We’ve all seen movies with youths from Borneo, Africa, South America or other places we might regard as uncivilized go through horrendous feats of physical endurance just to be accepted as adults in their tribes. Our first comment or impression is almost always, “How barbaric?” especially, since we wouldn’t think of doing such a thing in our own “subdued” culture. But when we actually think about it, is it really that barbaric? Is it really a travesty to put youths through such a tortuous ordeal just to belong? At first glance we might think so, but the ritual serves as a very important landmark in the youth’s psyche. So then, what is the significance of Adolescents & Rites of passage?
Ask yourself about the difficult physical challenges you’ve been through, anything from birth to a near death experience and ask yourself, did it make an impression on you? Did it bring that period in your life to the forefront of your perception? Was it life changing? Did it mark a new beginning or ending? Odds are, you’ve answered yes. During that time, we all tend to make decisions about ourselves and how we view our lives leading up to making important changes in our life perspective. When we pair a physically challenging situation with an intangible belief or concept, it tends to have a dramatic effect on our life and how we consequently perceive it.
Relative to the uncivilized cultures I’ve cited, and I’m sure that there are many others, those who are part of those cultures have no doubt as to their position and responsibilities within that culture and to their families, neighbors and themselves. Now ask yourself, what experiences do our “advanced civilization” western adolescents have to compare to that could possibly make an equally indelible impression on how they view themselves or to know what their position is in being part of our culture? I presently perceive none of any consequence barring a few exceptions that are, perhaps, vestigial rites which have long lost their teeth due to our over-civilizing influences and gentile preferences for how we now view ourselves as a culture.
In losing our connection to nature we have lost something vital that links us to the natural flow of life tantamount to our residing in these bodies. Even animals in the wild have a first kill as their ascension into becoming an adult and fending for themselves. How can we compare?We are born into these bodies yet, excluding the simple pursuit of personal pleasures, they no longer have significance in how we conduct our lives except in terms of our supporting them to be able to carry us around to every new intangible cultural expectation that we have organized for ourselves to convince ourselves that we are superior to our animal natures; the kingdom to which we still most tangibly belong. And even in that we do a tremendously poor job poisoning ourselves with synthetic foods and pesticides, let alone, never giving ourselves time and space to renew our connections to our true nature. What do our youths have to emulate in us that shows them how to become adults? What, now, does adulthood even mean to them? With our having no holistic view of ourselves, what is it that we expect them to become? We are a lost civilization teaching our young to remain lost with us. How did this happen?
The first factor to contribute to this path was to come to believe that we are superior to the animal kingdom. This exhibits a primarily egotistical need to elevate ourselves above all else. Why? Because we’ve been trained to behave that way.By whom? Predominantly, by western religion.Even the bible tells us that we are to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” So for us, according to the bible, the mark of having value in life is our ability to dominate our environment and those within it. This has also encouraged us to accept and believe that humility, especially in nature and the stewardship of it, are marks of what it is to be inferior.This translates into denying our animal nature as a psychological compensation for our obvious inadequacy within it with a wholehearted encouragement from religion to accept it as being so. Yet, in Sermon on the Mount and other biblical passages, it tells us that humility is a mark of being pure of heart and acceptable to the deity responsible for “writing” the bible. Already, we see a stark contradiction in expected behavior and beliefs.
The second factor is our physical survival coming more to the fore enabling our continued evolution toward becoming more materialistic. This is a function of and comes on the heels of an ever widening gap between the “haves and the have nots” in our culture; the top .1% if you will. You would think that with the advent of our western world and its cultures becoming more physically oriented that the environment would provide more fertile ground to renew the practice of Rite of Passage. But being still so firmly entrenched in our separation from nature as a compensating factor contributing to our perceived personal value and the our total distraction with physical pleasure, our attempted release and distraction from pain and stress and our culture’s promise that following its requirements will free us, its potential, let alone its re-implementation, has eluded us. Even if it were reinstated, it would still be viewed as barbaric. Yet, the media produces super heroes who go through that very process as we vicariously live through them wishing it could part of our lives too in movies such as Hunger games, Star Wars, Dune and the Emerald Forest. Classic and modern mythology is full of example showing personal trials and tribulations contributing to the life changing evolution of value and beliefs. As a result of assigning our own personal authority, trust and accountability to others we have lost, or more appropriately been encouraged to give up, controlling our own fates and destinies. Rites of Passage would have put that power squarely back into our own hands. However, our culture has taught us, through the promise and bribery of support and the comfort and security of group inclusion gained through our acquiescence, to give that up.
The few remnants of Rite of Passage that exist come in the form of impotent vestigial processes such as Bar mitzvahs, Bas mitzvahs, military service (which is no longer conscripted), Christian Confirmation and probably many more which go unrecognized as having once been effective. The few of us who still seek out the process instinctively recognize the need to find or create an experience which will mark our passage into adulthood doing things that are physically challenging and death defying like survival games and sky diving, desperately searching for a trigger that will confirm our passage into what we perceive as the adult world.
The third factor is the “advent” of adolescence. Adolescence is quoted as being a transitional period between childhood and adulthood or, more precisely, from puberty to acculturation. It is a social position that, in my opinion, has evolved in the wake of our attempts at civilizing cultures or groups of people. Etymonline.com defines civilize as “to bring out of barbarism.”
Barbarism is defined as “rudeness, foreign, strange or ignorant.” The use of the word civilizing became “mainstream”around 1868 enabling the submersion of barbarism through the implementation of using social rules for an enforcement of courtesy. The concept of ignorance obviously pertained to those members of the culture, mostly adolescents, who had not yet acquired the tact and finesse necessary to maneuver within and respect the social expectations designed to prevent the exposure of those who were civilized from the rawness of their own innate animal nature. At the onset of puberty in the civilized world it was assumed that these skills had yet to be developed. In other words, civilization was, essentially, awaiting the youth’s being trained into not socially acknowledging the animalistic urges that arose with the onset of puberty except within the strictest guidelines guaranteeing their denial and enabling the society’s compensated superiority to reign over the animal kingdom. I believe a compounding of that practice came on its heels as a desire of those in power to harness the power of youth in a way that would be socially controlled and dominated thereby insuring an extended security for their position of social dominance.
In what we call uncivilized or more primitive cultures, youths who enter puberty are given the opportunity to learn social responsibility and to become part of the tribe’s power structure through Rites of Passage. A primary example of this can be seen in the Native American tribes of the US. Although the youths were not old enough to have the experience necessary to advise and guide the rest of the tribe they were not only taken into apprenticeship learning expected social participation from seasoned members, but they were permitted to act and perceive themselves as adult members of the tribe. This permission and perception was marked by their passing through Rites of Passage. Currently, their relegation to the position of a modern adolescent by civilized society has not only taken away a youth’s potential for perceiving themselves as having become an adult but has also disarmed their capacity for self-determination and for developing Self-Trust by extending their position in perceived uselessness until they “came of age.” Essentially, they are now perceived by our culture as a liability to the rest of the civilized tribe.
I find it curious that our contemporary anthropologists and sociologists find it so puzzling as to why the adolescents of our culture appear to be so angry and rebellious. They attribute it almost exclusively to the chaos created by hormones while never fully realizing or analyzing the social implications of the non-person status that the civilized world now holds them to. We only have to imagine ourselves in a position of feeling ineffective and lacking permission for self-determination to comprehend the underlying causes for teenage our perception confusion. This is something that the women’s movement has been battling with for decades. In this light, and as one of the worst examples in our culture, many women are glibly and chauvinistically referred to as “trophy wives” by egotistically insecure males. Women’s social position in the Middle East is, essentially, seen as the same as that of adolescents here…ineffectual and essentially regarded as a possession but sadly in those cultures, even a male adolescent has more power and independence than any adult woman.
So where do we go from here? I think that I can safely say that the issue is not so much about restoring Rites of Passage as it is our actual perception of becoming or acknowledging ourselves, and adolescents, as effective and accountable adults. How can we put self-determination and the ability to develop Self-Trust back under the domain of not only adolescents, but back into the hands of adults who have been taught and now believe that their lives are inconsequential except as a vehicle for the benefit of the wealthy and the powerful (whom they have now unwittingly come to view as their parental surrogates)? I have no solution other than to say that we must become more aware of how our actions, based on our own insecurities and our own resulting compulsion to manipulate and control in order to compensate, interfere with the well-being and potential for others, adults included, to grow into a place where it is even feasible for them to develop Self-Trust through being allowed to perceive their lives from the perspective of their own heart’s direction, let alone to receive the opportunities to pursue the emerging of that perception through their own personal experiencing. We can only learn so much from a book and, as it is becoming much more obvious in schools, most poignantly as children grow into adolescents, that words still don’t teach. The old adage actions speak louder than words is even more alive and verifiable than ever. If we treat our adolescents from the place of our own insecurity, preventing them from assuming the positions in life that we fear losing due to our own perceived and trained sense of inadequacy and ineffectiveness, they will most certainly grow up to repeat our pattern through emulating what they’ve seen in us. Children learn by example. In fact, everyone does. We must first, ourselves, come to a place of Self-Trust before we can even hope to understand how to raise self-directing adults who feel effective, useful, needed and accepted as part of our culture. Then their mayhem will cease and our confusion about their social position will diminish. But until that time they will remain as an enigma to us and viewed as a liability by most of society.