Rites of passage must be about true passages. Not formal but meaningless passages that belong to a bygone age. Or to someone else.
What are the traditional passages? Birth. Naming. Puberty. Adulthood. Marriage. Childbirth. Menopause/midlife. Croning. Death.
I’ve gone through all of these save the last two, and I’ve assisted in both of those. But they weren’t the most central to making me who I am.
Here are some of the more profound passages I’ve experienced. First kiss. First sex. First drunk. First deliberate choice to disappoint my elders as an adult to follow my own path. First real job. First birth of a child. First death of a child. First extramarital affair. First divorce. First business startup. First business failure. First dream abandoned. First abandoned dream rediscovered. First diagnosis of malignant cancer. First declaration of “clean and clear” of cancer cells.
I could be wrong, but I suspect this is a more representative list than the first for most people alive today. How many of you remember “puberty” as anything but an extended period in Junior High Hell? But I’ll bet most of you remember your first kiss with crystal clarity.
The traditional passages all revolve around the individual within tribal community. Birth of a new child is another mouth for the tribe to feed. Naming means the child has survived early childhood, and merits consideration as a future member of the tribe. Puberty is the point at which boys and girls must be separated, lest the tribe face irresponsible pregnancies. Adulthood means the child is ready to take on first true responsibilities — hunting, farming, making war. Marriage is the community sanction to reproduce. Menopause/midlife is the beginning of the transition to elderhood and tribal leadership. Croning is the celebration of seniority. Death is the final loss of the person to the community.
Where is our modern community? For most of us, in this sense of shared ties of obligation and interdependence, there is no community.
This isn’t all bad. The bonds of tribal community bind in both directions. If the tribe says you may not marry, then you may not marry. If you defy the elders, you face exile. The community that helps you raise your children also tells you how to raise your children. Tribal society does not coddle dissidence. It can enforce brutal conformity.
Whether we crave this kind of community or loathe the very thought of it, the fact remains that most of us don’t have it.
So in the absence of such community, does a “rite of passage” make a lot of sense?
Our Druidic Circle is planning to discuss one small aspect of this next weekend. As one of the more-visible Druidic groups in Colorado, we occasionally get requests to perform Druidic handfastings for couples — notably, people we don’t know, who contact us through our web site.
It’s not that difficult to throw together an impressive-as-hell Pagan handfasting ceremony, but it raises an important pair of questions: who are we trying to impress, and why? More generally, what are we trying to accomplish by providing this “service?”
I would understand more clearly if a member of our Circle wanted us to acknowledge his or her developing bond with a partner. We’d be thrilled to participate in that. Conversely, we might find ourselves moved to offer some cautionary words instead. (“You want to do WHAT? With WHO? Are you nuts?”) Should we support the bond, we become a part of it, and should things not end well, we’d feel some of that pain. It’s not just something they should take seriously — it’s something that WE need to take seriously as well.
When I look at my list of life-changing events, they’re of peripheral concern to the tribe. As important as it was to me, I would hardly want a public rite of passage to celebrate the first time I had sex. Nor would the tribe care to celebrate that with me. But some of the others could bear a little Druid fairy dust.
I don’t personally have much patience for fairy dust, Druidic or otherwise.
So I’m back to pondering what our real cultural rites of passage are.
The car keys are one of the big ones — the driver’s permit, followed by the license. It marks a true change of status for the adolescent. It also marks a true change of status when we are eventually forced to take the car keys away from our elders.
Forced retirement is another true passage.
Graduation used to be a true passage. Even up through my young adulthood in the 1980’s, school eventually came to an end. You graduated and then moved into adult life: you did not expect to ever see a classroom again. I’m not going to launch into a rant here on “lifelong education,” the academic marketing catchphrase of the 1990’s and 2000’s, but it’s clear that most modern young people don’t ever really expect to be free of school, and many are terrified to leave its confines.
Marriage is not a true passage, and has not been for a rather long time. People marry freely and consult no one but themselves: in Colorado, six bucks, two signatures, and some photo IDs are all that’s required to marry. Marriage is not required in order to have children, nor does marriage imply the intention of children. No-contest divorce is almost as easy as marriage. It occurs to me that one of the reasons gay marriage is such an affront to religious conservatives is that it spells out in large letters the loss of tribal “sanctity” that marriage lost so long ago.
Death is not a passage, either. Or rather, it may be for the individual soul — each of us gets at least one fully authoritative reading on that — but society doesn’t much mourn its dead. There are too many of us, and no one is essential. We live long enough to become burdens on our children and on society, long enough to lose our memory and our wisdom as well as our health, so sometimes our passing is greeted less with mourning and more with relief. Funeral homes have taken over the sacred business of death, and the rites are often perfunctory and sterile. We no longer venerate our ancestors, and the custom of visiting the departed and sharing a picnic with them in the cemetery is long-gone.
Perhaps I’ll think of other true passages, but I think modern civilization is remarkably free of both passages and rites to celebrate (or mourn) them.
It isn’t clear to me at this point how Druidry could address this.