Most cultures have rites of passage that delineate youth from adulthood, being single to being married, and being alive to being dead. Modern society has rebelled against the traditions and restrictions and has largely done away with such things. Where they do still exist, they are so watered down as to be meaningless. In doing so, we have created people who don’t know who they are or where they stand.
Watered Down Rites of Passage
Let me explain what I mean by watered down rites of passage. When I was growing up, you had maybe two graduations- high school and college. Kids today graduate from kindergarten, middle school, high school, and college. This makes it meaningless. It’s a ceremony where you dress up, take pictures, and show off. It doesn’t require any sacrifice and isn’t a commitment. Everyone does it. When you have to delay gratification for nineteen years, that means something. When some people don’t get to do it, that means something.
Weddings are the same. We spend lavishly on rings, weddings, and honeymoons now. If we don’t like the first spouse, we just get another one. Weddings are parties. They aren’t rituals. They aren’t events where the whole community blesses you and vows to support you through life’s journey. Families don’t come together in union. They are solo events for pictures for social media. Weddings are no longer game changers. They used change your identity, role, and status within a community. Now they are just pretty pieces of paper.
Why We Need Rites of Passage
In traditional societies, when a person undergoes a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, the process can sometimes kill them. There are often symbols that even show the death of the child so that the adult can emerge. There is ritual. It’s communal. It’s honored and witnessed. This creates a change in psyche and identity. At the end of it all, the person knows who they are and where they stand.
Today people live their whole lives in perpetual childhood. They endure trials and pain they don’t know how to overcome because they haven’t been tested. They haven’t shown themselves that they are survivors. I believe this is why post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety is to pervasive. Life’s hard. You have to know you can survive. You have to know you have a community who stands behind you.
Yesterday I watched The Red Balloon. It’s a thirty minute film about a French boy in the 1950s who makes friends with a balloon. He’s about six years old, yet he walks all around town, crosses busy streets, and gets on a streetcar by himself. This is how you create the independence, resilience, and skills to navigate life as an adult in modern society. Kids now days can’t even leave the house alone. They have no responsibilities. How can they graduate into adulthood when they aren’t being prepared to live as adults?
Marriage is hard. How can we expect people to live as couples when they have their faces in screens all day and don’t do face to face interactions? We can’t deal with our own emotions much less those of someone else? There is no courtship, just hookups? We live separately from birth to death? Where is the community? Where is the family? What happened to the process of relating?
And what about dying? We treat the dead as if they don’t matter. Bodies are empty vessels to be disposed of, not honored through grief. We ignore death and make it an outsourced hour long appointment rather than a personal process. Each death teaches us how to die. Death teaches us how to live. If we don’t do death, we miss out on those lessons.
It Takes a Village
It’s incredibly hard to undergo rites of passage solo. It takes a village. Our vows and accomplishments must be witnessed. We all must be seen, be in relationship, and interact with others to have meaningful lives. If you don’t have a tribe or village, my suggestion is to start there.