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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1999 Issue #56

By: Keith C. Russell, Research Associate
Wilderness Research Center
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

Adolescence is a time of confusion and struggle, of risk taking and challenge, and of breaking away and finding oneself. The goal is to break away from the traditional, the mundane, and experience what it is to be, to yearn for something magical and “other.” It is a period of creativity and intense feeling. Adolescents often tuck these feelings away for another day, and have very few outlets for creativity in an educational system bound by traditional pedagogy. 

Another pitfall for adolescents lies in trying to pinpoint when childhood ends and adulthood begins, making the expectations passed down from adult institutions difficult to decipher. You can drive at 16, vote and fight for your country at 18, but you can’t drink a beer until you are 21, and we expect you to act your age darn it!! 

Millions of young people are today considered “at risk” from a multitude of society’s ills. Yet risk is exactly what they yearn for, as captured by Robert Bly in his book Iron John, “risk-taking is a yearning for initiation, something in the adolescent male wants risk, courts danger, goes out to the edge” (Bly 1990, p. 29) . That risk taking is usually dealt with after the fact, either in a court of law, a residential treatment center, or the principal’s office. We in Western cultures have lost track of a path our ancestors paved for us for thousands of years - that adolescent needs and excesses, their wild and free spirit, needs to be embraced and dealt with through guidance and initiation, not by punishment and incarceration. The path paved for us by our ancestors leads one on a quest that embraces the adolescent transition into adulthood-the Rites of Passage experience. 

Rites of passage experiences are spiritual quests that have been hardwired into our hearts, minds and souls for centuries. These rituals are found in African initiation ceremonies, Jewish Barmitvahs, ancient hunting rituals, Boer commando lore, Christian holy communions, Arthurian legends, and many other rituals, which for adolescents have allowed them the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of adulthood. By spirit, I mean the dynamic and unrealized potential inside each and every one of us, and by quest, I refer to a deliberate effort made to transcend the limits, be they self or “other” imposed, and to realize a goal or dream that exists in the unknown. The rites of passage and spirit quest has existed in Western cultures for years in the form of wilderness experience programs, either Outward Bound brought to the US in 1960’s, or therapeutic wilderness programs, begun in the 40’s with the Dallas Salesmanship Club. 

Today, wilderness therapy is used as a “treatment” or an “intervention” for “problem youth” that have lost their way and are on a path of self-destruction. The numbers of “problem youth” seem to be growing at a steady rate, ending up in wilderness therapy programs after other forms of counseling and therapy have failed. The answers to why wilderness therapy is often viewed as an effective tool to help adolescents make the next transition may not be found in outcome studies, literature reviews, or empirical observation. 

The answers can be found in history books, lessons in sociology and anthropology, and those Natural Geographic magazines that we used to sneak peaks at when we were kids. They are found in rituals that confirmed and embraced adolescence, designed to capture it’s intensity and teach and empower while protecting society from its excesses. The sustenance and resiliency of these cultures through the millennia illustrate the “outcomes” of rites of passage experience for adolescents. 

Adolescence is a time of intense growth, not just of shoe size and pimples, but of spirit. Rituals and ceremony, heroes and the heroes’ journey, are fascinations of adolescents because they allow them to feed their ever-growing spirit that manifests itself in wildness and excess. Again, Bly states: 

We need wilderness and extravagance. Whatever shuts a human being away from the waterfall or the tiger will harm him. The boy’s body inherits physical abilities developed by long-dead ancestors, and his mind inherits spiritual and soul powers developed centuries ago. The job of the initiator is to prove that to the boy or girl that he or she is more than mere flesh and blood. (Bly, 1990, p. 55) 

Perhaps wilderness therapy programs should be used as a preventive measure, instead of an intervention measure. A celebration instead of a remedy. That way, the spirit quest, the wildness and desire to grow and transcend limits, is captured and harnessed in all its glory, and the initiation into adulthood is made relevant and real. 

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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