“I never wanted any season but spring.” Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses
A passage can be a secret underground tunnel or a dark alley from one location to another. Walking out your front door to your neighbor’s front porch is not a passage. A passage is not a leisurely afternoon stroll in the park. There is something thorny or problematic about a passage. A passage can also be a difficult river or sea route. Passages are challenging.
Anthropologists use the idea of “rites of passage” to describe somewhat predictable events that mark tough transitions in an individual’s life.
High school graduation recognizes the end of one period of life and the beginning of another. Graduation probably involves leaving a familiar home, which is a big deal.
A wedding ceremony is important, ultimately, not because of the joy and celebration involved, but because two people from different families are coming together to make a new family. That’s hard work.
We can talk about funerals being a “celebration of life” all day every day, but a funeral marks someone’s death and departure from this life. Tomorrow, when we wake up, our loved one will be gone. Our life will be altered.
Many primitive cultures made sure that adolescents were prepared for adult living by sending them on some sort of vision quest, requiring that they live alone for a few days, facing their demons and a maybe a few rattlesnakes. A lot of teenagers grew up when they faced their first drill sergeant during basic training for the military.
Rites of passages differ from culture to culture and generation to generation. They can vary for men and women. A ritual for a teenager (e.g., a walkabout in Australia) will look nothing like a retirement dinner for an older person in America.
What is consistent is that rites of passage mark transitions, which means change! Usually, life before the passage will look different than life later. Life may be better and it may be worse, but it will be different. A butterfly and a cocoon appear to have little in common, but both are vital creatures that represent two expressions of the same being. Both butterfly and caterpillar are required for the cycle of life to be complete.
We may want our transitions to be seamless and painless, but rituals that mark our transitions remind us that there is a “before” and an “after.” We don’t always get to choose what the “after” will look like. Rites of passage let us know that others in our culture have been there before us, and wish us well on our journey.