The value of rites of passage

Reflecting on his own life journey from criminal to charity founder, Caspar Walsh emphasises the importance of rites of passage in moving towards stronger community and democracy

“If the young are not initiated into the tribe, they will burn down the village just to feel its warmth”  (proverb)

By the age of 33 I’d spent most my adult life feeling, for the most part, like a child. Something was missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Through my teens I burned a lot of ‘villages’ to the ground looking for love, connection and community.

Finally, in December 1999 I found the rite of passage (a ritual or process marking a person’s transition from one stage of life to another) that my soul had been seeking since I was a teenager. It was a dramatic turning point, which happened during an intense personal development weekend and allowed me to finally look myself in the mirror and see a grown up. On that cold weekend in Sussex, surrounded by powerful, authentic men from the staff team – who had each gone through what I was going through – a fire was lit inside me.

I was given the chance to look at the root causes of my anger and grief and do something positive with it. That fire came in the form of a question: why did I have to wait so long for something this important? Seeking an answer, I found a mentor and we began putting together a similar rite of passage to the one I’d experienced. But this one was for teenagers.

My journey has been tough. My father spent many years in prison. I followed in his criminal boot print and ended up behind bars with a debilitating and life threatening addiction to drugs and alcohol. I was 21 years old when I faced my final prison sentence. I had a choice: stay inside or apply for rehab. My decision was death or life: I’ve now been clean from drugs and alcohol for over 23 years; my last conviction was in 1988.

Despite trusting in the unfolding process of life, I believe that if I’d had a rite of passage as a teenager, a lot of pain, chaos and damage would have been avoided. This is why I do what I do.

I always wanted to be a writer. I was doing well in developing a career in fiction when my path took an unexpected turn toward non-fiction. I was approached to work in my first prison in 1999. This is not something I would’ve chosen to do of my own volition, believe me. But I took up the call and followed the road.

Since then I’ve run writing residencies in prisons all over the country, written two docu-dramas for BBC Radio 4 on prison life and now write a regular column for The Guardian on social and criminal justice.

The work I now do with young prisoners and disaffected young men in rites of passage began to take shape around five years ago. As a result, the charity I founded, Write to Freedom, was registered in the spring of 2011. The focus of our work is to provide a structured rite of passage for young men between the ages of 16 and 25. We offer this through wilderness, writing and community work – the rehabilitative trinity that saved my life.

In mainstream media, rites of passage are more often than not seen as something from another time and place and not relevant to today’s society. As a result, most of the world is, not to put too fine a point on it, in crisis. There is an awful lot of ‘village burning’ going on. Just turn on the TV or open a newspaper.

But change is on the horizon. I’m witnessing it. There is a fundamental shift taking place, moving slowly from blind, dangerous leadership to authentic, accountable and connected community-led projects working from the ground up.

One key block to deeper change is initiation, or the lack of it. There is a huge gap between the older and younger generations. Many young people don’t trust or respect the old. In the absence of their own initiation, the old don’t understand the young and are, sometimes with very good reason, frightened of youthful, wild power.

Back in 1999, fed up with my complaining, I chose to become part of a new bridge between the generations. Bold, ambitious and maybe a little naive, but something is happening, something is changing. Any human can step into their own rite of passage at any time.

Beneath the fearful blanket of negative press and widespread moral panic, there are many individuals and organisations getting on with it, creating safe, structured rites of passage. They are becoming part of the solution. A solution underpinned by stepping fully into adulthood while maintaining a child’s eye’s wonder on the world; believing in the possibility of a future free from debilitating fear and building bright, un-burnt villages of hope.