The young native American teen sent off into the darkness with nothing but a bow and arrow and expected to return with a wolf pelt or two or three. The Masaai warrior tasked with stalking and killing a lion in single combat. The donning of a glove lined with stinging bullet ants to commemorate becoming a man. Ritualistic tattooing, branding, or mutilation upon reaching a certain age or completing a certain task. The bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, celebrations of a Jewish boy’s and girl’s respective entrances into adulthood. The Latin American quinceañera. Rites of passage are nearly universal throughout human cultures, both ancient and modern. Universally-preserved behaviors, whether physiological traits, or cultural artifacts, are usually there for very good, or at least very important reasons. So let’s take a closer look. Why do we have rites of passage? Are they still a significant part of growing up in the modern world? If not, should they be?
Most anthropologists (PDF), citing Arnold van Gennep’s major work, “The Rites of Passage,” will say that rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement. They’ll say that the smaller the group, the easier it is to have cooperation and social cohesion. Consider a single family of hunter-gatherers – mom, dad, son, daughter. The four people in this situation aren’t like family; they are family. Cohesion is built-in, it’s natural. There’s no jockeying for position, no confusion over who does what and who listens to whom. The parents protect and provide for the youngsters, the youngsters listen to the parents. This is biological. No artifice required.
Meanwhile, the larger a group gets, the more it requires formalized roles, boundaries, and relationships to enable the same kind of cooperation and cohesion. To maintain social cohesion and maximize survivability, hunter-gatherer groups composed of not one but five, ten, or twenty families are going to have to figure out how to emulate the familial ties and bonds. It will contrive and create social connections and establish roles and statuses for the members. You can’t have everyone doing their own thing without a thought to the group, because survival will be that much more difficult. Resources are scarce – or, at least, there are no guarantees, no grocery stores – and working together improves their chance at thriving and surviving. People in the group need to feel like they belong to the group. Everyone needs a stake in a tribe, and rites of passage help provide that by establishing and formalizing the roles at various life-stages.
I certainly won’t argue with that analysis. It’s well established that humans are social animals, hominids that fight and argue and bicker and laugh and cry and, yes, work together. That’s just who we are, and it’s who we’ve always been (as long as we’ve been human, at least). We form groups, we band together, and we feel intrinsic bonds with our family members. We cohere and cooperate, and I agree that rites of passage and ritual make these social ties stronger and easier to establish. But I suspect there’s more to it.
Humans are self-reflecting, introspective, eager to ascribe deeper meaning to everything, and convinced that we’re the center of the universe. After all, all we know of the world is what we can perceive; our perceptions and our thoughts and our language effectively form our world. The world, in that respect, revolves around us, and our thoughts are more gonzo journalist than impartial observer, running commentary, giving a subjective slant to everything, and shaping our experiences as we go about our day. Is it any wonder that we’d ring in our passage into adulthood with burning brands, stinging ants, huge parties, and complex and solemn ritual, rather than go quietly into the next phase?
And of course, many rites of passage boil down to simple tests or indications of a person’s courage, fortitude, and/or aptitude. Going out by yourself and a spear and coming back with a lion’s pelt doesn’t just mean you’ve been ushered into the world of men. It also means that you are a capable hunter, a valuable addition to the group who can likely handle what the world will throw at you. Graduating college isn’t just a badge of honor; it (ideally) means you’ve garnered the skills necessary to flourish in your chosen field. Having your first menstruation isn’t just a symbolic shedding of your girlhood; it means you’re physiologically capable of getting pregnant. Rites of passage are also very utilitarian and practical, then.
Today, we have ID cards and social security numbers, badges and political party affiliations and Facebook friend lists, jobs and resumes and official titles to remind us and others who we are, where we are in the world, what we do, and who we know. Do these suffice? Or are we missing out on genuine rites of passage? Do we need the physical and mental ordeals? Do we need the formality?
Maybe. In many Western countries today, young people construct their own rites of passage, cobbling together experiences based on what they think becoming an adult actually entails. There seems to be some innate yearning for the rite of passage, some deep-seated sense that various “stages” of life exist, are real, and should be observed. “Am I a wo/man and no longer a child?” “When do I feel like a grown-up?” “What affirms this?”
I think we could all benefit from a rite of passage at one point or another to satisfy this yearning. But into today’s increasingly complex world there’s not going to be a “one size fits all” approach. We’re not living in small to large bands where you either take up hunting or fishing or medicine work, where what role you inhabit is limited by your immediate physical surroundings and the needs of your group. We have far more options and roles and jobs to fill, and we’ll have to find the rites that work for our unique situation. In that case, what would a modern rite of passage even look like?
Consider what Claire Potter did for her thirteen year old boy. She devised a list of thirteen challenges covering thirteen different areas of life for him to tackle and complete, including shopping for clothes on a budget, taking public transportation to far away cities, doing chores, learning a musical instrument and playing in public, and learning a language. He didn’t hunt lions or endure stinging ants, because he doesn’t “need” those skills. He’s more likely to use the skills he did learn in his life in this world.
This is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic, but I hope this gets a conversation going and gets you thinking about what role a rite of passage may or may not have played in your life.
What do you think, readers? Do we still need rites of passage? Do the old ones still apply, or do we need entirely new ones that make sense in today’s world? If so, what would they look like? Have you gone through a rite of passage? Tell us all about it in the comment section!
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