What is a Rite of Passage?
Loneliness is epidemic in modern society. Many, I believe rightly so, point to the lack of rites of passage as a major contributor to the problem. Rites of passage let us know where we stand and to whom we belong. Without that, we can feel lost. So what is a rite of passage exactly?
Elements of the Rite of Passage
If we want to understand rites of passage, we have to identify the elements. Cultural anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, describes the stages as separation, liminal, and incorporation.
Imagine you are standing with your friends in a room and want to get to the next room. You have to walk away from them to begin that process, right? This is the separation stage.
Some modern people see rites of passage as things like getting your driver’s license, the 18th birthday, graduating from high school, and going on your first date. These are not rites of passage. They are things that prepare the person for separation. They are things that happen to help create an identity and independence from the parents, but there is far more to it than doing these firsts. Until the person actually leaves home, separation hasn’t happened yet.
Liminal space is a place of in between. It’s neither this nor that, so in a rite of passage, it’s the place where you are not where you were, but you’re not where you are going yet either.
This is probably the scariest part because your safety net is now gone. It’s all you, and you might not make it.
Back when I went to college, this was liminal space. Most of my friends and I were living on our own. We had to work to pay our own bills. Nobody was waking us up to go to school or telling us to do our homework. Whether we passed, failed, could get from place to place, had food, and a clean place to live was up to us.
Lots of people went hungry. Some failed out of school. Some lived in really uncomfortable situations because that was what they could afford, and it was the making of us.
Parents today don’t let their children struggle so they don’t ever become independent – not even if they live independently. Consequently, when someone becomes desperate to break out of the cocoon and become their own person, it can look like Cheryl Strayed’s hiking trek in the movie Wild.
This process is supposed to challenge you. It might break you, but if you get to the other side, it will be the making of you. You will know who you are, and you will show others in the way you carry yourself. That leads us to the final phase – reincorporation.
Rites of passage change us. We grow and bring this new wisdom and skill with us and use it in our every day life. Others may benefit from this change as well.
Part of your challenge may be getting others to see your changes and treat you accordingly. For example, if you go to rehab and get clean, others may not know this and continue to treat you like the partier you once were. So, it’s important for you to know who you are and stand in your power.
Modern rites of passage tend to be solo ventures that aren’t supported by the community, but as more and more of us observe them and include others in our process, perhaps we can change this.