A Night Alone in the Woods
My confidence evaporated less than five minutes into the hike back to camp. The strong conviction, which had fueled months of planning, vanished into the midnight sky. My stomach rolled and my legs forgot their strength.
Behind me, left alone in the dark, in a small tent pitched on the edge of a cliff was my almost-13 year old son, Isaiah.
Tonight was his solo: a night spent in the woods alone, the final challenge of his Rite of Passage experience. As I left him in the dark and began slowly navigating the three-quarter mile climb back to camp, every parental instinct in my mind and body screamed in revolt.
“What are you thinking?” “What are you doing?”
“This is a terrible idea.”
It wasn’t the threat of physical danger that most concerned me. It was the fear that his imagination would create monsters in the dark, that he’d lose his nerve, become insanely frightened, and be scarred for life.
I imagined him, years later, in therapy, asking, “Why on earth would a father leave his child alone, overnight, in the woods?”
Twelve months earlier, I had written letters to ten men in our community. I thanked them for being men of integrity. I expressed my admiration for their solid character. And I gave them a unique invitation.
This invitation was driven by the realization of two needs.
First, my wife and I recognized that we need help raising our kids: we need others’ perspectives, others’ strengths, and others’ involvement.
And second, we identified that our kids need meaningful relationships with adults they trust who share their parents’ values, but who are not their parents.
So I sent letters to ten men I admired, men who were strong in ways I am not, men who knew and loved my family, men who were committed to building others up.
My unique invitation was for them to be Guides over my 12-year old son’s Expedition Year. As Guides, they would help shape his character as he transitioned over an Expedition Year from boy to young man.
The goal was to create a Rite of Passage experience that would not only help Isaiah define manhood, but would also usher him into it.
A Rite of What?
This term, Rite of Passage, was coined by Dutch ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep in 1908 to describe ceremonial patterns accompanying life during transitions.
While history is rich with such rites, meaningful pat- terns of transition are hard to find in our culture.
The Christian Church should be the perfect context for Rites of Passage. However, at least in North America, the Church is tragically devoid of them. Driver’s licenses, sexual encounters, and 21st birthday shenanigans are filling the place of well-recognized points of transition which define and celebrate the community’s values. We can and we must do better than this.
In his doctoral dissertation on conducting adolescent Rites of Passage, Muhia Karianjahi, a native of Kenya, explains, “rites of passage are rituals that facilitate transitions from one stage of life to another within community. They give people a clear sense of their roles, their responsibilities, and their privileges at each stage in the community. They prepare the people for these roles, affirm them, and provide structures of accountability to see them through.”1
With several analogies he describes Rites of Passage: Like a landmark, rites of passage mark a change in status in the journey of a person’s life.
Like a vehicle, rites of passage intentionally carry a person through a transitional intersection from one season of life into another.
Like a ritual, rites of passage involve not just the individual, but her whole community which “defines, directs and affirms the new status” of the individual within the community.
The Structure of a Rite of Passage
Rite of Passage generally take place in three stages:
Leaving the old.
The in-between state.
Reintegrating into the new.
Change expert William Bridges states that the “start- ing point for transition is [...] the ending that you will have to make to leave the old situation behind. [...] Psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place.”2
In other words, the goal of the “leaving” stage of a Rite of Passage is to help bring an end to the old status or role. The goal of the “in-between” stage is simply to create a clear season of transition. And the goal of the “reintegration” stage is to return to the community as a changed person, beginning a new role with a different status.
Like a Wedding
Perhaps the best known Rite of Passage is a wedding. The rite typically begins with a formal season of engagement, during which the couple begins to leave behind their former status. Muhia Karianjahi observes, “In this stage, they are neither married nor single in a sense, be- cause they have made a formal commitment of betrothal to one another.3
They enter the “in-between.” This season is characterized by focused preparation for the coming wedding and marriage. The couple often seeks pre-marital counseling, imagines and plans for anticipated changes related to their finances, their place of residence, and their schedules. They carefully observe other marriages which they respect and hope to emulate. Their thoughts and discus- sions often revolve around what it means for them to be married.
Finally, the wedding day arrives, and the transition is completed through the ceremony itself. Familiar rituals like the exchanging of rings and the declaration of vows literally move the couple out of the “in-between” and into a new stage of life. When they enter the room they are not married. Through the Rite of Passage their status in the eyes of the community changes: they exit the room and then reintegrate into their community as hus- band and wife. This new status is celebrated. And with the new status comes new responsibilities, privileges, and expectations for the couple and for their community.
Navigating the In-Between
The key is the in-between.
“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions,” writes William Bridges.4 “Change is situational. [...] Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.”
Life is full of change. That’s not the problem. It’s in the in-between that we lose our way. It’s in the in-between that we are hyper-impressionable. Therefore, it’s in the in-between that we need our community’s assurance, encouragement of our true identity, wisdom about the next stage, and a clear articulation of the new expectations we’re seeking to embrace.
Bridges continues, “This is the no-man’s-land between the old reality and the new. It is a time when the old way is gone and the new doesn’t feel comfortable yet.”
Bridges says the in-between space is “both a dangerous and an opportune place, and it is the very core of the transition process. It’s the place and time when the old habits that are no longer adaptive to the situation are extinguished and new, better adapted patterns of habit begin to take shape. It is the [hibernation period] in which the old growth returns to the soil as decayed matter, while the next year’s growth begins to stir in the root underground. It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and prepared for tomorrow’s. It is the chaos in which the old form of things dissolves and from which the new emerges. It is the seedbed of the new beginning that you ‘seek.’”5
A powerful way to successfully navigate the in-between is through a Rite of Passage.
Those in the in-between are asking questions about themselves and about the next stage of life. The community can answer these questions “through instruction, rituals, symbols and ceremonies.”6
Am I Legit?
The successful Rite of Passage accomplishes much, but perhaps the most important question it answers has to do with a person’s sense of legitimacy within the new stage of life.
The adolescent girl’s question, “Am I a woman?” is affirmed and her place among women legitimized through the Rite of Passage.
The teenaged boy’s question,“ Am I a man?” is affirmed and his place as “one of the men” is legitimized through the Rite of Passage.
A Very Long Night, A Brand New Day
I hardly slept on the night of my son’s solo. Doubts filled my dreams. Countless scenarios played out in my mind. The minutes seemed to wander, unhurried, for hours before dawn.
Finally, the stars faded and men emerged from their tents and trucks to engage in quiet conversation around the fire. These were the ten men who had mentored my son through the previous year. They had assembled in the mountains to help further define manhood and to witness and celebrate my son’s transition into it.
As we drank coffee and prepared breakfast, we glanced often toward the large outcropping of granite around which we expected my son’s return. And then suddenly, he appeared, looking peaceful and focused. As he made his way through the boulders the men stood in silence and faced him.
I dragged a line in the dirt at the edge of our campsite. My son approached the line and faced his mentors. For the next 25 minutes, three of the men addressed
him directly. They described specific elements of Chris- tian manhood and called him to embrace and pursue them. He listened intently, as if his whole person was receiving the challenges.
Finally, we invited him to cross the line.
My son, the boy, stepped across.
We embraced him as he joined us on the other side, in the community of men.
1 Karianjahi, Muhia. Constructing Adolescent Rites of Passage Experiences, ROPES: A Training of Coordinators’ Handbook for ROPES Pioneers in Their Christian Communities (Unpublished manuscript, Nairobi, Kenya: Tanari Trust, 2006. page 1.
2 Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Publishing, L. L. C., 1980, page 1.
3 Karianjahi, Muhia. Constructing Adolescent Rites of Passage Experiences, ROPES: A Training of Coordinators’ Handbook for ROPES Pioneers in Their Christian Communities (Unpublished manuscript, Nairobi, Kenya: Tanari Trust, 2006. page 7.
4 Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Cambridge,
5 MA: Perseus Books Publishing, L. L. C., 1980.
6 Karianjahi, p. 7