Recognizing Change: Reexamining the Rite of Passage
I first became entranced with the concept of the rite of passage shortly after receiving my Bachelor’s degree. The diploma and the ostensible accumulation of knowledge it signified meant little to me, and the piece of stiff paper was soon filed away to gather dust. With no direction, no sense of self or social obligation, I packed a duffle bag and left my hometown of Chicago for Toronto on what would become a three-year hiatus, a series of adventures that took me across North America and to such far-flung places as Vietnam and the Alaskan Arctic. In the process I became a hitch hiking guru, earned my keep flipping eggs, and taught myself how to operate a full-manual motorbike on a Vietnamese highway in the middle of the night…During a rainstorm. These expeditions began to take shape in my mind as rites of passage, challenges meant to test my courage and intrepidness so that I might one day rise to the ranks of Bone Fide Badass. There was a problem though. No matter how far I pushed the edge, how wild and reckless the adventure, I came out the other side feeling pretty much unchanged. No magical transformation. No grand sense of clarity and meaning. The journeys felt incredibly important while I was undergoing them, but afterwards I returned to my previous state of confusion and discord. I struggled to figure out why this was. The reason, I learned, was that I had fundamentally misunderstood what a rite of passage really is.
So let’s go back to the beginning. The concept of the rite of passage was first popularized by the Ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep (1909-1960). Once he had defined the three main stages–Separation, transformation (or liminal), and reincorporation–Anthropologists were able to recognize rites of passage in cultures around the world. They are especially important to certain African tribes which use them to initiate members of the group into new social roles and responsibilities. Contemporary western culture has taken on a romanticized understanding of this ancient process, as is our wont, and the consequence is that our own attempts at rites of passage are, more often than not, ineffective.
The stages themselves are pretty self-explanatory. In the separation phase, participants are taken from a familiar environment to one in which they will face new and unfamiliar challenges. For long-distance hikers, this is commonly understand as the separation from a job, family, home and material possessions before entrance into the woods. The transformation then is the long walk over difficult or even treacherous terrain, where one’s main form of shelter and substance are carried on their back. By overcoming this challenge the hiker will conceivably complete their rite and reenter society as a changed person. So far, so good. The main problem comes with the third stage; Reincorporation, whereby the hiker’s achievements and new role are recognized and reinforced by their family, their community, and their society.
Brent Bell, a Kinesiology and Outdoor Education Professor at the University of New Hampshire makes several salient points regarding this in his 2003 paper entitled The Rights of Passage and Outdoor Education: Critical Concerns for Effective Programming. “Although several outdoor and youth development programs use the Rites of Passage as coming-of-age rites with students,” says Bell, “students often return to an environment lacking the formal social mechanisms for maintaining change…Rites can help us to give meaning to, frame and amplify experiences, deepening the value of what we learn from them,” but without validation from the community, the experience loses its lasting impact. Even if our friends and family support our trek, they cannot completely understand the way it has changed us (and therefore completely support us) if they haven’t experienced it themselves.
A 1993 study of a program that took adjudicated youth (found guilty of a delinquent act) into the wilderness for a rites of passage experience considered the process ineffective due to the “lack of understanding and support on the participants role shift by their home community,” says Bell. Ironically, the most effective rite of passage in American society is that by which people found guilty of a crime are separated, shamed, and traumatized in prison before being reentered into a society that therein shuns them legally and socially as felons.
Another implication of Bell’s paper is that rites of passage were created for a social structure which is fundamentally different than western society today. “Democratic post-industrial societies value role pluralism, where freedom from role definition is often valued more than defined role clarity…Contemporary North American society displays a history of working to devalue rituals in an effort to provide freedom from role definition,” argues Bell. The push for gender-neutral bathrooms in schools is a current legislative example of this pluralistic trajectory.
Participants in a traditional rite of passage are meant to move from one box to another box, (e.g. from childhood to adulthood) where their new responsibilities are enforced by social pressure. Long distance hikers, in contrast, are often leaving a box in search of freedom from any box. Our value of independence from social pressure butts up against our need to be validated by that very same society, and this is one of contemporary North America’s biggest existential dilemmas.
Bell’s argument is most clearly articulated when he writes, “having a system of support post-trip may be the essential component of a traditional rite of passage . If the system, such as a family unit, does not recognize a difference in the role of the participant in an ROP model, the participant is at risk of reverting back into the same roles he/she had previously, and tried moving away from—in effect the system can prevent growth and development.”
A life-defining experience may only change us insomuch as that change is recognized and supported by others. Which, I’m realizing, is why I write.
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