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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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May 02, 2013

Do We Need Rites of Passage? – Part 2

By Mark Sisson
50 Comments

OntogenyOntogeny – the 25¢ word of the day, but you’re living it right now. From a strict biological perspective, ontogeny refers to the physical development of an organism from embryo to adult form. In a broader context (and more to the point here), it refers to the comprehensive development (e.g. physical, social, cognitive, spiritual) of an individual throughout the life cycle. Paul Shepherd discusses broader ontogeny at length in his book Coming Home to the Pleistocene, explaining “Because of our evolutionary past and the extraordinary way life has shaped our mind and bodies, we are required by the genome to proceed along a path of roles, perceptions, performances, understandings, and needs, none of which is specifically detailed by the genome but must be presented by the culture.” In other words, the progressive structure is there, waiting for our cultures to fill in the details and direct us through the scene changes. Do they? Do they need to? What happened to the social constructs to support these basic life transitions? What happened to rites of passage?

Ethnographers have long observed how communities observe life transitions, including the coming-of-age, threshold to manhood/womanhood, marriage, parenthood, and elderhood in addition to specific role transitions (leader, shaman/healer). Although the means involved in some of these rituals can range from intriguing but perhaps harrowing (Aborigine walkabout) to shockingly violent (mutilation rituals), in the observance itself there’s clarity, purpose, affirmation, belonging.

French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep’s seminal work, The Rites of Passage, examined the social ceremonies of these life stage/status events. He observed a common set of steps – separation, transition, and incorporation – that defined the process of these rites. The individual, in anticipation of the change is separated from the community. The transition can vary but marks the events/challenges/choices that bring about the change in stage/status itself. Finally, the individual is actively and respectfully reincorporated into the society within the new role. In Gennep’s interpretation, these processes were social deaths and rebirths.

Although we moderns all witness each other growing up, gaining maturity (hopefully), and getting older, things are much different now. Shepard and a number of psychologists (from Jung to modern evolutionary psychologist Anthony Stevens) have argued that modern society has done away with the ceremonial observance and particularly with the community guidance/support that used to accompany peoples’ life transitions. We’re more confused and drifting for it – as individuals and communities, they suggest. Life transitions, formally seen as socially significant and beneficial to the community, are now experienced as individually focused, even emotionally isolating events.

I explored this topic in a blog post late last year. I find this a fascinating topic because I do think something has been lost. Although our present cultures are supposed to fill in the “content” of these passages, I wonder how many of us feel supported through the full process of change. Therapy, as beneficial as it is for many life struggles, shouldn’t have to be a stand-in for normal life transitions. Left to our own devices in these shifting stages, we might feel separated. Many of us will likely feel the bewilderment of the “liminal” transition stage, when we’re entering a new phase or role in our lives (e.g. parenthood, middle age, empty nester, retirement, etc.). Finally, what does “reincorporation” look like in our modern culture? Do we find our own way back to the fold? Do we feel the same enhanced sense of belonging and new purpose? How much more effort and struggle and maybe even shame do we put ourselves through than if the passage were situated culturally in the same way? I don’t really have any specific or “should” kinds of answers to these questions, but I think they’re worth asking – intriguing if nothing else.

It’s not that we don’t understand the arc of development. Theorists like Erik and Joan Erikson, among others, have written extensively about developmental stages and the life cycle. For Erikson’s part, he suggested a series of stages and the core conflicts inherent to each (e.g. young adulthood – intimacy vs. isolation, adulthood – generativity vs. stagnation, old age – ego integrity vs. despair). Nonetheless, there’s a difference between intellectualizing the concept theoretically and practicing it communally.

These days “life crises” keep piling up in the popular imagination. No more are we just talking midlife crises (a post unto itself). Quarter life crisis is part of the common vernacular now. I’ve even heard people talk lately of a “one-third” life crisis. (That one doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as smoothly.) On the one hand, you could argue we’re becoming a more indulged and whining society. On the other, you could say we’ve never been further estranged from the age-old social constructs that could circumscribe and define the legitimate conflicts and core experiences involved in these “crisis” intervals. As the philosopher Kierkegaard said, “Life must be remembered backward, but lived forward.” We only see the significance of these life shifts in retrospect. Hence, there’s a significance to the cultural rites that traditionally guide each community member through a significant passage. As with most modern disturbances, the developmental phenomena are natural – primal. The problem comes in the mismatch between our elemental make-up and our contemporary environment.

How, then, do we bridge the psychic gap as moderns? How do we usher ourselves more confidently through life’s passages? How do we find community, if not ritual, to offer context in the midst of life challenges and changes?

Did you read my first article on this topic back in November? Did you take it to heart and explore rites of passage in your own life or your family members’ lives? If so, what has that looked like? Thanks for reading today, everyone.

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45 Comments on "Do We Need Rites of Passage? – Part 2"

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Lora
Lora
3 years 7 months ago

This comes at a very approriate time for me. Tomorrow my son has his driver’s licence test and I was debating what/if to do a special family event to commemorate his (likely) passing of his test. Now I will make sure to plan a special dinner, card, and gift for him to make this a more significant passage. Thank you!

Tom B-D
Tom B-D
3 years 7 months ago

As my Dad (biologist) always told us, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” — which, aside from being a great ice-breaker phrase at a party, underlines the Primal idea that we’re part of a organic continuum. (used up my $.25 words…)

Joshua
Joshua
3 years 7 months ago

so how does the knowledge that those pictures in your high school textbook were faked change your statement?

Furinol
Furinol
3 years 7 months ago

Did I miss a post? Curious where the fake textbook pictures comment comes from.

Sagar
Sagar
3 years 7 months ago

^ Either he is making fun of people who mock evolution, or he is a creationist troll

Simon L Smith
3 years 7 months ago
I am part of the Christian tradition and we typically take rites of passage pretty seriously. Although we certainly play off of the Jewish idea of adulthood our family puts our own spin on things. My youngest son, now 12, and I plan to hike part of the Appalachian Trail when he is 18 with the goal of hiking the whole thing together over the next few decades. We also plan to visit China (his dream destination) to help out an orphanage. When he is 16 we plan to hike Philmont (BSA Camp) together. I like the outdoors, but he… Read more »
Bjjcaveman
3 years 7 months ago

Sounds like a wonderful tradition.

Jim T
Jim T
3 years 7 months ago

I’ve wondered if the modern day lack of rites of passage are why there are so many 20something ‘children’ nowadays.

Joshua
Joshua
3 years 7 months ago

Or how about the forced extended adolescence of compulsory schooling? (not to be confused with education)

Danny
Danny
3 years 7 months ago
Interesting thought. Taking it one step further…I wonder if having more clearly defined rites of passage would help inform society how to treat people at certain stages. For example, perhaps these 20something ‘children’ exist because they’ve been enabled to behave a certain way throughout their lives. I remember reading an article somewhere that starts out with a tribal girl getting a boat ride and how she immediately starts contributing to the group and doing all these tasks…then the article reveals the girl is only 5 or 6 years old. How many college students still have mothers that do their laundry?… Read more »
Charlayna
3 years 7 months ago

^^I don’t think those college kids are the issue most of the time, I think it’s got more to do with the child’s expectations of their parents. For instance, I grew up very independent of my parents, packed my things and left to live 3000 miles away at age 18. However, my brother grew up constantly needing help from my parents, and to this day (he’s almost 20), still requires that help in order to function (and still lives at home). Same exact upbringing, just two different children.

Amy
Amy
3 years 7 months ago
It be totally wishy-washy about it, it’s the interaction of the parent-child personalities that creates the sitation. 🙂 Some children are far more prone to dependent souls. Others like you, are “hard-wired” to want their freedom. Where the parents come in is in recognizing the greater context of their children’s personalities and attempt to take reasonable balancing action. Parents that aren’t that thoughtful (or themselves struggling with many issues) will often “weaken the weak, and strengthen the strong”. In other words, they end up encouraging dependent personalities to stay that way and push the independent ones out of the nest… Read more »
Deanna
Deanna
3 years 7 months ago
I’ll disagree that it’s because of the lack of rites of passage. I think it is more a symptom of the college atmosphere and because so many people MUST get a bachelors degree in order to get a job anymore. The days of graduating high school and going out into the big world are long gone. Aside from parents helping out financially, anyone can get enough loans to make it through college without having to work (and then bury themselves in the grave of their own debt). Plus, so many big universities are “party schools.” The whole atmosphere just promotes… Read more »
Shary
Shary
3 years 7 months ago

Rites of passage are good. They serve as benchmarks on our journey through life–events that we like to look back on with a sense of pride or accomplishment. I do think they shouId be limited to very special occasions, however. If too many things are commemorated, then none of them will seem very special.

Tad Wheeler
Tad Wheeler
3 years 7 months ago
I love how this site incorporates a wide range of ancestral topics–proper nutrition and exercise aren’t everything for a biological organism as complex as humans. I do wonder if the reason for no such modern rites to exist in our society is the massive emphasis placed on individualism. In our melting pot society, very few groups or organizations or identities are pervasive throughout one’s whole life. Time spent with family, specific friends, and other acquaintances shifts drastically and frequently. When the pulls of an ever-changing world create drastic changes in one’s beliefs and behaviors, I wonder what significance a modern… Read more »
Amy
Amy
3 years 7 months ago
“I do wonder if the reason for no such modern rites to exist in our society is the massive emphasis placed on individualism.” To me, this the problem in a nutshell. You can’t have rites of passage unless you agree *as a society* what you’re passing from and to. In a society focused on individualism, there’s not much room for that. For instance, weddings were the mark of several important transitions for young people. It represented the forming of a new family and (ideally) both partners passage into mature sexual behavior. For better or worse, this partnership was a forever… Read more »
Julie
Julie
3 years 7 months ago

I’m fully liberated when it comes to having… let’s say… “marital relations” outside of marriage. But you have a great point. And you’re hilarious.

Diane
Diane
3 years 7 months ago
I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as part of a mid-life crisis. More like a “I don’t want to do this career anymore but I don’t know what else to do” crisis. Oddly, I’m still in the same career! I think nowadays there is too much emphasis on safety. Being safe is the number one priority for a lot of people. You cannot grow much without some risk. The classic “hero’s journey” involves descending into a near-death struggle and emerging on the other side stronger for it. We all need some kind of hero’s journey to feel whole, I believe.… Read more »
Bjjcaveman
3 years 7 months ago

In Brazilian jiu jitsu the rites of passage or clearly delineated. White belt to blue belt to purple to brown and finally black. Each step is commemorated with a different color.

Clear demarcations marking your progress to the rest of the community. You can walk into any academy and know your place in the hierarchy.

This simplicity is very appealing in its own right.

Nocona
Nocona
3 years 7 months ago
Just love this subject. I’m a firm believer in the fasting and Vision Quests of the American Indian and the Australian Walkabout. I got to experience this (vision quest) in the Canyonlands back in the early 80’s and it changed my life forever. Wish I had more guidance when I was young, instead I took many, many psychedelics while trying to find my own painful way in this strange world. And I think since many of our youth don’t have more guidance and ritual, we have more drugs and more addicts (let’s party, man). Many native cultures of the past… Read more »
Amy
Amy
3 years 7 months ago

“Why didn’t they have substance abuse within that culture?”

Because not every culture feels the need to air their dirty laundry. I betcha I could find at least an addict or two within every group that choose to imbibe. The diverse cultural landscape is amazing but humanity is also remarkably similar in many respects.

Nocona
Nocona
3 years 7 months ago

I’m sure within any culture that had alcohol, there was abuse, but in cultures with hallucinogens, it would be much tougher to go off the deep end. Some of the stuff in the Amazon is muy, muy fuerte…try something like Ayahuasca that has DMT in it and tell me you would abuse that! Or peyote buttons in our own Southwest of the USA.

Alexandra
3 years 7 months ago

lol “muy fuerte”

Amy
Amy
3 years 7 months ago

Sure, hallucinogens are different from that pesky (and Western) alcohol…..Or possibly not. All I can say is, be very careful about your own personal drug habits. I’d hate to be right. 🙁

Jenny
Jenny
3 years 7 months ago
My oldest daughter is graduating high school in a month and will be going away to college in August. I have been a stay-at-home mom since she was born, and her leaving is going to alter the family dynamic more dramatically than anything else has, including the divorce. I am less worried about her managing her independence than the “hole” that will be created for me, her dad, and her younger siblings. This article has me thinking about what I can do to prepare the family for her absence as well as give the younger ones a framework for what… Read more »
eema.gray
eema.gray
3 years 7 months ago

I am a part of the Jewish tradition, which has a habit, at least in more traditional circles, of marking important moments in a person’s life with rituals that have been on going for centuries. Of course, most people are aware of the bar mitzvah ritual marking a boy’s passage from childhood to “adult” responsibility for his religious observance but there are many others as well. The rituals are primarily intended to emphasize the role of the community one belongs to in your life but also acknowledge key waypoints in a person’s life.

Charlayna
3 years 7 months ago
While this topic is interesting, I don’t feel that everyone should have the same rites of passage. Particularly in the US, I’ve seen people go overboard with Sweet 16 parties, etc., that instead of celebrating, everyone is comparing themselves to one another, trying to 1-up the person next to them. I feel like I missed out on quite a few “traditional” rites of passage (being baptized, a Sweet 16, a big hoopla for graduating high school/college, etc.), but of the more “nontraditional” ones I’ve done (first fish, first hunt, first punk concert, first time abroad, graduate school, etc.), I feel… Read more »
Sean
Sean
3 years 7 months ago
It’s not that the past is “right” and the “present” is wrong. To discard a previous generation’s rite of passage does not mean that rites of passage have been discarded, new ones have yet to form. Our contemporary society is transitioning out of traditions that have lost their usefulness and have yet to transition to new ones that effectively fill this void. You can look at this transition not as a mistake, but getting in touch with the “new” primal (essential being) and just struggling to find it. Evolution is not slow, it moves quickly as epigenetics (still showing up… Read more »
Rooster
Rooster
3 years 7 months ago
Hey Mark, I’m almost 30 and have seen in my own life, my brother’s life, and many of my friends’ lives how we have all but been abandoned in many ways in trying to figure things out. It is interesting to me to see how society has absolutely developed “adolescence” and labeled a period of time so vaguely without any constraints of how or when to get out or leave it. It has been fabricated without any rules in other words. We look at children when they do something inappropriate and dismiss it as “they are just kids”. Then one… Read more »
Rhonda the Red
Rhonda the Red
3 years 7 months ago

this is a beautiful comment.

Scott
Scott
3 years 7 months ago

Agreed!

Ionela
Ionela
3 years 7 months ago

Indeed!

Now I know why myself from one continent together with my husband from another continent we are stressed out while raising our toddlers on a third continent…no village to rely on just 2 people well just me cos someone has to work…this stress is constant for at least 18 years from now on!!!

Good comment!

Diane
Diane
3 years 7 months ago

You don’t need to expect greatness from adolescents. Just make them chop wood and do dishes. Also laundry, cooking, shopping and managing their own money.

Amy
Amy
3 years 7 months ago
“We should expect more from our youth. We should expect greatness from our youth.” We already expect too much from our youth. It’s not okay for them to lose or to feel pain or stumble repeatedly. What all of humanity has struggled with for millennia is off limits to them. It’s not good enough to grow up to have an honest job and raise a decent family. No, they have to Save the World while becoming that Rock Star Medical Doctor while Being An Awesome Parent to their 1.5 kids! (Don’t forget to recycle.) Anything else is simply unacceptable. That’s… Read more »
Alexandra
3 years 7 months ago

Beautiful indeed

Rhonda the Red
Rhonda the Red
3 years 7 months ago
We do indeed live in a strange land where many people’s (at least in my age-bracket) coming of age was getting to go to Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight. I am right smack in the middle of my own mid-life/empty-nester crisis right now and have to say that I do indeed feel separated from the community rather than like I am moving into a new era. And what kind of new era will this be in my modern age? My first garden-club meeting? Will I be invited to join some social organization for the “older ladies” in town? I… Read more »
Allison
Allison
3 years 7 months ago
A few years back I attended a confirmation ceremony in Norway. The kid had opted for a secular confirmation instead of the church-related variety (cool that this option exists), where all the kids aged 15 or 16 took a course and spent a weekend roughing it (I think it was designed to learn about what it was like to be a refugee), then participated in some sort of swearing in ceremony at city hall where they are recognized as full citizens and adults. I’m probably getting it all wrong. Anyway, there was a big party after that, speeches, a dinner,… Read more »
Rob Harrison
3 years 7 months ago
MattyD
MattyD
3 years 7 months ago

The “quarter/third life crisis” really holds true for myself.

I’ve just put my job on hold, sold my house, ended my relationship and plan on travelling the world for 12 months.

I think this experience would have been significantly more beneficial had I had it earlier in life, so the European/US backpacking ideal early in life really appeals to me as a “rite of passage”

Sprue Story
3 years 7 months ago
As a recent college grad, I feel as though I lost a sense of seasons and progression that came with the academic calendar. There was a cycle to look forward to every year, with set points at which I’d learn how I was doing, and a few big “transition” moments from junior high to high school, high school to college, then college graduation. Also, I was not alone in these; I was always among a class that was undergoing similar tests, rewards, and transitions. To join the “real world” and leave behind this cyclical, somewhat ritualistic schedule was much more… Read more »
MK
MK
3 years 7 months ago

Have you read Jed Diamond’s work on male menopause? He talks about the importance of rites of passage for boys becoming young men, and equally and perhaps more urgently, for men coming into “middlessence.” I am a woman but would love to see a post here on andropause and how men can navigate it more smoothly. (I speak as a wife whose husband is displaying classic signs–the irritability over small things, fatigue, depression masked as anger, the feeling that he wants to escape, etc.)

Alexandra
3 years 7 months ago

Thank you for the Jed Diamonds reference MK!

Malachi
Malachi
3 years 7 months ago
I don’t think the issue is that we expect too much from our youth. I think the issue is we expect the wrong things from them. I was just talking with my cousin about this the other day. we were enjoying some cold water after pulling an engine from a project car, and talking about how much the youth of today miss things like that. He and I grew up around cars that you had to work on. It was part of life. so was tending to a dozen cattle…or fixing a leaky roof. or understanding how to work the… Read more »
Drew
Drew
3 years 7 months ago

You nailed it. I could have used more connection as a kid and teenager. I’m just now in my late 20’s learning to “bond”. I told a friend a couple weeks ago that I’m very lonely, and always have been. But I’m learning to let people in. Connection with my dad and others would have helped some.

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
3 years 7 months ago

Two rites of passage I skipped out on: my high school graduation ceremony and prom. I had better things to do than waste a whole evening to walk on stage in front of hundreds of people just to get a piece of paper (which hasn’t done much good anyway), or spend $70 just to gain access to a room somewhere, where drunk people try to act cool by showing off their rented outfits.

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