20 May 2005

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?

via Rob Smith at Gut Rumbles

Ask around. You’ll generally find that people who feel this way will say they feel somewhere between mayb 12 and 15 years of age (well, at least for guys - I’ve never asked a girl this question). The reason here, of course, is that this corresponds generally to the age where puberty strikes. During puberty, you undergo a dramatic physiological shift into sexual maturity. You must adapt to the immense and inescapable changes your body undergoes. Your childish attitudes towards sex (ie, thinking that girls have “cooties”) are no longer appropriate, and will not function properly in an adult context. Consequently, it becomes necessary that you transform your mental and emotional state to match your new potential physical abilities and responsibilities.

Some people make this transition successfully on their own. And some do not. Some people may transform during a short time, and others it may take many many years. Primitive puberty initiation rituals functioned to make sure that everyone had a fairly uniform experience, and that their vulnerable young minds were conditioned and patterned according to the symbols, traits and values which were desirable within the culture.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell talked extensively (I think in The Power of Myth) about the lack of a potent universal rite of passage in our culture. One of the interesting points he made was that street gangs arise spontaneously to fill this gap (among other reasons, of course). Children undergo elaborate gang initiation rituals at a point of what Robert Anton Wilson calls “imprint vulnerability”. Out the other end of this they become fully-fledged gang members, completely in tune with a complex hierarchical system of authority and an arcane system of signs, symbols, rituals and language.

For an easy proof-of-concept here, imagine a 13 year old gang member walking up to a stereotypical white guy in his thirties who works in an office, has a fancy car and a 401K, but not much self-confidence. While the cheesy office dude might have the trappings of socially acceptable maturity, the gang member has the psychological transformation to back it up. Even if a confrontation between these hypothetical characters wasn’t violent, it’s more than likely the office guy is going to feel a twinge of fear at the approach of the aggressive dominant youth. He might start sweating, or cross the street to avoid the “thug” or clutch his wallet more tightly to himself. In some way, the fear of lawlessness probably connects to an inadequate feeling of manhood. The office guy fears the gang member, because the gang member isn’t afraid to “do what he wants”, and the only recourse the office guy has is to call on another dominant man - the police officer - to help him.

Campbell also writes in the prologue to The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid [as is provided by initiation rituals]. We remain fixated to the unexorcised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young […]

via Tim Boucher

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