Interview with Joel Blunk

Interview by Clayton Blunk

When I was 18 years old, my father and a group of his peers took me and a group of my peers into the woods of rural Pennsylvania to share life lessons with us.  We were adolescent boys and the time had come to put away our childish ways and enter adulthood. One by one, my friends and I were taken from our homes in the night, blindfolded, and brought to a drum circle around a fire in the woods, beginning a 3-day initiation focused on an intergenerational exchange of wisdom.

This of course mortified me.  Why was my father embarrassing me in front of my friends like this?  My plan was to go to college and explore the world, then get a job and “grow up” the way everyone else grows up. What was wrong with that? That weekend in the woods was challenging and uncomfortable, but twelve years later I still remember the lessons by heart, and the older I get the more truth I find in each one.

Recently, I sat down with my father for a conversation about holding rites of passage and why it’s so important to create collective meaning during life’s transitions.

Clayton Blunk:  Tell us about the spiritual work you do around aging!

Joel Blunk: I think in some ways I walked into this unexpectedly.  I was working with youth and got involved in rites of passage and realized how critical it is that we have healthy, mature elders.  Youth can’t initiate themselves, at least not into anything substantive. But without true elders to lead the way, there is little hope.

Our culture values youthfulness and is preoccupied with staying young and remaining beautiful.  Just watch the ads on T.V. We’ve lost sight of the importance of all ages and stages representative in a healthy community.  We think we can get by without certain folks. The way we treat the elderly in this society is appalling. They are tucked away in secluded villages and transitional facilities, often cut off from those whose energy they need and who are in need of their wisdom and grounding.

In the mens work I participate in with Illuman, we are focused on becoming a community of elders.  We often talk about the importance of reinstituting rites of passage, particularly for young men, within five generations.  It will take that long at least to make rites of passage socially accepted in the mainstream, and may also take that long before we no longer have a dearth of true elders, like we do today.  Maybe one day we can fill the void.

CB:  Why are rites of passage important?  What gaps in US dominant culture do they fill?

JB: I believe they are important because we need help growing up.  There are stages of life that come naturally for us. Birth for instance:  I could dispute this, but we don’t necessarily have a say in being born. And adolescence physically comes at us whether we like it or not — our bodies change.  But moving from adolescence to adulthood requires courage, direction, discernment and a little help. Life will initiate us eventually, but it’s good to have initiators willing to wake us up.

We know that cultures on every continent have been intentional to initiate young people into adulthood.  We also know that the lessons that accompany that initiation have been consistent in spite of the fact that there couldn’t have been communication among them.  The lessons are these: suffering is part of the deal, your life will end one day, you’re not as important as you think you are, you’re not in control, and the reason you’re here is bigger than you now know.

While all of us, if we went back far enough, would find that we come from indigenous communities that intentionally prepared us for adulthood, we have since traded that for “pseudo” rites of passage.  Things like graduation from high school, getting a driver’s license, turning 21 and being able to drink. These things can’t really be said to make us adults. If anything, they permit us to prolong adolescence for decades.

But why does it matter?  In a nutshell, power. When men are not initiated they tend to abuse power at every turn.  Take a look at the #MeToo movement, our prolonged military presence in the Middle East, or the continuance of white supremacy in a day and age when we know the color of our skin does not make us better or worse than one another.  Women, on the other hand, may benefit from initiation not to tame their power, but to claim it, given our society’s tendency to subjugate and demean them. The approach with males and females is different, which is why men typically initiate the boys and women the girls.

CB:  How have rites of passage been meaningful in your own life?  How did you come to see them as so important?

JB: Rites of passage became important to me the moment I became a father.  I recognized that the kind of intiatory experiences I had in my life were superficial.  I felt ill-equipped to be a father and clueless when it came to knowing how to be a man.  And the thought of having to show my own sons how to become men scared me to death. I was lost.

Around that time, I read King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette.  In addition to laying out archetypal examples of masculinity, the book’s preface talked about ancient caves with hieroglyphics teaching boys to be men.  The writings are 30,000 years old! The thought captured my imagination and touched something primal in me. I longed for an initiation like that. And I began to imagine it for my sons.  I even took them and their peers into caves.

In 2006 I participated in a men’s rites of passage led by Francisan Richard Rohr.  I haven’t looked back. Since then, I’ve been involved in leading other men in the same rites and I’ve developed and participated in a number of young men’s rites of passage experiences.  I’ve helped develop and support rites for women too.

Growth and becoming is something I believe we are all intended to do from day one till the day we’re done.  I hope it’s true for me. I want to keep learning. I once knew a true elder who, on his dying bed, refused morphine, he told me so he would be awake for the final passage.  I want to go like that, learning to the end — open to the journey.

CB:  How does your work relate to the question of toxic masculinity?

JB: Our culture suffers from patho-adolescence.  It’s more apparent today than ever, in part because we see it modeled from the top, if you consider the President of the United States a position of authority and influence.  He gives others permission to behave poorly too. In this day and age, a man can get away with childish behavior long into his 30’s or 40’s — addicted to video games, womanizing, preoccupied with money, etc.  I should put a preoccupation with one’s self in there too. These attitudes and behaviours are toxic and have a negative effect on culture and community, including the more-than-human world. The way this manifests is in an obsession with war and violence, utter disregard for science, the destruction of Mother Earth, and the scapegoating of those we deem different from us, especially women, people of color, and other minorities.

CB: How has cultural exchange factored into your work?

JB: First, I need to say something about perennial wisdom.  There are universal truths that cut across religions and cultures that are worth noting.  Put simply, we all come from the same Source; in fact, everything does. Second, there is something of this ultimate reality — call it God, Spirit, Truth, or Presence — in all of us.  Third, we are all connected and our efforts at life have implications and import beyond ourselves. These foundational truths represent cultural exchange for me. They help me take into account the wisdom of various traditions and communities not my own, out of respect and reverence.  These truths cut across national boundaries, racial constructs, language barriers, and even beyond the limitations of this world.

Culturally, in terms of how each of us interacts day to day with those outside our likeminded circles, there is more we have in common than not.  Sharing stories — our hopes, our fears, our dreams and struggles — reveals our commonality, if we’re willing to be vulnerable and listen. It’s not always easy, but it’s always beneficial.

Right now I live in an intentional community that is racially diverse and inclusive.  I’ve had to learn that there are a lot of things I took for granted, things like my own privilege as a white male in this culture.  I’ve considered this intellectually before, but it holds so much more meaning now living with people who I’m learning did not grow up with the same basic opportunities I took for granted. The disparities are enormous.  Things like having books in the house, being free to walk anywhere or go into a store without being subjected to surveillance, or being able to trust law enforcement without question. I’ve still got a lot to learn.

CB:  How has becoming a grandfather influenced how you think about aging and the work you do?

JB: Becoming a grandfather is a little sobering in terms of the age piece.  I turned 58 last fall, but don’t feel 58.  However, a grandfather can be 58, so I’m still coming to terms with the truth of that.  It’s surreal at the moment. I’m willing to live into what that’s going to mean and I’m sure it’ll hit me differently the day that Violet calls me “grandpa” or “papi” or whatever it is she calls me.  I think that in many ways it validates the importance of the work I’m doing, not only in my own life but in working with other people. Not so much aging gracefully as aging responsibly, with intention.

One of the things becoming a grandfather has shifted in me recently is recognizing that my best, or most productive days are behind me.  I need to step out of the way so the next generation can come forward. I’ve seen elders do that for me. I’m not saying there’s no work for me to do, just that it’s apparent to me that things are shifting, and I needn’t feel that I have to be as productive as I was before.  So what’s my responsibility now? I’ve told people that the elder piece has more to do with being than doing, so there’s a shift from productivity to presence. I see that in my elders, people I look up to, and still there’s a challenge in stepping down as the one who makes the difference.  It takes humility, which I’m learning as my body wears down.

All this points to the need for an elder rite of passage!  We need several initiations in life — experiences that help us continue to grow and become who we were created to be.  That goes for different stages of life, too. Without initiation into elderhood we may miss our time to step out of the way making room for those coming after us.

Clayton Blunk lives in Chicago, IL with his human fiancée and pet cat.  He works as a GED instructor at a resource center serving street-based, LGBTQ-identified young people in the city. Clayton misses the rivers, mountains, and forests of Pennsylvania and beyond, but when he slows down enough he can still hear the drumming.

Joel Blunk is co-pastoral director of Richmond Hill, an ecumenical residential community in the heart of Richmond, VA, dedicated to prayer, hospitality, racial reconciliation and spiritual development.  Joel has extensive experience working with men and is a weaver and wisdom elder for the international men’s organization, Illuman.  A musician, storyteller, and leader of rites of passage and nature-based experientials intended to nurture wholeness and authenticity, Joel is committed to helping others find that place where their “deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.”