The following is adapted from an essay I wrote for a training manual on working with youth.
When asked how we attract young people into soul work—be it heartfull-language, rites of passage, a storytelling, or ritual—I think of Trickster. We have an appalling lack of Trickster energy in this culture due to a widespread aversion to lived paradox. That is, abstract and conceptual paradox is fine, perhaps considered enlightened, erudite, even entertaining. But lived paradox, like Trickster, is messy, ambiguous, shape-shifting; providing an apt description of the adolescent condition. Hence, meeting some form of Trickster may be helpful—as Deldon Anne McNeely writes:
Lucky is the adolescent who comes under the influence of an adult with a healthy dose of Trickster available in their psyche… to laugh at oneself without too much shame, to role-play, to experiment with a variety of identities… with humor and a more life-affirming perspective.
Trickster embodies paradox. If we hope to effectively work with young people we will need all the psychological maturity we can gather—maturity arises in the capacity to sustain and endure paradox.
Cultivating some Trickster energy of our own, will make us more attractive to adolescents; and perhaps open our eyes to all that is attractive to them. It’s also clear that the old Trickster myths offer adolescents a different perspective on their own statusless-status, their betwixt-and-between condition, suggesting to them that adolescence itself may be something truly important and powerful.
Of course, inviting the neighborhood boys to come for story night won’t get much attention, rather we might say, “we’ve got a bunch of bows and arrows, and were going to do archery Saturday afternoon and then build a big-ass fire.” So maybe six guys show up, and learn to hit something with an arrow. Talking happens, but the main thing is we’re doing something, there’s action going on, and the talk is peripheral. When it comes time to lay the wood and make a fire, instead of pulling out a match, or lighter, one man brings out a bow-drill, and begins diligently with, silent prayers, to call a tiny smoldering coal out of the wood. First seeing the smoke and then the tinder ignite, if we’re lucky, a boy will say, “could I do that?” Quickly dousing the flame, the man begins to offer instruction. An hour or more later half the boys have attempted and maybe succeeded in calling a flame. At last the fragile bundle of burning tinder is pushed into the heart of the perfectly arranged tepee of kindling, and the fire climbs into its full glory. Something primal and sacred has happened—no words needed. Once the fire settles, at the right moment, another man says, “how ‘bout a story.” And then I give a story, with drum, voice, and heart. In the end when asked, “do you guys wanna do this again?” everyone agrees, “yes!”
A number of important things occurred here: first (because I’ve invoked Trickster) did we trick the boys? I say no. We were tricky, and we used cunning to make this happen, but we never lied or fooled them. Second, through the telling of myths, and later poems, we begin to develop an image laden group-language. After hearing many stories and many poems—as Robert Bly has it, “storing up the granary of images”—it is always amazing and delightful to listen to a young one speak of his life from his own heart, eloquently weaving threads of story and poem that have become land-marks in the vast territory of his soul’s life.
The third thing which occurred is something that runs invisibly through the background of the whole event: the boys experienced the authority of the men without anyone asserting it; this is the trickiest thing of all and must be explored at length.
In modern society young people have a long-learned inexpressible sense that grownups are not the same thing as adults. Many teenagers have lived all their lives without encountering an authentic adult. They know there’s something missing in the grownups, they don’t know what it is, and deep down they feel betrayed by the adult world for not showing up at that critical moment when genuine adult contact is needed.
This circumstance makes it very difficult for young people to enter deeply into situations where authority must be present. The gathering of boys described above is a first event, but what we hope for is to go deeper and eventually enter territories where boundaries must be held, and someone has to say “ok, stop! we’re not going that far.” It may seem easier to just be pals—but if you’re doing initiation, or mentoring, just being pals will not work. If a grown up person is less psychologically mature than a young person, it is impossible for the young one to receive any real food from the older one. If we succumb to the temptation to earn approval from the young ones who we hope to reach we will fail. Hence, at both ends of the two way street each of us—grownup and teen, woman and girl, man and boy—separately face the same problem/opportunity.
In The Sibling Society Robert Bly describes the devastating effects of life in a culture that refuses adulthood and adult authority: “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents—seeing that—have no desire to become adults.” Thus, the primary challenge to any opening between grownups and youths is mistrust of authority. Ironically, mistrust of authority is precisely what keeps grownups from becoming adults: we abdicate our own interior authority in favor of earning approval and at times we seize gratuitous authority—we all know it, many of us do it, and everyone hates it.
Mistrust of authority is a chronic illness overwhelming modern society. Yet, ultimately, earning approval as a substitute or diversion doesn’t work—it makes us sick. Soon enough we go off hunting for more—because approval is an addictive substance, and as such, it is a substitute satisfaction for (or what Caroline Casey would call the “toxic mimic” of) a natural desire to receive confirmation in and of the soul.
Whether trying to accept your own interior authority, or walk the ground of another’s, the best advice I know is this: before you look up, look down, look for the roots—that’s where authenticity comes from. False authority is a rootless tree looming over us with no connection to the earth—it’s not alive. To have authenticity we need deep roots reaching down to what Martín Prechtel calls “the indigenous soul.” The indigenous soul is not interested in mere approval; it will accept no substitute for the rooted ceremonies of confirmation bestowed upon the soul by elders who are looking eagerly to call forth and give praise to the strangely-beautiful-one-of-a-kind qualities of soul that come into the world as a gift only through this one unique individual person. We all long for this, and even if we never got it, we have to learn to give it to those who need it most: the boys and girls, the young men and young women in our village.
Long after that first event those boys, now young adults, are still in my life. I am deeply grateful for the many things they’ve taught me, grateful that each one once granted four men authority to guide them across that dark initiatory bridge, grateful because they know the authority of the old indigenous stories and grandfather fire, grateful for how well they live. Today they come for companionship, they come when there is trouble and when times are good—and yes, they still come for stories.