“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 much of a passage. A passage is not a leisurely afternoon stroll in the park. Passages are Big Deals. There is something thorny or problematic about a passage. A passage can be a difficult river or sea route: The Northwest Passage. Passages are challenging.
Anthropologists use the idea of “rites of passage” to describe events that mark important 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 and getting a real job.
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.
In Islam, completing the Hajj, and in Christianity, completing a pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago, are significant rites of passage.
Many primitive cultures made sure adolescents were prepared for adult living by sending them on some sort of vision quest, requiring they live alone for a few days, or a few weeks, facing their demons and a maybe a few rattlesnakes. A lot of American 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, or 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 representing 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 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.