We might as well be living through the next verse of “We Didn’t Start the Fire“.

According to Genius.com, Billy Joel’s conversation with a friend in 1989 sparked the song:

[Joel’s] friend just turned 21 and was complaining about how crazy it was to be living in his era, therefore undermining any other time before his. This encouraged Joel to write a song that would prove that any time is filled with extremes.”

Today the world figuratively and literally in flames. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a reminder that “no matter how crazy times may seem today, they have always been crazy and will continue to be crazy as long as life continues to exist.”

But it does feel different this time, doesn’t it? Is it just social media amplifying trouble in the world? More cameras, endless media channels, eyeballs amplifying it to more eyeballs?

Or is humanity going through something big right now? Have we entered radically new and potentially devastating territory? It sure feels that way. Never before have we felt more connected and yet simultaneously more fragmented.

I’m sorry, Billy Joel. This time does feel different. It feels like we’re ending ourselves. It feels like we’re on the brink of total and utter collapse.

And it’s reminding me about my vision quest in 2016 with another Bill: Plotkin.

Vision Quests & Ego Deaths

That vision quest experience has stayed alive for me over the last four years, but it’s especially alive today. Not so much what happened on the quest, but why I did it in the first place and what the vision quest ritual represents.

What is a vision quest? In Plotkin’s words:

“…going out into the wild alone for three or four days to fast and seek a revelation of soul-infused life purpose. It’s designed to help people uncover their greatest gift…not only in terms of what is most unique about them, but also in terms of what they can offer to their people…

We’re not seeking a job or a social role. We’re asking ‘What did earth birth me to be in this life?’”

The literal translation of vision quest in some Native American cultures is To Lament, or, “express a passionate expression of grief or sorrow”. Vision questers go to the woods not to uncover their life plan, write their bestseller, or achieve enlightenment, but rather “to cry out” in despair for a vision for their life.

Not to be confused with Nirvana or spiritual enlightenment, vision quests are messy. Riddled with grief, hope, despair, renewal, inner conflict, liminal encounters and sometimes, fear of death.

In fact, before my vision quest, Bill Plotkin told us that the most powerful quests were those in which the individual thought they might die.

Over the last four decades of Plotkin’s Animas Valley running vision quests, no one, as far as I know, has died. Four days of fasting and isolation, while challenging, is rarely fatal. Being hungry and alone in the woods is as old as humanity, and of course, brings real risks  — dehydration, sun stroke, wild animals, personal injury — but the true mortal risk of a vision quest isn’t physical. It’s psychospiritual.

To embark on a vision quest means willing to risk losing everything you possess, everyone you love, everything think you know about yourself and your world to accept your true place in it.

By design, vision quests can feel like dying. Joseph Campbell elicits the true work of a vision quest:

“We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

–Joseph Campbell
mombacho walk

Modern Society and Perpetual Adolescence

If you’ve never embarked on a vision quest or a similar initiation rite, you’re not alone.

“As a whole, Westernized societies don’t seem to have a clue about how to prepare a young person for sexual flowering, social independence, authentic personal expression, soul discovery, or a lifetime of interdependent relationships in the more-than-human world of nature. Traditional rites of passage, stripped of their vitality centuries before, have become empty shells, like the long-discarded husks of departed souls.”

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul

In his book Nature and the Human Soul, Plotkin hypothesizes that modern Western society is stuck in perpetual adolescence.

Adolescence isn’t bad, per se. It’s simply a stage in human development. Not one to live in forever, but to pass through.

The goal of adolescence is to fit into society and thrive in all its worldly glory. If you can support yourself and are generally accepted in society (e.g. you’re not a crazy person), you’ve nailed adolescence.

As individuals, we’ve lost touch with rites of passage that help us move from adolescence and into adulthood. And as a society, we’ve become stuck. The proof is in what we value: fast cars, tall buildings, growth for growth’s sake, and leaders with adolescent values.

Entering adulthood means moving past simply “fitting in” and learning how to stand courageously and authentically in one’s own true skin, despite its social convenience or acceptability. Moving past simply “fitting in” and learning how to stand courageously and authentically in one’s own true skin, despite its social convenience or acceptability. And from that place of authenticity, tapping into and offering essential gifts that only you can offer.

To enter adulthood is to provide your unique tonic to a broken world.

A vision quest is one tool of initiation into adulthood.

“Genuine adulthood is not obtained merely by reaching a certain age, birthing or raising children, or accepting certain responsibilities. The adolescent must undergo an initiation process that requires letting go of the familiar and comfortable. She must submit to a journey of descent into the mysteries of nature and the human soul. She must plunge to the depths, in a sense to “hell,” but not at all in the way mainstream society has come to understand — and to fear. The descent that adolescents must undergo is what most scares people about teenagers (including teenagers themselves). 

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul

Plotkin goes on:

Through psychospiritual adventure, the adolescent comes to know what she was born to do, what gift she possesses to bring to the world, what sacred quality lives in her heart, and how she might arrive at her own unique way of loving and belonging. Entry into the life of the soul demands a steep price, an ordeal, a psychological form of dying. The uninitiated adolescent does not easily give up her claim on “the good life.”

Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul

Replace “uninitiated adolescent” with current humanity.

Reread “steep price,” “ordeal,” and “psychological form of dying” in the context of today’s challenges.

Consider how outdated ideologies of racism, nationalism, and all the other -isms do not “easily give up claim on ‘the good life.’”

And it sounds awfully relevant.

I can’t help but wonder:

Is humanity going through its own irritable and angsty teenage years?

Are we being beckoned to begin our collective psychospiritual adventure? 

Are we being invited to collectively leave societal adolescence and say “Yes” to our own vision quest moment toward adulthood? If so, what in the world does that look like?

Or maybe to Billy Joel’s point, we’re consistently beckoned over the decades…but this time feels particularly ripe.


The Crisis Wasn’t Ripe Yet”

After three long and hungry days, I left my lonely patch of Earth and returned to basecamp to join my fellow vision questers. We fed our gracious bellies under the morning sun, cleaned up as best we could (there were no showers) and sat in a circle to share what was on our hearts.

When it came to Plotkin, he revealed with heaviness that this would likely be his final vision quest as a guide. After forty years of guiding thousands of people deep into the woods and into the depths of their own souls, the next stage of his life beckoned.

Plotkin dedicated his entire life to helping individuals shift from adolescence to adulthood; helping culture shift from ego-centric to eco-centric; assisting in our collective journey from wounded to wholeness. Tears welled up as he grieved the end of an era. From adulthood into early elderhood.

In his voice I heard a deeper sadness still: so much work still left undone. I sensed that Plotkin hoped he’d witness an enormous collective human shift in his lifetime. Perhaps with death on the horizon, he wouldn’t likely see the full payoff of his work. He wept.

 In between tears, his lament: “The crisis wasn’t ripe yet.”

Four years later, in 2020, things feel different.

Maybe the crisis is finally ripening.

And maybe, like on a vision quest, the threat mostly psychospiritual, not physical. Maybe there’s nothing to fear…except everything we think we know about ourselves and the world. Maybe it’ll feel like dying. But maybe, like phoenix rising, this is exactly what life is made for.

Like Thomas Berry says:

“The catastrophic moments are also creative moments.” –Thomas Berry

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