Voyage as Rite of Passage: Why Abby Sunderland's Parents Were Right

7 years ago

Last week, the web was rocked with news that Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old who was circumnavigating the world alone, had gone missing. Immediately, the response from parents the web over was to criticize her parents: "who would let their teen do such a crazy thing?"

I think about the Walkabout in aboriginal culture -- the rite of passage for male adolescents involving spending as long as half of a year tracing the songlines, or paths, of their ancestors across the vast Australian wilderness -- and I think, "who wouldn't?"

The Walkabout is a major cultural initiation rite, and it's not the only one. Many Pacific Island cultures involve voyages at sea, and African tribes take initiates out of the community, as well. In Navajo culture, the three-day ceremony of Kanalda culminates in running toward the east at dawn to represent a young adult "running on one's own."

Traditionally speaking, there is nothing more human than commemorating the passage into adulthood by allowing a teen to set out on her own. Something that has been lost in our culture is the understanding that age doesn't automatically grant an individual the knowledge to be a resourceful member of society. Outside of getting a driver's license, graduating high school, being old enough to buy tobacco products, enter clubs and go to war if we choose to, we have little in the way of a true initiation rite.

I'm speaking generally now, because in my family, we do have something of a rite of passage: to set off to a different country and show what we're made of. I went to Russia. Shelter was arranged and I was given a little stipend, but the assistance was minimal and I wasn't there to make it through –- I was there to show my parents I could figure out how to have a blast, learn a language, absorb a culture with only my brain to help me. That's how they'd decide if I was going to be sent to college. Not on grades. I had a 3.85 GPA and my Associate of Arts degree at that point, but anyone can read a book.

Life isn't a book.

It's amazing how fast you can pick up a language when you have to. It's amazing how quickly you can overcome shyness when you're lost. It's amazing how much you can learn when you refuse the charted route and take a chance on the people and their own knowledge. And it's also amazing how strong you are when you have to fight. Or how fast you are when you have to run. It's amazing how all of these things teach you about assessing intangibles like benefits and risk.

I had always loved Russia, having grown up with a father who read me Pushkin, and spent my formative years devouring everything from Tolstoy to Chekhov. Until I read Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, War and Peace was my favorite book. But while these authors and the accompanying textbooks I read in history and geography class assisted in painting an image of Russia, none of it compared to seeing it with my own eyes and losing myself in its people and customs.

Forget the tours. Get an architecture student to show you the town. Ignore the train and drive from Moscow to St. Petersburg and stop as often as you can to really taste the beauty that hides between these two cities. Yes, taste the art, but don't forget the people on the streets, the living soul of that country that still beats, like a heart, day in and day out.

Sure, I partied like the best of them. I broke rules and got into my fair share of trouble with locals and with the authorities. I almost died after eating pesticide-coated cherries that I was told not to eat but did anyway because I was 17 and I thought I was invincible. That's life. Live and learn. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, smarter, braver, and maybe even a little wiser.

Darwin called it survival of the fittest, not the most coddled, for a reason.

Image by pete_the_painter via Flickr

My sister would make her own trip when she turned 17. She picked Peru to get back to her roots. Same deal, same amount of alcohol and shenanigans. Same amount of trouble. Unlike textbooks and trips carefully curated by mom and dad, real life is as much laughter as it is tears. When there's no one to bail you out, when it's just you and the world, overcoming obstacles is unforgettable. Take risks –- at your own expense.

These trips made us fearless in the face of something most people find paralyzing: failure. Success is important but failure, without a doubt, brings the longest-lasting lessons. Because we will fail at some point –- all of us. And at some point, we will lack for something. At some point, we will find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Resourcefulness means that when there's no light at the end of the tunnel, we have to dig our own way out.

Books and museums and holidays in places just wild enough to count as wild, but largely domesticated so no one has to really deal in the truly unpalatable don't teach you any of this. Interactions with people who are largely like you don't teach you this. Television, with its many "reality" programs doesn't teach you this. Even the web, with its wide array of experiences and stories, doesn't fully give you this.

Only living it on your own and having nothing but yourself grants you this.

My father knew this, and his father before him. When my father was our age, he picked the U.S. as his destination. When his father was that age, he picked Peru –- that's how he ended up there from Japan.

It's dangerous, yes. But this is a dangerous world. I think there is a lot to be said for kids who have the initiative to strike out on their own. It's not always fun. It's laughter and tears and hard-pumping adrenaline and making it by the skin on your teeth. But that's life. If you live afraid of risk or failure, you end up not very living much at all.

We're becoming a spoiled culture of fear. You see it everywhere. "Think of the children!" is the cry emitted when anyone does anything that other people find disagreement with. The human body. Think of the children! A family's financial difficulties. Think of the children! Any mention of sex -– even if it's in the dictionary. Think of the children! The fact that pets die and people die and there are countries brutally ravaged by war. By God! Think of the children!

And then we read about the Boomerang generation, open the Wall Street Journal to a story about kids in their twenties still living off their parents because, oh, life is just so hard.

I won't deny this is a tough economy. I'm a writer. Trust me, I know. But I'm resourceful. There is opportunity everywhere and I've been reared to take it. There is also danger everywhere and I've learned to see it, avoid it when I can and face it when I have to, using everything I know to put up a good fight.

I have my parents to thank for this –- you can't very well teach resourcefulness, but you can facilitate it, and the rite of passage of striking out on your own is one way that's been tried and tested for almost the entirety of the human story.

The danger of Sunderland's voyage is very real even now that she's been found, but I would never ask, "who'd let their 16-year-old do this?"

I'd never ask because I would – and for the record, I'd make her build her own boat.


Special thanks to my long-time friend Nancy Bo Flood, world traveler, culture connoisseur, and author of several books for children and young adults about myth and folklore from around the world. I have her to thank for being the writer I am today and for the delightful discussion we had recently about the many different cultures that include voyages in their initiation rites.

If you look at her site, you'll see at last who stands behind my philosophy that story-telling teaches and heals. (And I would have never met her had my father not been fearless enough to take us all to a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. "Think of the children who don't even know the language, living in such an uncivilized place!" people said. To which he replied, "barefoot and wild, I know!" Thanks, Dad!)

Teenage Sailors, Circumnavigating the Globe by Pam Mandel:

Travel became an indelible part of my being at 16 –- I can completely empathize with needing to answer the call from elsewhere, be it the open ocean, a war torn desert, or just some place else. Since I don't have kids, I can't say for sure what I'd do if one of mine asked for the freedom to wander at a young age, but I do know that as much as there are unspeakable dangers out there, there are also so many more kind hearts just waiting to welcome you and help you on your way. I would hope that, in that situation, I would swallow my own fears and say yes.

Parents and Courage by Helga Hayse:

I don't know if I could have done what Abby's parents did. I would have feared losing my children. My focus would have been on 'my loss' rather than on 'their dream'. Could Abby's dream be an extraordinary case of sibling rivalry, a desire to best her older brother? I don't think so. I think her parents, who knew that their daughter was ready, trusted her character and ability. They believed she should have the same chance as her brother. It's called equal opportunity and it begins in the home. Abby and Zac are remarkable people. So are their parents. who provided them with a legacy of trust, belief in themselves and the courage and love to let them go.

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

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