man. I think that without a community sense of connection, the process, while beneficial, is still lost much of its scope. But I still think this trial is important..I just wish our culture had a more definitive sense of itself to draw upon for these young men.

    the connection and purpose is critical. a loose group of challenges is fine…but other then knowing that you are in shape and/or can meet a challenge (which is good!) how is it a trial of passage? In my old martial system, we held very strongly to the idealisms of yudanshi…or heritage. your trial of passage connected you closely with the master of the system…You essentially became “part” of his extended family.

    The phillipino systems do this as well. at one systems version of a black belt test (they don’t use belts), the tester who passed signed his name in blood on their “clans” list. to this day they still do it (though the blood is drawn in a vial earlier according to OSHA standards). but the feeling of connection in those tests was strong. there was an essence of belonging, in both systems, that I have never found anywhere else.

    I think this sense of belonging to something…of having a connection coming into adulthood, is critical for the RoP to be completely fulfilled.

    1. For me, more then the trial was the bonding. At the end of our sparring session there was a long discussion about what being a black belt was, that you are now representing not only yourself but now the entire dojo and thus you now must take that into consideration with your actions.

      Along with this the head instructor (Hanshi) announced that we would now be called Sensei which further solidified the “rite of passage” feelings.

      This may not have been a greater community bonding, however it was a community bond to the black belts in our system which IMHO a community is a community.

      I do agree there should be a greater community bond such as rite of passage, it’s one thing I really do not like about the US…our cultures are so diverse there is no sense of connection to the country except in times of dire need. Sure we have bonds with our immediate family, but there really isn’t much outside of that other than organizations. Organizations can provide this community feeling, however I think society would be healthier as a whole if a true communal bond existed to recognize coming of age.

  53. This is a great article and great convo. I really like what the mom did for her son…those exp’s can define a life.

  54. The articles on Mark’s Daily Apple are usually great. I find myself agreeing with most everything Mark says; however this feels like something from a bad sociology text book. It is a subtle criticism of the way we do things…yes, by all means, glorify other non-western civilizations and/or their practices as a way to criticize, like Roussau’s “noble savage.”

    Moreover, already have intellectual rites of passage–i.e., LSAT, GRE, SAT, MCAT, admission to the bar–and physical rites of passage, all of which reduce conflict and show who’s who, so this article is pointless and counterproductive.

  55. Well I am about to do a vision quest and my friend just challenged me on if it’s nececessary which is why I am here. I am both clear in why I want to do it ( build confidence, self knowing and courage for clarity and direction in purpose and life) and also open to explore the modern rites of passage form, because our lifestyles have changed, and the rites of passage I ma doing is modern. called the butterfly quest.
    I want to talk about creating our own vision quest and then share why I think traditional vision quests have a place.

    6 years ago I did my own vision quest, unaware, which was me leaving the city and living in the woods for 7 months with conscious people, and other times alone. Growing veg, meditating, facing my fears of being alone, living off the land, enhancing my senses, exploring healing music, exploring physic skills, getting into the body, building intuition, expressing creativity in the moment, wood working, crying and screaming, loosingmy mind, meeting my insecurities, being still and slowing down.

    Exploring and deepening my relationship to self and earth. I chose day to day, moment to moment what it was I wanted and needed. This was one of the most powerful times of my life. I discovered my place in life, and found a deep compassion for life, people, earth and transformation. Before I thought much about myself and was caught up in solo ambition. I was moved so much so I have spent the last 6 years trying to go deeper into working with spirit of the land, ceromony and want to train as a rites of passage guide.
    Now as i said I was unaware i was doing a rites of passage. I only reconised about 2 years ago. The reason I say traditional rites of passage has a place is because it is a deep journey, and if not supported can drag out and be damaging.
    I found it very hard to integrate back, to share my experiences in the city, and found myself reclusing and running away to the hills, even hating people.

    I believe there are many people offering rites of passage in modern setting that don’t involve hunting and gathering. For me it is having a sacred fire, having clear explanation and time to prepare, having solo time with clear intention, and having a space to share experiences with authentic, humble and compassionate people. Having a support network for your return.

    Modern rites of passage: time in nature with intent, supported by connected people, space for exploration, community to further.

  56. Hi,
    I’m glad you got the discussion going. I think it is one that should be brought to the public arena and discussed indefinitely as we develope our rites of passage in modern society.
    We do need new rites of passage. Learning to shop and all these things are no longer survival skills, now that we are facing the greatest threats to humanity’s survival this century. On top of that we are not even surviving socially. With the boundaries you mentioned, between families in a tribe, we have so many now that we do not trust one another.
    What we all need (no matter what age) are initiations of group trust, at every scale (in the family, in the local community, nationally and globally). The consequences of our actions are no longer isolated from one another. Our daily actions affect everyone. Therefore we must experience group passage and inter-group passage.
    Let me know your thoughts.