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Politics // Coffee Break
Jerry Coffee

A Modern Rite Of Passage For A Teen

The 100-foot tower is formed by a mish-mash of crude timbers, poles and sticks loosely woven and lashed together in the clearing of a Vanuatu jungle. Clothed only in skimpy loin cloths, a throng of native warriors with curly black hair dance and chant around the base of the structure, working up the courage to climb to the top, tie liana vines around their ankles and fling themselves into the space below. The vines are cut about 4 inches longer than the height of the tower, allowing the “land diver’s” head to “thump” lightly into the powdery dust of the landing area. Crowds of villagers cheer with approval as the dust plume from each diver’s head lingers in the still air. The Vanuatuan men have been doing this since any could remember, as young boys jumping from lower levels and gradually working up to the top as they reached and then outgrew puberty – their ancient rite of passage.

The Maasai hunting party could tell by the depth of the lion’s roar that they had the old beast trapped at the edge of the rock precipice that defined the border of the savannah. The big cat’s tawny fur was barely distinguishable from the dry grass. The older hunters clustered around a young boy armed with a spear and brightly colored shield, his face and chest ceremonially covered white with wet chalk. As they inched closer to the lion, the men whispered and gestured instructions to the wide-eyed boy. He would creep forward, enticing the lion to attack and then counter with all his youthful strength, thrusting his spear into the charging animal’s chest. And then, with heaving chest and pounding heart, he savored the clapping and the praise of the elders – the Maasai cattle were safer now, and his rite of passage complete.

These are only two of dozens of versions of a young man’s rite of passage from boyhood to manhood in Third and Fourth World societies. Some are more brutal and more bloody. Some involve feats of endurance and separation. Some involve circumcision as a teenager. As primitive as they are, these people know the importance of making a boy’s transition to manhood memorable and finite.

In Western societies we have no such ceremonial passage. We have tried to contrive survival challenges such as Outward Bound, or competitive challenges such as extreme sports. Little Leagues – although valuable – don’t come close. Some American men today consider the jungles of Vietnam or the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan their rite of passage, and for many, I’m sure it was. Unfortunately, many of our young men find their rite of passage in their initiation to street gangs.

One of my longtime friends here in Honolulu – a successful businessman and one of the best fathers I know – recently organized a “rite of passage” dinner for his 14-year-old son. For his “elders,” the boy chose both his grandfathers, his favorite coach, a couple of his uncles, his dad, of course, and me, “Uncle” Jerry. Over the course of a convivial and sumptuous meal, the sagacity flowed. As we all shared our thoughts on the importance of certain virtues and values: friendship, humility, honesty, perseverance, leadership, and spiritual strength seemed to emerge naturally. Since he is diligently pursuing his Eagle Scout badge, I reminded him that he would be far better prepared than his non-scouting peers by simply living the tenets of the Boy Scout Oath, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and to my country …” I shared Rudyard Kipling’s poem If with him, part of which says “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing left within you except the will which says to them ‘hold on, hold on!’ … (If you can do all of these things) Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

What a wonderful gift from a father to his son. If you are a father (or know a father) with an adolescent son, you might refer him to this “Rite of Passage” concept. True, there was no pounding heart, no coursing adrenalin for our young honoree, but he is at least a little better prepared for the challenges of his coming transition to being a “man.”

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