I’ve been reading about traditional and modern rites of passage. So far, the two most helpful books have been Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, ed. Louise Carus Mahdi, et al (1996); and From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age, by Bret Stephenson (2006).
A consistent theme: Long ago, “primitive” cultures evolved effective initiation rites to guide young people from childhood to adulthood. Modern adolescents feel the same powerful need to break away from childhood, prove themselves, find their identity, and be acknowledged by and accepted into the adult community. But traditional rites of passage have for the most part been diluted or discarded, and most young people are left to find their own way, often with disastrous results.
My reading has caused me to reflect on what happened to me during my own adolescence. My conclusion: I had amazing luck in the rites of passage department.
- At age 13, I earned the rank of Eagle Scout after two years of hard work.
- At age 14 in the Explorer Scouts I experienced the “Order of the Arrow’ initiation ritual.
- At age 15 my father was assigned to Germany. Our family was on a waiting list for housing, and I had to take his place to help my mother control my six younger brothers and sisters for six months until we could join my father.
- At age 18, after 12 years at the top of my class, I gave the valedictory address at my high school graduation.
- At age 18, I survived the West Point summer “Beast Barracks” training and was accepted into the Corps of Cadets.
- At age 19, I was “recognized” at the end of “Plebe” year and became an upperclassman.
- At age 22 I graduated from West Point and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the a Regular Army.
- At age 22 I was married in a Mormon temple with my grandfather officiating.
- At age 22 I successfully completed the Army Ranger School.
Each of these rites of passage required that I accept a “call to adventure” and survive an ordeal, a test to prove myself. After successful completion I was recognized by my community in a way that made me feel I had arrived at a new level in my life. In other words, I was involved in several structured processes that helped me develop personal strengths that would empower me throughout my life and careers -and be recognized for doing so!
Nine of them! How lucky is that?
One of my most intense ordeals happened soon after my adolescence. As a young captain I served in Vietnam as an advisor to Vietnamese infantry units. During that year I participated in over 200 combat missions. I was given several awards for valor and service, but at the end the acknowledgement and acceptance back into my community was non-existent. Instead there was confusion and alienation. I remember an incident during my graduate studies at Duke University when an enlightened coed called me a “baby killer.” So my service in Vietnam never became a true rite of passage.
And it wasn’t a rite of passage experience for the three dozen of my West Point classmates who died on the battlefield. And soldiers returning from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t made to experience developmental rites of passage either – a huge opportunity wasted.
Young people will always need to be challenged, tested, guided and accepted in a powerful way in order for them to define who they are and feel they’ve put childhood behind them. But modern culture has abandoned the old structures without replacing them. Gangs, high society, and college fraternities and sororities have their initiation rituals, but these are pathetic remnants of ancient traditions. It’s a tragic, mostly unrecognized shortfall that has left our youth adrift.
The consequences of teens trying to find their own way towards being adults – unwed teen mothers, gangs, crime, substance abuse, and suicide. And yes, middle-aged offspring who still live at home and who have never become adults.
Given that the rituals that served ancient and primitive cultures are inappropriate for our time, is there a way to recreate effective rites of passage for today’s youth that are appropriate for modern life? It’s something I think about a lot these days.