There is an old African proverb that says,
“If the young are not initiated into the tribe they will burn down the village just to feel its warmth.”†
It’s easy to see this proverb play out within the destructive behavior of gangs and criminals, but it’s harder to recognize that “burning down the village” is not just the outcry of resentful, unfulfilled youth. It’s also the outcome of our youth trying desperately to initiate themselves into the community.
Self-initiation often leads to adrenalin-chasing, risky behavior, criminal activity, broken relationships, and addictions as men and women alike seek that elusive threshold which will mark them as a meaningful member of their community.
When I turned 18, I wanted to be dropped off three days hiking distance into the woods and left to make it back on my own. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could survive, and without realizing it, I wanted to prove myself in such a way that the men I looked up to would recognize my ability, too.
“The initiation process is about discovering our true singularity and our ultimate interconnectedness in the web of life…It’s about belonging to a community, having a place in the stream of time.”†
I was begging for a coming-of-age rite of passage, but there was no one to initiate me.
So, for years, I tried to initiate myself through challenges, ideas, and achievements. I tried to blaze my own path and earn my name. And blaze I did. I burned my way through relationships and opportunities until there was nothing left.
What I didn’t understand is that it’s impossible for an outsider to initiate him or herself into a community. That’s why we need mentors and elders to facilitate the process. The Elders establish the threshold and mentors guide the initiate across. Then the Elders recognize the initiate on behalf of the community.
“The form and substance of a rite of passage experience communicates, cultivates and reinforces important cultural values. And, to the extent to which the experience is meaningful, it calls forth the power, gifts and passions of the individual in service to the community. When an individual takes on responsibility for the community, the culture is renewed and remains healthy and vibrant.”†
A rite of passage is its own Hero’s Journey, so we see in it the same three over-arching stages of Separation, Liminal Space, and Return. Mentors are powerful allies that can be found all throughout the journey. Some mentors, like Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, are there for the whole journey, but more often than not, the Hero will encounter many mentors along their way. Mentors provide the Call to Adventure, they aid along the Trail of Ordeals, they guide through the Abyss, and they lead the Hero Home.
Mentors are so important because we don’t innately know how we are individually connected to the greater web of life. We have to be taught.
There’s an old Jewish proverb that says,
“The purpose (counsel) in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding (insight) will draw it out.” (Proverbs 20:5)
I used to think this meant that I could understand my own purpose if I became a man of understanding. And while I think there is some truth to that, I am learning that mentors are the true “men of understanding” and “women of insight.”
And maybe that’s why there are so few true mentors today. Because it is a grave responsibility to look within someone and call out their potential, to dare to speak into their heart’s purpose. Ultimately, the path we follow leads us to discover our own purpose deep within our own hearts, but it is a brave soul indeed who will dare to show us the way.
There’s a famous story of these young elephants that had been transported to the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa back in the early ’90s, but they were placed in their new home without any elder elephants because the harnesses used to carry them were not strong enough to carry the larger, elder elephants.
In time, gangs of these young elephants started attacking white rhinos, gorging them and stomping them to death. To correct their behavior, the Park had the missing elder elephants brought in, and they were able to teach the delinquents how to act as mature elephants. They taught them elephant culture.
“The individual learns what it means to be a responsible community member while exploring unique, personal gifts that can be used to serve others.”†
I once thought that taking personal responsibility meant drawing out the deep waters from within myself. I imagined that it would be enough to seize upon my unique talents and thrust them upon the world. But without the guidance of a mentor, such “personal responsibility” is egocentric. I was seeking my own perceived success at the expense of, or without true regard for, my community.
This is why self-initiation can burn the village down. Without mentors, we are like delinquent elephants who can’t tell the difference between testosterone-driven power and community-edifying personal responsibility.
I truly believe in the power of mentors to change lives. I believe that initiating Hero’s (Mentoring) is the key to reducing recidivism, reuniting families, and healing our communities.
It’s why I serve as the VISTA site coordinator for Free2Succeed, the Idaho Department of Corrections’ community mentoring program, connecting mentors with individuals returning home from prison. It’s why I want to bring Free2Succeed mentors and mentees together on future Clearwater Trekker hikes and Discovery Treks. This belief pierces all the way through my desire to offer Discovery Treks and international pilgrimages for Trekkers seeking to cross critical thresholds in their lives.
Because I want to call out the mentors among us.
I am seeking men and women of understanding and insight to draw out the deep, clear waters of Hero’s on their Journeys. (Because treasure-hoarding dragons are burning all our villages down.)
Are you in? Does this message resonate with something inside of you? Whether you are a pilgrim on your own Hero’s Journey or a Mentor with insight to offer, let’s continue this conversation. Reach out to me through my contact form or comment below. Thank you for being here, for being an ally on my own journey.
†Quotes taken from Fostering Thriving Communities Through Rites of Passage: A Manual for Getting Started, by Edith Kusnic with Darcy Ottey and Emily Pease.
*Seek the Clearwater