August, 1999

In my work as a counselor I find men, or rather they find me, while they are in the midst of terrible pain. For most men the pain has to be terrible before they will seek help. In modern culture men are taught that seeking help is a sign of immaturity, manly weakness, or even a lack of basic courage. 

What men haven't been taught is that, in the midst of their pain, they are also in an initiatory event. What is an isolating experience in impotence for a man without an elder can be a mysterious opportunity for maturation for a man with an elder guide. The sudden tragic sense of abandonment to an uninitiated man can be an anticipated separation for a man who has been taught of such things. 

Michael Meade and Malidoma Some define modern society as a society without elders. Thus, in a modern society men have no interpreters of their experience, no emotional educators, no soul guides to help them through their pain. An opportunity for the right turn in the road is seen in modern society as a detour on society's road toward manhood. 

Or as Joseph Campbell has said, "There can be no question: the psychological dangers through which earlier generations were guided by the symbols and spiritual exercises of their mythological and religious inheritance, we today...must face alone, or, at best, with only tentative, impromptu, and not often very effective guidance." 

An initiatory event always starts out with a sudden separation. This separation triggers a feeling of loss as well as a feeling of confusion. It is as if someone jumps in your path, punches you in the head, and steals your wallet before you know it. No time to react. No time to retaliate. The attacker is gone. You are left dazed, confused, and at a loss. After separation the world somehow looks different. Insides feel different.

Often the loss is of a world that is suddenly left behind. A man is just told, with no warning, he has two weeks to get his work station or corporate desk in order. He is laid off, courteously blindsided, simultaneously downsized and rightsized. Another man just finds out his wife no longer has feelings for him after she has warned him of her cooling for years. This time she announces her plans for leaving complete with deadlines. Her crossing that final line causes him to feel dead inside, dead and disoriented, without his partner. Another man finds out from his sister that she was sexually molested as a young child by their father. He also finds out that he was probably there while the molestation was happening. He conjectures he was also molested, though he has no memory of either event. He is suddenly separated from a father he respected and a family he built his world around.

Modern initiatory events don't really have to do with passing the drivers license test, or going through basic training, or getting that college degree. These are rarely transformative or initiatory on the inside. They rarely allow a man to feel manly from the inside out. They don't reach the necessary depths of the psyche or even the periphery of the soul. They provide merely a facade of initiation. They don't bring up the depth of feeling that a real initiatory event unearths. 

An initiatory event involves a crisis. The word crisis comes from the idea of a sharp turning point, an unexpected detour, an involuntary 180. If any man looks back with this idea in mind he can see that he has been confronted with several initiatory events in his life. Often those events will have entailed a risk not embraced, a promising pain not endured, a road not taken. A reflective response is often heard: if only I'd known. Instead the safe way was taken, the initiatory event shunned or buried. Pain was relieved but something also was lost. For many men there is still a sense of loss in the memory, loss without promise. 

That sense of regret shows the longing for the elder. An elder would have known. An elder would have stopped us short, even in the pain. An elder would have explained, or just pointed us toward, the riskier but more meaningful path. He would have told us the stakes and the rewards, not just the risk. He might not have given a pep talk, but he would surely have given a heads up. 

Regret also shows the archetypal longing for initiation. I have often fantasized of moving to a small, isolated town where nobody knew my history and I could leave behind my old habits and old outworn relationships. I could start over. I could be more every day of what I wanted to be but wasn't. I have talked to many men who have the same fantasies. The regret of living that fantasy could be the regret of not going through a separation, not going fully through an initiatory time, not living out our full potential. Joseph Campbell would see the regret as the result of not having answered the call for departure, the call to adventure, of the hero. 

Modern initiatory events are all around. This is a different world once that is understood. It is no longer a tragic world, though seemingly senseless tragedies happen. But a man will not see this different, more hopeful world until he walks through the initiatory door and looks from the other side. 

There are elders around who have been to the other side. They are in counselor's and psychologist's offices, they lead men's groups, they preach from the pulpit, they hang out at 12 Step meetings, they write men's books, they even have web pages. You can tell they are elders soon after they are presented with a crisis. They don't try to make it better. They don't try to relieve the pain. Yet their presence is sustaining and their message is hopeful. It is uplifting, not shaming, to be in their presence. And if you do not know of one, e-mail me at, and I will introduce you to one. 

Copyright © 1999, Larry Pesavento