18 January 2011

Life: An Ongoing Journey from Passage to Passage

Today...rites of passage are almost extinct. Boys [or girls] lack clear markers on their journey to becoming a man [or woman]. If you ask them when the transition occurs, you will get a variety of answers: “”When you get a car,” “When you graduate from college,” “When you get a real job,” “When you lose your virginity,” “When you get married, “When you have a kid,” and so on. The problem with many of these traditional rites of passage is that they have been put off further and further in a young man’s life. 50 years ago the average age an American man started a family was 22. Today, men [and women] .... are getting married and having kids later in life. With these traditional rites of passage increasingly being delayed, many men [and women] are left feeling stuck between [childhood] and [adulthood]. College? Fewer men are graduating. And many that do “boomerang” back home again, spending another few years figuring out what the next step in their life should be. As traditional rites of passage have become fuzzier, young men are plagued with a sense of being adrift. _ArtofManliness
Today's western young person is poorly prepared for the constant "testing" nature of reality. Sheltered and pampered from the adult world of responsibility throughout childhood and adolescence, modern children too often become lifelong adolescents of incompetence and indecision. Young Peter Pans and Cinderellas, forever looking and waiting for that ideal world to which they feel entitled.

The diagram above looks at "life events" and how a person might react to them. Things happen to people throughout life. How a person reacts to these "things" determines the path of the person's life. The same set of curves could also describe the repetitious "rites of passages" which mark a person's life as he either fails or succeeds in negotiating each transition. It is best to teach children to recognise these "tests of transition" very early in life, and how to successfully pass them.

Books have been written describing this dearth of modern rites of passage. Commercial enterprises have sprung up for youth and adults, in an attempt to fill the gap.

Science fiction fans will immediately understand the concept from reading books such as Alexei Panshin's "Rite of Passage" and many of the books by Robert Heinlein.
What Is a Rite of Passage

Sociologists have identified three phases that constitute a proper rite of passage: separation, transition, and re-incorporation.

Separation: During this phase an initiate is separated in some way from his former life. In the case of the Mandan tribe, the young man was isolated from the village in a hut for three days. In other tribes, boys’ heads were shaved and they were ritually bathed and/or tattooed. In a more modern example, when a man has just enlisted in the military, he is sent away to boot camp. His former possessions are put aside, his head is shaved, and he is given a uniform to wear. During the separation phase, part of the old self is extinguished as the initiate prepares to create a new identity.

Transition: During this phase, the initiate is between worlds-no longer part of his old life but not yet fully inducted into his new one. He is taught the knowledge needed to become a full-fledged member of that group. And he is called upon to pass tests that show he is ready for the leap. In tribal societies, the elders would impart to the initiate what it meant to be a man and how the boy was to conduct himself once he had become one. The initiate would then participate in ritual ceremonies which often involved pain and endurance. In the case of the new soldier, he is yelled at, prodded, exercised, and disciplined to prepare him to receive a rank and title.

Re-incorporation. In this phase, the initiate, having passed the tests necessary and proving himself worthy, is re-introduced into his community, which recognizes and honors his new status within the group. For tribal societies, this meant a village-wide feast and celebration. The boy would now be recognized by all tribe members as a man and allowed to participate in the activities and responsibilities that status conferred. For the soldier, his boot camp experience would come to an end and both his superiors and his family would join in a ceremony to recognize his new status as a full-fledged member of the military. _ArtofManliness

Military service still serves as a distinctive and frequently successful rite of passage for some young people. Membership in the military definitely incorporates the three phases -- separation, transition, and re-incorporation -- listed above. But those classical phases of rites of passage are most distinct and recognisable for the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Other, less obvious transitions may passs through the phases so quickly or subtly that they are not recognised for passage rites. Nevertheless, like a whitewater journey, each person's life is a succession of rapids, calm, waterfalls, etc occurring in all kinds of weather and at all levels of water flow.

The long transition from the incompetence of infancy to the competence of a skilled, well-rounded, and confident adulthood, should provide many opportunities for acquiring personal competence and for discovering one's own pace and direction of discovery and mastery over challenges. If a society -- such as ours -- is profoundly neglectful and negligent in providing for these successive rites and opportunities for competency acquisition, it will be rewarded with lifelong adolescents who lack both competency and confidence.

Although it may never be too late to have a happy childhood, it may be too late to learn competencies at your peak learning window. That is a pity, but only one of many, and not to be cried over. The lesson to be learned from it is to not repeat the same mistake for your students, children, or grandchildren.

If you are 30 or 40 years old and still trying to find your "vision quest" or "rite of passage", you have been ill treated by well-meaning parents and society. Do what you can to make up for it in yourself, but try not to perpetuate the crime on future generations.

Baby birds have to first crack their way out of their hard shells. Then they have to learn to leave the nest without killing themselves. They have to learn to fly, feed, survive. Then they must find mates, raise their young, migrate with the seasons, over and over again.

Modern humans of affluent societies wish to spare their young from all of those difficulties. That is the worst thing they could do. Modern college professors too often tell students what to think rather than preparing them to competently mind-wrestle all comers. Such indoctrination -- a hallmark of a modern university education -- is likewise the worst possible approach. And so it goes, as government takes the place of parents and schools, creating an artificial layer of regulation and "protection" around the citizen.

As new generations of incompetents work their way further into the control rooms of government and society, expect things to get harder for almost everyone. These are the times when you want maximum competence for yourself and those around you.

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