Ontogeny – 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.