Sunday, May 25, 2008

On rites of passage to adulthood

Some have commented in recent years that something missing from modern upbringing is an official "rite of passage".

There are some unofficial modern rituals which are not without meaning, perhaps one of the more important being obtaining one's driving license. At the age of 16 or 18, society is entrusting you with the correct piloting of a ton of hurtling metal in public spaces.

However, for many children growing up in recent generations, there is little beyond that, unless the children invent their own, a bit like Lord of the Flies. Hazing, drinking contests, drugs, sex, games of chicken with cars, crime.

Other times, people endure harrowing life experiences that are more of a true "rite of passage" that anyone could ever think up on their own, and have earned "adulthood" more surely than most who've gone through such rituals.

Other people, never having had either kind of experience, may constantly make trouble for themselves, and realize only many years into adulthood that it was those experiences that served, perhaps with far too much pain and expense not only to them but to those around them, as their own rite of passage into adulthood.

It is thought that such rituals and experiences are necessary to the human psyche, hence their frequent independent invention in place of (or sometimes in addition to) more formal rituals a society may observe.

But what is the purpose and use of such rituals? I think it's as follows.

In most societies, no matter how primitive or advanced, when children are infants and preteens they are (ideally) at all times in the bosom of their mothers, families and the community. There is a bright, warm campfire at night, and a warm blanket to sleep under. Society provides for the needs of the child. The child gradually learns that there is a bigger world out there, but essentially they come to think it's normal and expected that there is light, warmth and food everywhere, and that such things are, and should be expected to be, provided automatically as part of life.

I think one thing adult initiation rituals do, is illustrate clearly and starkly, and possibly painfully and frighteningly, that there is darkness outside the firelight, and that possibilities for pain and even death lurk among life and in the bright daylight. They see how close the precipice is even to daily life.

And most importantly, they learn that the campfire, the blankets and the food don't maintain themselves. It will be up to THEM to keep the campfire burning, to find the food, to protect the village. If they weren't viscerally aware of that before, they will be after the ritual.

They then return from the ritual back into the community, who celebrate their accomplishment, mourning a bit for the passing of childhood, but cherishing these new fledgling adults whose eyes are now more fully open, and who, through their travails in the ritual, have earned the right to be truly considered adults.

I think that in most cases, the human mind wants to learn, and the human soul feels the need to engage and awaken. Where society or family fail to provide official channels for these things, it seems the mind may serve the yearnings of the soul and, for better or worse, create its own methods.

I think one of the really sad things about badly broken social systems is that children are likely to go through harrowing experiences at very young ages, "unofficial" rituals that are heavily negative and which carry few positive connotations. And coming as they do early in childhood, those individuals are deprived of the chance for their minds and souls to develop peacefully in the bosom of their family and community, until they are old and tough enough to endure the ritual without the more humane parts of their personalities being shattered and stunted by the experience. This is what it means to be robbed of childhood.

So much better to be shown and guided through these fearsome things by caring elders who'll let them see the precipice but not fall over it... or so it seems to me.

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