The ancient wisdom of initiating boys to manhood is nourishing a supportive process being played out in Perth with the help of a local GP.
Male adolescence has been described as a ‘descent into hell’. GP Dr Gavin Marsh is passionate about making the journey from boy to young man something a great deal easier than that. It’s all about confronting challenges and developing resilience with lots of support from role models who’ve done gone through the same thing in their own lives.
“We think the word ‘ritual’ is so important for young men because it’s closely tied to forging a strong identity, a sense of self about just what it means to be a man. People such as Tim Winton and Jordan Peterson have been talking about this for a while, and it goes back aeons, of course.”
“We’ve got an entire generation of young men with no idea of their place in the world. And sometimes that doesn’t end well for anyone. There’s an old African proverb that says, ‘a young man will burn down the village just to feel the heat of a fire’ and one way of preventing that is to build a community that facilitates a positive transition to becoming a man.”
“Most young men will model the behaviours they see around them. It’s like clothing, they’ll try on bits and pieces. If they’re relying on their peers, sometimes really good role models can be thin on the ground.”
“Rites Together tries to build a strong sense of self in young people and give them the tools to build appropriate boundaries, to be able to say ‘no’ to things they really don’t want to be part of.”
Gavin acknowledges both the good work that’s been done in the past and the importance of a community-based approach in the future.
“A lot of organisations have tried to fill this space and I say, ‘good on them for that!’ Scouts, Guides and many religious groups, despite their current bad press, have been offering programs fostering self-reliance and strong values for years. But one of the founders of the ‘Rites of Passage’ movement, Dr Arne Rubinstein, is adamant that it’s the broader community which needs to take up the sort of work that gives young people a sense of mission in life.”
“It’s interesting to see the new Australian cricket coach, Justin Langer, is seeking to develop the same ethos within the new crop of players. He wants them to be seen as good role models with a strong conviction regarding the appropriate way to behave on the field.”
Gavin paints a ‘word picture’ of just what happens on a Rites Together camp.
Mothers play a role
“One of the first things we do is to redefine the relationship between mother and son. It’s absolutely critical that the former steps back and releases her son, and there’s a ceremony that marks just that. That happens on the first day when the boys and their fathers are heading off to camp. It can be a highly emotional time.”
“There are challenges involved, some of them physical. But what we’re really asking from a young man is to step out in different ways and find his own voice. There’s a lot of group story-telling, some of the fathers will talk about their relationship with their mothers and others may speak about sadness and issues surrounding sexuality.”
“The boys are hungry to hear what it’s like to be a man, what that actually looks like and how it feels to fail. Some of these sessions last for three hours and you can hear a pin drop.”
“It’s also a place of honouring a young man, of speaking about his skills and attributes not what might have happened in the past or what he might become in the future. Many of these concepts go back a long way in human history and we’re just doing it in a more contemporary way.”
“The day the boys return to their families is celebratory and we have a reunion a few weeks later. We give the men an opportunity to do some further self-development work, if they wish. The Rites Together camp often taps into a lot of unexplored emotions.”
“I never come away from a camp without learning something about myself. When you do this sort of work you have to continually think about your own journey and think deeply about your own life.”
There’s no shortage of amazing transformations on a Rites Together camp, says Gavin.
“The program runs for four days and the ideal age for the boys is between 15 and 16 years of age. It’s a place of change, we call it a ‘ritual space’ and it’s often very different from the outside world. We have men turning up with their own lives in total disarray, so it can be big wake-up call for them, too.”
“Many of the boys arrive with hoodies over their heads, you can’t see their faces and there’s absolutely no eye contact. They’re so closed down and then we see it change, the smiles and the engagement with the group. Sometimes one of those young men will come back and join our leadership team, which is very satisfying.”
“Often a mother raising boys on her own is desperate for something like this and will ask us to find a male mentor to attend the camp with her son. We do that, and we also organise different payment plans to make it possible for anyone and everyone to attend.”
“Many aspects of modern life can be pretty dysfunctional. We need to seek out ways of marking and celebrating the achievements and the transitions in the lives of young people.”
“I’d encourage my medical colleagues to get involved. It’s an opportunity to understand yourself better and to be able to look at some issues in your own life within a supportive environment can be immensely rewarding.”