What Is A Rite Of Passage & Why Does It Matter?
WHAT IS A RITE OF PASSAGE?
This is a central question that partners in Youth Passageway seek to explore.
Over the course of human history ritual forms have emerged that coincide with significant transitions throughout our lives: birth, coming of age, marriage and death are marked and managed through life-cycle rituals. These ritual events not only assist and support an individual’s transition to a new stage, but attend to their relationship to and the needs of their family, community, culture, ancestors, spirit, and nature.
And, the story of rites of passage occurs within the more magnificent story of the Universe.
What’s the Story?
Rites of passage were not waiting for someone to come along and name them. They have been around for an estimated forty thousand years, and are intricately connected to a culture’s cosmology, values, and basic notion of what it means to be a human being. Humans are story-making creatures in ways that help them to understand and obtain meaning from life.
Arnold van Gennep first used the term “rites of passage” in the early 1900’s, which he coined in his book Les Rites de Passage, first published in 1909 and translated for a wider audience in 1960. It was highly influential in the structuring of Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Over the last hundred years, many others have drawn on Van Gennep’s work. In fact, many rite of passage offerings today are explicitly grounded in his three-stage model.
Today, the term rites of passage is overused to note everything from a first kiss, to drug and alcohol use, which has caused confusion and misunderstanding.
Rites of passage offer a process that is about individual personal development and socialization (discovering and nurturing one’s gifts and taking on deeper responsibilities within their culture and community) and about reconnecting with a sacred Earth in ways that can nurture life (becoming an engaged and active participant in one’s community, deeply connected to nature, culture and all one’s relations). Rites of passage serve many functions, both for an individual and for his or her community. Some of these functions include:
- marking a person’s change of role or status within the community
- helping the individual and the community form a new identity relative to that change;
- creating cultural continuity through the passing down of traditions.
- strengthening a sense of community between people living together that contributes to their well-being and survival.
Youth Passageways is focused on rites of passage that occur during the transition from childhood to adulthood, a key transition point during the human life span.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
You may not know this, but:
If you are a young person trying to navigate your way toward adulthood in an often confusing, demanding, and stressful world, rites of passage matter to you.
If you’re someone who cares about kids and are concerned about the difficulties they experience on their journey to adulthood, rites of passage matter to you.
If you are concerned about the state of the world and worry that we humans have made a pretty big mess and an increasingly inhospitable world for all of Life, rites of passage matter to you.
If you are concerned about the strength and resiliency of our communities, about whether we are socially equipped to meet an unknown and what appears to be difficult future with grace, courage and integrity, rites of passage matter to you.
If you are hopeful that we will find ways to better help each other bring forth our gifts and talents and use them in service to our communities, our world, and our future, rites of passage matter to you.
If you are hopeful we can bring forth a peaceful, just and sustainable future becoming, all of us, the kind of adults the world needs to meet its current and future challenges, rites of passage matter to you.
Rites of passage matter because of what they can do: in the lives of young people, in our own lives, and in our communities. They have the power to reach deeply into the hearts of human beings and to help people thrive, rather than just survive. Bottom line: rites of passage matter because young people matter, our communities matter, and the future matters.
YOUNG PEOPLE MATTER
If you are a young person today, nobody needs to tell you that we live in a complex, demanding world and the pressures on you is tremendous. You know how hard it is to grow up in our modern world: the speed of change, crisis after crisis in the news, few available elders or mentors, a materialistic culture driven by consumerism and greed, structural inequities, intractable social problems, global instability.
Even those of you who escape what we consider the worst outcomes (not completing high school, substance abuse, gang affiliation, pregnancy, mental illness, suicide, violence, or incarceration), probably experience some sense of social disconnection, sometimes overwhelming passivity and powerlessness, cynicism, or despair.
Opportunities to discover our authentic selves are too few and far between in our world today – and they’re not the experiences which dominate our media. It often can seem that our world values “brand” more than substance. It can feel increasingly fragmented even as our science tells us we are part of an interconnected and interdependent whole and our technology makes global communication instantaneous.
Intentional rites of passage make experiences, foster self-development, help make meaning from life’s experiences and cultivate the capacity to make choices about actions, goals and values. Because they make coming into adulthood a conscious and intentional process, healthy rites of passage cultivate a sense of personal purpose, a sense of cultural history, personal and social responsibility, a connection to nature, an acknowledgement of their new social role as adults and a sense of welcome into the community of adults.
The conditions young people face are not really so surprising because few adults today – parents, grandparents, teachers or those in leadership positions – had access to healthy social or cultural forms to help them come of age. Raising kids today is often the “blind leading the blind,” uninitiated adults clueless about what is really required to grow healthy adults and poorly equipped to help youth achieve what they have not. For that reason, it is important to see that rites of passage are not just for or about kids, but they are also about building stronger communities and a healthier culture.
There are huge social costs for each child “lost” on the way to adulthood. Remedial education, incarceration, treatment programs, social welfare and mental health services – all of these things cost money, time and energy. But there are also human costs. Families and communities suffer in ways that are often unmeasured and intangible. But the cost of dealing with negative outcomes is just one part of the picture. The other part is what is lost to all of us when the potential contributions of ALL of us are not realized.
With rites of passage, a foundational structure is built within a culture or community, a structure that helps the community cohere. They can help us see our common humanity and celebrate our differences. As a cultural form, rites of passage provide reasons for the community to come together and celebrate, welcoming each new generation into its fold.
For communities that have lost their ways of initiating young people, rites of passage often begin to stir in adults the longing to have similar experiences and encourage the recognition of other passages along life’s journey. By providing a model of what is possible, youth rites of passage begin to create a much healthier appreciation of the rhythm of life’s journey and help us each bring forward our gifts throughout the lifespan.
We have seen rites of passage practices begin to revitalize communities. For a community, they can provide a sense of wholeness, meaning, and connection that is renewing for all. They foster generativity — the passing of cultural values and a sense of personal responsibility from generation to generation. They can help all of us feel more valued, provide a stronger sense of belonging, and help us each lead lives of deeper meaning and purpose.
In short, rites of passage in today’s world are about building a new life-affirming culture together from the ground up, or perhaps better to say, from the child up, community by community. As we strengthen the social infrastructure that rites of passage begin to build, we also foster the creativity and resiliency we humans need to meet future challenges.
THE FUTURE MATTERS
If we are to survive as a viable human civilization, we can no longer allow the world’s young people to fall, one after the other, into the many traps laid for them in such a dysfunctional social environment as we seem to have created for far too many of them. We also need the gifts, creativity, and capacities of all the members of our communities. If we are not raising our youth to become the kind of adults we need to meet an unknown and challenging future with courage, integrity and a deep respect for life, our future indeed looks bleak.
“Show me your youth and I will show you the future of your nation.” Georges Vanier.
Some have begun to see in our times a call for collective or global initiation, a time in which we must come of age as a global human community, taking a new kind of responsibility for the consequences of our actions and coming into a deeper understanding of our role as humans within a larger planetary community. Revitalizing intentional rites of passage practices for youth in our contemporary multicultural world is a very important part of the work needed to forge a more positive and hopeful human future.
Intentional and community-based rites of passage woven into the fabric of our communities will help liberate human potential; knit together generations in the work of making a healthy, just and sustainable world; and cultivate an active sense of responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the planet.
As noted storyteller and rite of passage advocate and practitioner, Michael Meade reminds us:
“In many tribal cultures, it was said that if the boys were not initiated into manhood, if they were not shaped by the skills and love of elders, then they would destroy the culture. 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.” Michael Meade.