September 28, 2004
rites of passage
Western civilization has never been fair to its young people. We've always had a big Twilight Zone between childhood and adulthood that's difficult to get through.
I like the idea that some primitive tribes practice. When a young man turns a certain age, the village elders take him into a hut, say a bunch of prayers over his head, dust him with some ash from the fire and get him laid by a skilled older woman. When the boy emerges from the hut the next morning, he is a MAN, and everybody treats him as one for the rest of his life.
That's a good, solid Rite of Passage.
Those "primitive" people do the same thing with young girls. When she begins her first period, the village elders take her into a hut, say a bunch of prayers over her head, dust her with some ashes from the fire and tell her all about sex and pleasure. Usually, she doesn't end up getting laid by a skilled older man in the hut, because she's on the rag and all, but when she walks out of there, she is a WOMAN, and everybody treats her as one for the rest of her life.
We don't do those simple, effective rites of passage in Western civilization. We keep young people guessing all the time. We don't provide a clear line of demarcation between youth and adult. I know that I NEVER felt as if I were a grown man until my father died, and I was 40 years old at the time. I had a wife and children, a good job and I owned my own home. But I wasn't certain that I was grown up.
We have a few rites of passage, but they're all half-assed and they don't do the same thing as that trip to the hut with the village elders does. Even when you DO these things, you still keep guessing for years later:
* Get your driver's license. Yep, that'll make you feel like a Tall Dog for a while, but you still have to borrow your parent's car, unless you're some kinda rich shit who gets a brand-new car as a 16th birthday present. That license is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't make you "grown up." You keep guessing.
* Get laid for the first time. I will remember that event until the day I die and I also will forever recall the fact that I didn't feel any DIFFERENT afterward. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't get whatever that was. I kept guessing after that.
* Graduate from high school. Yeah, I did that, but I went straight on to college, so I stayed in the hut for a while longer. I kept guessing.
* Bring home your first paycheck. Hell, I had been doing that since I was twelve years old and I didn't see any rite of passage there. I just worked, the way I was expected to do. I wasn't a rich shit who got a brand-new car for my 16th birthday. If I wanted something, I was expected to buy it with my own money.
* Move out on your own. Hah! THAT is a lot less wonderful than it's cracked up to be. I felt more like a kid than EVER right after I flew the coop and started living on my own. I had to do my own laundry. I had to cook my own meals. I had to buy groceries. I had to wash my own dishes. Man, that SUCKED! I missed my mama, who once did all of that crap for me.
* Have a child. Naw, that won't do it, either. It's a terrifying, emotional experience, but it doesn't make you feel grown-up when it's over. It scared the shit out of me, both times.
I just wish that we made things easier for kids in the Twilight Zone. Let's build a hut, recruit some village elders and start doing this Rite of Passage stuff the correct way. You go in there as a boy or a girl, but you come out as a man or a woman. And everybody KNOWS that you are an adult after that.
Isn't that a lot more simple than what we do?
Brilliant. I'll bring the smoke and we can make ashes.
Enlist in the military.
THAT's a rite of passage.
In high school, I had the American Lit teacher. He didn't like me because I was a smartass, and my jokes were always better than his.
Anyway, he said something once that I've always remembered. The question before us was, "When does a boy become a man?" I know, extremely politically incorrect, but this was the 80's... anyway, there was lots of floundering for an answer, like you just said.
He said that he first felt like a man when he had to drive the family at 3am once, during a bad rainstorm. His wife and small children trusted him enough that they were all asleep. They needed a man to take care of things that night, and he was able to do what had to be done.
A boy becomes a man when he is needed as a man.
A Rite of Passage ? It has always been Deer hunting up here in Northern Rural Michigan. The applicant has to be 16 years old. Been trained for years in the Art of Gun Handling by an 'Ol Man that takes Gun responsibility VERY seriously ! As do the other hunters in the Family Opening Day Hunting Assembly. Grandpas and Uncles will be watching and evaluating the Neophytes performance. Neophytes performance reflects the " Ol' Mans " ability to properly instill values deemed Basic by the Family. 'Ol Man gets shamed by a Neophyte Dolt who pisses on his Teachers by not following the 'Rules of a Man".
A " Rules of a Man " day of showing respect of those more learned. A day of always being aware of the gun muzzle direction. A day of listening first, then offering an opinion of how to do a goal oriented procedure. This while being listened to by people who have passed the test, the youngest 25 years before. They listen but never comment. Just nod if the response is right ! The only reward is not being ignored.
It is a proceedure day of non-kid being for the neophyte. Finally, he is given the option of being listened to with a modicum of knowlege of his existance at the Council Meetings of his Elders. It is subtle, the acceptance. A smile. A statement of " Would you like to take this as your stand for today"? and be listened to as an adult. The transition from a " Kid with Brains" to a "Man with Acceptance" in the hierarchy of the Hunting Council.
This Day of Evaluation in this area back when I was a Neophyte was De Riguer. I passed it. I was let in on the thinking of the Elders. I felt humbled they would deign to treat me as an equal! I felt as though I could soar. I had listened to their wisdom over the years ! I could evaluate the information given to me. I could give up a Valued Hunting Position to those with age and a not-spoken-request for services rendered. And I would not chortle at those who could not stomp around the woods at 60 years old plus as they could at 20 years old .And other hunting gatherings after that would be colored by MY input. I would be welcomed . I would be an equal, earned rather than tolerated. A welcome addition to their group. I could be trusted.
Someday, I will hear the " Aroooooo" of ol' Tip , the mad hunting Beagle who passed to the Rabbit Laden Briar patch of Heaven 40 years ago. I will throw a young leg over the top wire on a two strand bob-wire fence , followed by the other leg, and walk a step or two to a certain point to get to a brown work jacket with a number of 20 guage shells in the pocket. A 20 guage full choke singleshot Iver-Johnson will be there waiting for me. I will drop a shell into the breech of that ol' gun, and I will join Dad, Grampa, Uncle Graydon in a line abreast as we follow all the dogs of our history searching for legitimate targets in the endless search for game in the Field called Infinity..
Hi On, Tip. Yo-Yo.
One eensy,teensy little detail you left out of the primitive tribal right of passage description. Of course it's a whopper.............You forgot the part with the ritual CIRCUMCISION,usually with a long sharp thorn,or piece of flint blade........Thank you, I'll stay with the High School graduation,or the deerhunting thanks.
This view assumes a romantic view of tribal civilization as if initiated young men and women never worried about their social role, and as if we could somehow return to a simpler time before the fall of man. While I sympathize with the sentiment, there are also tremendous benefits to *not* having rites of passage.
There are many contemporary groups that do initiation rites, most of them have been guilty of cult-like abuse. Seems to me that while there are some benefits of initiation rites, there are also benefits to ambiguity, e.g. individual freedoms. Initiations are always initation into the small group that does the initiating, hence "boot camp" for military recruits.
There is always the strong danger of cultishness, abuse, and dogmatism from rites of passage. Lacking rites of passage, we have the freedom to select our own values, what we personally determine to be a sign of maturity or adulthood, and rites that don't threaten our lives and potentially lead to deep psychological scarring through abusive rituals.