I was so fortunate to have had the amount of time available to my personal growth and self-discovery in my early thirties. What I am so appreciative is that I made the most during this time, dedicating myself to identifying and dealing with my core issues early on, many of which originated during my childhood, so that I could experience an overall happier and more fulfilling life today. As I see the challenges facing our youth today, I only wish that we had more opportunities for them to deal with their internal and external struggles at an earlier age.
I believe that our society has a lot to learn from examples of how this did occur in other cultures and societies. Let me share a few examples.
As I understand it, within American Indian tribes, young men were asked to leave their homes and not return until they experienced their vision of who they are, hence the “vision quest.” This is well portrayed in the movie, Dances with Wolves, where Kevin Costner’s character moves to a remote outpost and begins journaling as he focuses more on life around him. At one point a chief of a Indian tribe observes him dancing with wolves that he had become close to, and then said to him, you are no longer ______ (his former name), you are now “Dances With Wolves.” The dancing with wolves represented the change that he had made.
While volunteering in several remote areas in Africa, I noted on several occasions young men with painted faces, far removed from their homes or tribes. This was described to me in a similar way as I stated above for the American Indians, as a period of reflection and understanding as they made their transition from youth to becoming a man. When I had opportunities to learn more about this and speak to some of the young men once they returned, I was particularly impressed with the maturity that had developed at such a young age.
As I backpacked in several regions of the world, I had the chance to meet and talk with hundreds of others traveling in this manner. It seemed traditional for those in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and many other countries to spend several months to years abroad before either attending college or beginning their careers. I was impressed by their maturity in that they had a greater understanding of the world around them, the cultures, diversity, ways of life, challenges, etc. This reminds me of Michael Crichton’s book, Travels, where he states: “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am.”
These “time-outs” away from our families and friends allow us to learn more about ourselves and to grow and mature. We learn that we cannot run away from our issues, since they have become a part of who we are, wherever we go. It was more normal to talk openly and share our challenges that it was at home. Here are a couple of true stories that exemplify this.
I met up with a couple of guys (one from Sweden and one from Spain) while in South Africa. We decided to travel north towards Zimbabwe (there were typically spare of the moment decisions when backpacking). It was a long trek there so we had nothing but time to talk. As our connections grew, the conversations became more personal. It was close to midnight and we were waiting for our next ride. Pablo, from Spain, asked if he could share something with me. He started a two hour expose on his troubled past and what he had run from. He was involved with the sale of illegal drugs, and things went from bad to worse. Turf wars had erupted and several of his colleagues were killed. He spoke at length about what life was like then. He was now on the run, and lived life one day at a time while he figured out what was next.
While staying in a hostel in Seattle, I ran into a guy from England. He was in his twenties and all seemed well. At one point he opened up to me, stating that he had abandoned his wife in England. He was dating a girl in Seattle, and seemed happy. But he was not. He was haunted by what he had done and realized that distancing himself had only masked his pain.
It seemed easier to connect with others in a more profound way on the road. Once we realized that we did not have to don our masks, we were free to be who we were, only to find we were in greater company. I was amazed at the level of our conversations. I found this to be a very instrumental part of my own personal growth. I had developed more confidence and self-awareness on each segment of my journey, and much faster I believe than I would have back at home.
As a parent now, as much as I am saddened about letting my children go, I encourage them to find their own way and to consider time-outs wherever possible. I wish we had more traditions like those I shared above. We are so prone to run from one stage of life into the next. The sooner they begin to discover and feel better about who they are, the greater the probability that they will too find greater levels of happiness and meaning in their lives. Unfortunately, the corollary is also true. The longer we go without growing our self-awareness about who we are, our challenges, etc. the more these negatively impact our lives.