Why Men, Young and Old, Need a Rite of Passage to Relearn About Manhood


Alan Bishop believes rites of passage are important so that men can connect with other men and gain a sense of community that is being lost. Do you agree? What do you think a rite of passage into manhood should look like?


The squirrel inched its way up the hemlocks extended branch, curiously inspecting the air, whiskers twitching. I peered through the iron sights of my 1894 Winchester 30-30, wondering what a squirrel was going to taste like?

A breath in, holding…


Now what?

I knew I had to “eat my kill” but YIKES.

It was 1984 and here I was, a 15-year old city kid with just an old rifle and a playful young dog all-alone in the middle of a temperate rainforest holding an exploded squirrel by the tail and wondering what the hell to do next.

Why hadn’t anyone taught me how to do this?

The THIS I’m talking about wasn’t just the act of stalking, shooting, killing, dressing, preparing and eating a game animal—but more so about learning the skills needed to be a man.

I remember sitting down on the wet mossy ground and turning that dead squirrel over in my hands feeling utterly lost. I spent 15 days in those woods. When I came back into the city I certainly wasn’t a man—but I had changed.

Was this my rite of passage?

What is a Rite of Passage? The dictionary defines it this way: A ritual or ceremony signifying an event in a person’s life indicative of a transition from one stage to another, as from adolescence to adulthood.

In 1909 Arnold van Gennep published his most famous work Rites of Passage. At the core of Gennep’s vision were 3 Phases—The Preliminary, Liminality and post-Liminality phases. His 3-phased vision laid a foundation for men such as Victor Turner and Joseph Campbell to expand on.

Campbell used Gennep’s vision as a structure for his work The Hero Has a Thousand Faces while Turner focused on the Liminality phase and the transitions that occur while moving from old ways to new ways.

Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys suggests, “those in the US have grown away from beneficial rites of passage and toward isolated, tremulous, family systems.” He contends that boys have been abandoned, and he urges that “society reclaim responsibility for the moral and spiritual upbringing of young males, with guidance offered by elder mentors and support coming from extended family or community.”

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” ― Plato


After digesting all the research I see these stages in a ROP with these needs:

  1. Separation – A removal from what we know. A removal from our safe environments, loved ones and biases. A place where we’re stripped bare and experience our selves. Alone, raw and basic. We have to experience some sort of journey.
  2. Transition – This is the “meat”. Here we experience growth, change and learning. It’s in this phase that we move from where we were to where we can be. It’s in the transition phase that we experience pain, wonder, fear, loss, joy, self-enlightenment, purpose.
  3. Reincorporation – This is where we return to the group and speak our truth, our process and our experience. It’s a safe place because we get to share it with those who’ve been through a similar experience at a similar time and place. We’re safe and with our new “Band of Brothers”. We then return to our communities and connect with mentors who will help us continue our journey with new awareness.

Each one of these phases is crucial to the overall experience. Without each one as part of a “Rite” then the experience in my opinion isn’t whole.

These stages of transition, these passages were once common.They were important, inherent even, to the structure and development of societies.

Where are they today? We certainly have many ceremonies. Some are celebrated, (Bar Mitzvah’s, Communion, graduation, marriage, getting your drivers license, getting engaged) while others may or may not be celebrated (Loss of virginity, experiencing the death of a loved one, first fistfight, landing a job, leaving home).

But are any of these actually Rites of Passage?

If so, where are the mentors? Where is the support? Where are these communities? Not just for boys but for MEN.


I love being a man but it isn’t easy. At times I’m as lost as lost can be and feel as if I‘ve no one to turn to.

How do I explain my vulnerability, rage, fear, courage to my wife and sons?

I don’t know if I’m one of the lucky ones but I’ve been able to do it. I’ve managed to bumble and braille my way through 20 years of marriage and raise two healthy, vibrant, kind young men (21 and 18 years old).

“Look not mournfully into the past, it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present, it is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear and with a manly heart.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

At 44 years old I find that I’m now craving the experience of men. The experience of joining with other men in the passage of stripping bare, finding out what basic means and the experience of being alone, undistracted and questioning. I want to do this in community with other like-minded men and walk away as brothers.

But where is this experience for men and what does it look like?

How do I go about asking for it?  If I have wisdom to share, where can I share it?

Photo Credit by __Wichid__I’m wondering if we as men even have permission to ask for it.

I know we can “beat our chests” and go after anything we want. We can bully, brave and thrust our way into new areas but instead, how can we do this in a way that evolves us as men not just warriors.

My question to all the men out there is WHAT needs to be created?

What needs to be initiated and put forth to become accepted by society? This NEW Rite of Passage and it’s merits must be valued by mothers, fathers, teachers, priests and communities if it’s going to create lasting change in our men and boys.

How do we MASTER being a man?

Shouldn’t that be our job as men? To always be searching, learning and refining this thing called Manhood.

George Leonard says in his book Mastery: “mastery isn’t reserved for the super-talented or even for those who’re fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It’s available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it—regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.”

The trouble today is that we have few, if any, maps to guide us on the journey or even to show us how to find this path to Mastery.

Why do men, young and old, need a rite of passage to relearn about manhood?

  • Because in general we’ve lost the ability to connect with other men
  • Because our boys need mentors
  • Because our communities no longer raise a child
  • Because our traditions are being lost
  • Because men learn from other men
  • Because women can’t explain to us what it feels like to be a man
  • Because we’re losing our connection to the natural world.
  • Because boys need to feel their own strength in isolation and then support

Today’s world is under an advertiser’s magnifying glass. This image-maker works overtime to answer the question, “Who am I?” The message it comes up with, though, is the message “You’re not okay the way you are.” It seduces us into believing we need to be like the images it presents.

Why has this model become the teacher for men?

Our basic human nature yearns for rites of passage, to be initiated into a group, to be recognized and to be accepted for who we are. If society fails to preserve and maintain the rites of passage, young people often create their own. The new rites are not always as positive.

Mentorship of men

Photo Credit - by Official U.S. Navy Imagery

We need mentors in our lives. Not just one but also many along the road. Our ability to help one another is a lost art. It’s become wrong to “help our fellow man”?  When did this become bothersome instead of normal?

Today, men as well as boys need a Rite of Passage to help us to become better men.

We need to constantly push the barrier and seek out what it means to be a man. We need to journey to those internal places where we can question our emotions, feelings and beliefs and to do so in the safety and embrace of other men who can guide us.

It isn’t enough thought to just be asking questions, we need to act. It’s in our actions that we’ll define what it means to be a man in 2013 and beyond. We must act to create new Rites of Passage and pass these teachings to the young men who will become our leaders while embracing the men around us in their quests to become better men.

Photo [main image] Mick Broughton

About Alan Bishop

Alan's a consultant, writer, television producer and adventurer. He's been lucky to travel the world designing and producing challenges, games, activities and adventures for not only TV's biggest Competition Shows but also for Global Fortune 500 Companies. Through his website The 365 Effect.com  Alan works with individuals and corporations to help them Uncover Their Better. He's a dedicated fitness enthusiast as well as a lifelong lover of the game of golf. He's 23 years into a lifetime of loving with his wife and is a proud Dad to two young men (23 and 20).You can follow him @the365effect


  1. Alan, I admire the journey you are on and have often felt like something is missing for young boys on the journry to be men, especially in the advertising-heavy society we live in today. Are we really going to allow movies, TV and video games teach our boys to be men?
    A few years ago I heard the elders at out church talking about a ROP weekend for one of their sons. I don’t think it involved hunting, even though this was Texas. Instead it was a father, his peers and the young man. The son was presented with a beautiful sword as part of some type of ceremony and the men each spoke to him, defining and declaring to him his manhood and what that responsibility entails. Words are powerful and I believe they must be incorporated into such an endeavor. Especially words that communicate honor and respect. A boy looks to his father to find his identity. If he doesn’t find it there he will look elsewhere. I also love the idea of the ROP happening in a community of men who are trusted and respected by the father (rather than it being a solitary, isolated experience). But this assumes those relationships already exist.
    Keep doing what you’re doing. This is an important conversation.

  2. Thank you for the article Alan! I agree 100% that this is an important area of growth and exploration for boys AND men. One of my favourite voices on this topic is David Deida. There is a great section in his book Intimate Communion that speaks to the three stages you mention – how incredibly important they are specifically when a man is middle aged, and how many couples would potentially still be together if men and women understood this process better!

  3. Hey Alan,whats up man?Thanks for engaging me.The hunting sequence you opened with was what I was referring to.And you are correct that I know little about you.My comments were focused on your ideas not judging you as a person.My concern is that men’s movements and women’s movements,though they appear egalatarian on the surface, in truth,they are not.The terms are defined by the privileged and powerful within that group.Sure,your call to all interested women and is noble,sincere and open minded.But, unfortunately, it doesn’t really address how to ensure every tradition,value and more get equal billing in this process of change.The perjorative language that is used in this narrative,I think, needs to be reexamined and made more specific.The narrative that springsforth from this language use is, at it’s core, exclusionary. I am all for men having a kumbuyaa moment.I was raised as a liberal catholic,born in SF and raised in the sixties/seventies in the birthplace of kumbuyaa politics;the Haight-Ashbury. I know from kumbuyaa.I mentor kids in the hood in the armed robbery capital of tha galaxy,Oakland,California.There are more languages spoken at the school where I work than I have fingers and toes.They come from places in China,North African,the Middle East,Central American,the Carribean and more.If I said to them that “men and boys” need a ROP ceremony,for most,the concept wouldn’t resonate.You list 7 reasons why you think “we” need a ROP.You used inclusive language,our and we’re, to define who you were speaking to.Who do you mean?Twenty two years ago,during the height of the Iron John hype a guy asked me,a man of color,if I would join his mens group in the woods for a day of drumming,chanting and enlightened discussion.The goal was to reclaim my masculinity.We would paint our faces and dress aboriginol to make the experience authentic.Asking me to do that is like asking a black woman to participate in slutwalk.

  4. @Alan First, let me say that I have been a mentor and parent to boys and girls for over twenty years now.Over that time, I have watched many of them become quite successful. You have written a solid article, although I must confess to having a good deal of skepticism about some of your claims.Some time ago I made the choice to reject any and all definitions of masculiity in deference to developing my sense of personhood. I see very little in your call for a reformation of masculiity that would disuade me from pursuing that path.
    There are so many problems with this push to redefine masculinity,it is difficult to know where to start to unwind them.This reformation is thought to be necessary because the old definition became obsolete. No argument there.The old definition was as tired and dogeared as my first favorite comic book.But I don’t see how developing a “new definition”, using the same methods as before, will produce something that has legs and can withstand the taciturn machinations that life will place on it.
    Secondarily, in your article there is much presumed about how men percieve masculinity. Are we to assume that all men worldwide are in similar crisis because some men in the west are in crisis? Even in this country,sometimes within the same family, there is much divergence in how the males define masculinity.My oldest brother,like my friend Jules, is a charming country boy to his bones.He ,like Jules, would undoubtably relate to the rugged outdoorsman/provider masculinity metaphor you provided. I would not.

    There is an implied understanding in your piece that some variation does exist among men in how they percieve masculinity. It only touches on the potential generational differences but doesn’t go far enough.

    Differences exist in other realms too,like race,religion,class and many more..However, advocates for change seldom if ever recognize or acknowledge these differences.They speak globally as if all men are the same and have the same worldview.We don’t.When does this movement, that fancies itself as enlightened, deal with these issues of inclusion?How can men, acting in isolation, fashion a definition that won’t also eventually become obsolete?
    The hunter/provider definition was, after all, based upon a role,a job.

    There is no way that kind of definition could last.It would seem obvious that any definition based upon a job or a role will ultimately,often suddenly, become obsolete.too.Since change is inevitable,wouldn’t it be wise to foster an identity that can be flexible,that can move like water and flow with the times? My job as a man is not to be searching for a definition of what I already am.I have the mind and body of a full grownman.In fact, in our modern cultuire,I don’t have job as a man.But I do have lots of responsibilites if I want to be considered a good person.
    Is not a good person also a good man or woman?

  5. Great article, Alan. This reminds me somewhat of Robert Bly’s movement in the ’90s. I’m not sure Scouting or wilderness experience is the only way. Perhaps for city folks, it is a break from the comfort zone and evokes a battle for survival, akin to the tests of manhood in older cultures.
    Men who live in rural areas where hunting is common often do use the “first hunt” as a rite of passage, not only killing but tracking, cleaning, getting it home, butchering it, sharing it with family. But can’t it be any sort of similar test?
    The challenge of doing something complicated on your own. Build something. The projects and deeds in Scouting are a good equivalent. It would have to be something that is truly a challenge, so they learn that failure is not the end, that they are still loved if they take the effort to do something difficult and only succeed after learning from their mistakes.

  6. Brian O'Gorman says:

    I think Scouting is the answer.

  7. Great piece Alan! Having spoken and worked with young men, I can not express the importance of a rites of passage. Hearing stories from young men about the pressures of “Acting like a man” is heartbreaking especially when those young men have no one to guide them into male adulthood. Some of them flounder through life without a mentor or role model and do their best to make the right choices. Thanks for sharing!

  8. There are many ways to create a ROP for boys and men….as diverse as the number of different cultures on the planet. It’s an essential part to become a mature adult. I also don’t believe one goes through just one ROP during a lifetime, rather as one ages you can look back at important events and see how they helped further emotional growth. Some ROP will be only days or weeks long, others can take years. For example becoming a father is a ROP that goes on for years. Some will be formal ROP with all the stages. To create a ROP for boys and men in our current modern times, it takes a group of thoughtful men to commit to creating and carrying out the event, then having a way to follow up afterwards as long as necessary. One such group is the Mankind Project http://www.mkp.org Look back into our evolution as humans and you will find ROP taking place all over the planet until roughly the Industrial Revolution started….in our so called “Modern Culture” it seems we have lost track of our heritage as humans.

  9. Firstly I am appalled by Jules concept of ROP and his concept of what he thinks a man is…. if anything that is old time concept of masculinity that will have little impact of helping boys grow up.

    I like the concept of ROP and think it has a place and a role in our society, certainly to recognize and celebrate the different stages in life. I also think that boys need both men and women to help them traverse these certain stages in their lives, while important to have male only moments.

    Traditional ROP were based on reinforcing gender specific roles, local tradition, brutality, control and were seen as important for the survival of the tribe. Most of us live in diverse cultures where we are aware of many different traditions which are more to do with sustaining the culture, belief system and certain values. Modern ROP will need to be very different in which the main task will be about internal growth.

    I have heard some say that a ‘boy is born and a man is made’ which I find a bit odd, surely within the right environment a boy develops from being a boy into a man. For me the most important aspect of growth that boys and men need is emotional growth. When boys grow up in environments where they are allowed to feel the full range of their feelings then perhaps boys will naturally grow up and become whole men.

  10. A great article, Alan! You sure do ask a lot of questions. ;^)

    Answers are hard to come by, but I agree totally with the need you describe. In my experience, older men don’t start the quest until a certain amount of fear, pain, and/hunger has entered their life. Once it does, they find themselves lost as to how to respond to it, how to feel about, and how to talk about it. Why do we wait for the fear/pain/hunger to begin asking questions?

    That’s my story as well. You think you have it all figured out up until you find out you don’t. That was the catalyst to my reaching out to men – to help them through their ROP. It’s never too late.

    I created a ROP of sorts for men who hit the wall in their relationships call the Epiphany Trail. Here’s the page: http://goodguys2greatmen.com/goodguys/programs/epiphany-ridge-trail-program/

    To me, an important part of a ROP is developing clarity about who you want to be, who you WILL be for others, and growing comfortable in the never ending process of becoming a better man. Learning to let go of control and being outcome dependent was key for me personally.

    Thanks for making me think.

  11. Timely piece for me — as a 49 yo father of 3 teenage girls and 1 pre-adolescent boy, my life is extremely busy but not with activities that connect me with other men other than very casually. I grew with a loving but primarily absent father and my biggest concern as a father is that my son grow up and not experience the isolation that I feel in my life now because I never learned or sought the opportunity to develop those very basic and masculine bonds.

  12. Alan,

    Fantastic piece!!! I applaud you.

    I grew up in rural Georgia. The men in my family took all of us boys out to learn what being a man was all about. Hunting, fishing, field dressing your kill,…as well as learning to respect guns was all part of this process. What this did for me was to instill a sense of confidence. At age 14, my dad bought my brother and me 30-30 Marlins. We then we about hunting on our own during the deer season.

    Now this is just a small example of how something as small as hunting had such a large impact on my life. I taught me responsibility for dangerous weapons, it taught me respect and appreciation for mature, and independence.

    I have a 16 year old. While I reside in Maryland I always to home to Georgia several times a year. We go hunting! He has a bolt action 30-06. I am teaching him the same values I was taught. The only thing is I do not feel comfortable with him going hunting alone as I did as a teenage boy. He does not know the terrain as I do.

    I am an avid big game hunter. This year I plan on taking him to Montana for elk hunting. Next year we will go to Southern Africa to chase my big prize: the African Cape Buffalo!

    Thanks for this piece.


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