The Death of a Spiritual Awakening: Jake's Story

Jake was a mechanical genius.

At the age of five, he was taking clocks apart. At six, he was putting them back together again. He spent a heavenly childhood learning from his father how to work on houses and repair appliances.

But Jake's main love, more than anything else in the world, was cars.

Jake used to call me now and then and pour forth a wall of gearhead jargon, 99% of which went straight over my head. But it didn't matter. His energy lit up like a Christmas tree, and his enthusiasm was infectious.

Jake graduated from high school with a solid C average, got a job at a lube shop, and bought himself a broken-down 1960-somethingTriumph. He completely restored it, stem to stern, and drove it proudly up and down the streets of his neighborhood.

Shortly after that, Jake's parents split up and he went to live with his dad on the "wrong side of the tracks" near Los Angeles.

His life began to falter. He had a brush with gangs and drugs. He couldn't hold down a job for more than a few months at a time, either getting into arguments with his bosses or simply not showing up for work, which, of course, resulted in him getting fired.

Finally, at the urging of a friend, Jake enlisted in the Air Force. Probably the best thing he had ever done up to that point in his life.

In the military, Jake learned about discipline. He received several awards for marksmanship. Most importantly, he began to respect himself.

The Air Force sent Jake to Iraq to fight in the Gulf War in 1993. He served two tours of duty overseas, driving and repairing personnel transports, then got an honorable discharge.

He never talked much about what happened there, although he once mentioned killing 15-year-old kids.

Whatever happened, it opened his mind and broke his heart.

When Jake called me after he got back, he was a different person. Gone was the stream of gearhead babble. He was fully engaged, warm, and open. I felt like I was talking to a genuine human being, not a walking garage.

My heart swelled with pride. Jake was getting it together. He was going to figure it out. He was going to wake up and escape the delusional half-life lived by most Americans.

But over the next few months, Jake gradually began to deteriorate. He became involved with online fantasy games. They became his identity, even to the point that he changed his name to that of his fantasy character.

He drifted from job to job, and tinkered with cars. He was in a gay relationship for awhile, then married and divorced his high school sweetheart. He studied meteorology for a couple of years and then dropped out of school.

The years passed. Jake and I lost touch.

Last I heard, he had been incarcerated for having sex with minors.

He was about 34 years old.

Indigenous societies have specific initiation rites that mark the passage from childhood to adulthood. When the child comes of age, they are sent into a life-or-death situation in which they come face-to-face with their own mortality.

I've heard of African rites in which the initiate is buried up to their neck in sand for three days. A person from the tribe is assigned to dribble water into their mouth and make sure wild animals don't eat their head.

Some initiates don't make it.

In American culture, in a way we have our own version of these rites of passage. We go away to war, give birth, survive cancer, or go through a divorce. We might encounter angels or have a near-death experience.

These experiences turn our lives inside out and bring us face to face with our own helplessness. They have the potential to become powerful spiritual awakenings.

However, without a community or leader to help us make sense of them, it is difficult to use these experiences as a bridge to adulthood. We are forced to make do the best we can with what we can cobble together on our own.

All too often, this means that the experience becomes a charming, inspiring story that we use to make ourselves feel special and boost our esteem in the eyes of others.

In indigenous cultures, every adult in the community has successfully navigated a rite of passage, and they are all available to mentor the new initiate through their transition to adulthood.

If Jake had had the support of a community of older, wiser survivors, perhaps he might have integrated his awakening and carried it forward into the rest of his life.

As it was, he came back from the war, was dumped back into his old fucked-up situation, and left to fend for himself.

Without support, Jake's new spiritual awakening perished almost as soon as it was born.

Photo credit: Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, by Gustave Doré , Public Domain via Wikimedia 

Have you had an exceptional experience that acted as an initiation rite for you? How did you integrate it? Leave a comment below.

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