Right of Passage: The Answer To the Youth Question

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Rites of passage are universal, and presumptive evidence from archaeology in the form of burial finds strongly suggests that they go back to very early times. One aspect of rites of passage that is often overlooked by interpreters perhaps because it appears obvious is the role of the rites in providing entertainment. Passage rites and other religious events have in the past been the primary socially approved means of participating in pleasurable activities, and religion has been a primary vehicle for art , music , song , dance, and other forms of aesthetic experience.

The worldwide distribution of these rites long ago attracted the attention of scholars, but the first substantial interpretation of them as a class of phenomena was presented in by the French anthropologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep , who coined the phrase rites of passage. Van Gennep saw such rites as means by which individuals are eased, without social disruption, through the difficulties of transition from one social role to another.

The person or persons on whom the rites centre is first symbolically severed from his old status, then undergoes adjustment to the new status during the period of transition, and is finally reincorporated into society in his new social status. Although the most commonly observed rites relate to crises in the life cycle, van Gennep saw the significance of the ceremonies as being social or cultural, celebrating important events that are primarily sociocultural or human-made rather than biological. No scheme of classification of passage rites has met with general acceptance, although many names have been given to distinguishable types of rites and to elements of rites.

The name purification ceremonies , for example, refers to an element of ritual that is very common in rites of passage and also in other kinds of religious events. In most instances, the manifest goal of purification is to prepare the individual for communication with the supernatural, but purification in rites of passage may also be seen to have the symbolic significance of erasing an old status in preparation for a new one see also purification rite.

Other names that have been given to passage rites often overlap. Life-cycle ceremonies and crisis rites are usually synonymous terms referring to rites connected with the biological crises of life, but some modern scholars have included among crisis rites the ritual observances aimed at curing serious illnesses.


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Ceremonies of social transformation and of religious transformation overlap and, similarly, overlap crisis rites. Religious transformations, such as baptism and rites of ordination , always involve social transformations; social transformations such as at coming-of-age and induction into office may also bring new religious statuses, and life-cycle ceremonies similarly may or may not involve changes in religious statuses.

It is nevertheless sometimes useful to distinguish the various rites by these names. Rite of passage. Article Media. At the same time, many of the dynamics of entering adulthood fit equally well those of us entering our midlife years or our elder years. Maybe I will find the time to revise this to make it more fitting for other transitions. For now, squint your eyes a little bit; I expect you can see yourself here, too. She was trying to get from one phase of her life to another and couldn't make it.

The letter had already asked, "How does a human pass through youth to maturity without breaking down? If the fires that innately burn inside youths are not intentionally and lovingly added to the hearth of community, they will burn down the structures of culture, just to feel the warmth. Successful life transitions are truly cause for celebration.

A soul is maturing, and the community is gaining new energy, creativity, and potential. At the same time, transitions bring disorientation, disenchantment, and distress. The activities, both at work and play, that gave life direction seem empty and unsatisfying. Relationships feel incomplete or hollow.

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The simplest questions of how to be are confusing; one's very identity is up for grabs. Yet, this confusion is an inherent, even necessary, part of the life journey. One must let go in order to move on; death is a pre-requisite for birth. Directed by the elders who have traveled the same path, inspired by the larger community, and supported by one's inner resources, a successful transition will be the basis for fulfillment and contribution in the next phase of one's life.

For adolescents, the trials and ceremonies of transition confirm the beginnings of adulthood, for midlife adults, the beginnings of elderhood. However, without that guidance and support, the journey quickly turns sour.


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  5. Going through the motions takes the place of initiation through ritual. Increasingly, we are hearing calls for effective ways to mark, confirm, and deepen life transitions. My purpose in this paper is to explore a model for wilderness-based rites of passage with which I have been deeply involved, both personally and professionally, for over a decade.

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    I describe some of the aims, approaches, and means of adapting traditional rites of passage to our time and place and offer some ways of talking about the rationale for this kind of process. There are infinite variations on this work and great value in it; here's to the task and the gift! Modern society has provided adolescents with no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community.

    All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind. In another place or time, you might leave your village to go onto the Mountain for as long as it takes. Animals speak to you, lightning crashes around you, the sun bakes you, and the wind separates the chaff of childhood from the living seed of your new life.

    Discovering your place in the greater web of things, you offer thanks for your gift and return to share it with your people. Having moved through adolescence, you take up your new place as an adult in your clan. You are worthy of a chance to gain their respect. Your quest has shown you a new purpose and a vision of what your life can be. You might spend years learning the ways of the sea and crafting a small boat, the vehicle that will carry you to the edge of the world and beyond.

    At the appointed time, you set sail. Looking back at the signal fires on the shore and your youth, you realize an aloneness like none you have felt before. You continue on through the jaws of a mighty storm and through the irons of dead calm to a small island where you confront an ineffable, otherworldly trial.

    Upon your return, your people know you have been tested and succeeded. You are ready for the next test. Thus, they honor your new status as a full member of the community. We might send our children alone into the desert to wander alone for a year, dead to us--except that we pray often for them. They learn the plants, the animals, the water holes, the power places, and the songs. Praying alone at the center of the world, they glimpse a new chapter in their stories. With this gift, they come back to us, bringing spiritual renewal and wisdom.

    Our songs and celebration welcome them for we know that their rite of passage has nourished us as well as them.

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    In turn, our celebration confirms to them that something vital has happened. Their flames burn brighter. Leaving as children, they return as adults just as we did years before. Cultures throughout time and in an enormous variety of places have designed rites of passage to mark life transitions. The rites of passage serve several functions: relieving tension on the social group, framing the transition as an opportunity and a blessing, assisting the person in coping with the inevitable distress, and deepening the meaning and significance of the change.

    Steven Foster and Meredith Little, who have been testing and refining wilderness-based rites of passage and training guides for many years argue that rites of passage are, at their root, confirmatory rites. Initiates must be tested in order to demonstrate to themselves and hopefully, to their communities that they are able, willing, and entitled to move forward. Our culture, however, seems to lack meaningful ways of marking transitions.

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    Ask a dozen people, for instance, when a youth becomes an adult and you are likely to get a dozen different answers. Is it when you get your driver's license, vote, become financially independent, live on your own, have intercourse, get drunk legally or illegally , get arrested, get pregnant or father a child? We, as a culture, do offer a few ceremonies for marking passages such as graduation exercises, confirmation or bar mitzvah, weddings, and retirement parties.

    However, these events have generally lost their deeper connection to the patterns of our lives, to the significance of the transition, and to the larger social context.

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    Too often they are empty rituals done to please someone else and accomplished by going through the motions. Without clear markers, we are left with incomplete transitions, clinging to the old, confusing the old and the new, searching for ways to complete the change. The anthropologist, Solon Kimball , wrote:. The crucial problems of becoming male and female, of relations within the family, and of passing into old age are directly related to the devices which the society offers the individual to help him [or her] achieve the new adjustment. Somehow we seem to have forgotten this--or perhaps the ritual has become so completely individualistic that it is now found for many only in the privacy of the psychoanalyst's couch.

    The evidence, however, does not bear out the suggestion. It seems much more likely that one dimension of mental illness may arise because an increasing number of individuals are forced to accomplish their transitions alone and with private symbols. Teens' difficulties with drugs, alcohol, or the law often stem from misguided attempts at a rite of passage.

    Adolescents attempt to navigate the rocky transitions from childhood to adulthood, and the culture around them does not provide enough support, structure, and guidance.

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    Without socially sanctioned and widely recognized rites of passage, teenagers have little choice but to create their own. And many of these self-generated initiations are dangerous and counter-productive. Some deep intuition tells the adolescent, You must be tested, you must be challenged, and some part of you must die before you can move on.

    The impulse to test and to prove oneself is right and healthy but without guidance and support it can too easily get beyond healthy limits. Some experts have argued that part of the increase in teenage suicide stems from misdirected attempts at leaving the old self; literal death replaces ego-death. The majority of adolescents who do not get into serious trouble still must struggle with how to demonstrate--to themselves and to their communities--that they are able to step into adulthood.

    Their self-generated initiations are often aborted and unfulfilled. Internal questions about whether they are fit for adulthood will linger well into their adult years. Perhaps as a result of the prevalence of aborted initiations into adulthood, so many of our political and moral leaders are essentially children unable to step into the fullness of their power.

    It should be obvious that rites of passage are critical at many other points in the life journey.

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    Mid-life transitions, changes in relationships including marriage and divorce, births, deaths, the emancipation of one's own children, menopause, elderhood--all offer the need for initiation and a call to a rite of passage. Since most of adults have not confirmed their passage into adulthood, a rite of passage can provide the opportunity to make that step, too. The prevalence of aborted or misdirected confirmatory rites is not the sole province of adolescents. Perhaps one of the scariest aspects of parenting, teaching, or mentoring an adolescent is seeing our own struggles and incomplete initiations echoed in theirs.

    And so long as you haven't experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.


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    Endings are, let's remember, experiences of dying. They are ordeals, and sometimes they challenge so basically our sense of who we are that we believe they will be the end of us. This is where an understanding of endings and some familiarity with the old passage rituals can be helpful. For as Mircea Eliade, one of the greatest students of these rituals, has written, "in no rite or myth do we find the initiatory death as something final , but always as the condition sine qua non of a transition to another mode of being, a trial indispensable to regeneration; that is, to the beginning of a new life.

    Every rite of passage, whether undertaken consciously or stumbled into, mirrors the universal quest.

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