Where have all the rites of passage gone?

Not long ago,  I was walking out of my   work place at the precise moment that a huge party of people were lining up to use our facilities for a graduation.  We see a lot of graduations in June because it is a good opportunity to make the most of unused spaces during the slower summer months and generate revenue.  A young woman, presumably a family member of a graduating student, was walking in while I was walking out.  I heard her blurt out loudly, practically in my face, “this is not my “effing” graduation” while an older gentleman on the street, who looked like he was trying find a good parking spot somewhere, looked on in apparent consternation.

Inside, picture the typical graduation tableaux- loads of well dressed teenagers and families, shiny robes, bunches of flowers, bright expectant faces…. and queues. The queue poses a problem for me and my coworkers because the door to our offices swings out into the hallway that holds said queue as it snakes from the concert hall, making a continual “parting of the seas” necessary.

It is invariably, nonetheless, a touching scene,  but one that made me consider-is graduation really what it’s cracked up to be?  Does it contain the trial of a vision quest? The separation from one’s tribe, the test, and the re-admission?  I think not.  Frankly, I think  it should really be a tougher experience, one that involves  the casting off of old traumas and the embrace of the new self.

Witness, by contrast,  another rite of passage I attended recently –  a marriage transition ritual.  Really, an alternative bachelorette party.  At the rite, all the elements were  there –  the individual was trying to leave behind as much emotional baggage from her past self  so that she could enter her new life as a married woman in a cleansed site.  It was well conceived and moving.  As such, there was a trial portion, and a blessing portion, and so it was almost as if we were all midwives for her new life. As such, a regular bachelorette, I presume, cleanses you of a ll that single-girl partying.. but this, this was much a much more profound an expression of that old self vs new self paradigm.

Every rite of passage is, in fact, a rebirth –  and like all births, they should involve pain and shedding. Once that new self is strengthened by the experience, it is welcomed again into society. I truly feel that such experiences are a part of our genetic DNA- why else do we yearn for them so much? The recent tragedy of the James Arthur Ray “sweat lodge” case underlines this gaping need.

These days, graduations, weddings, and the like  offer little to satisfy this hunger.  The Bar and Bat Mitzvah comes the closest –  but then, I would expect them to, because they are rites that spring from a tribal experience. From what I understand, learning to read the Torah, and reading it in synagogue marks you as part of your tribe,  for your connection to the Law is supremely what makes you part of the Covenant.  At least, that is my understanding from talking to my Jewish friends and from my own attendance at a Bar Mitzvah many years ago. And the sweet sixteen and allied customs like the quincenera? Possibly, not sure, because I am honestly less familiar with those kinds of celebrations.

And  what of graduation? The ceremony itself is nothing but a celebration. And the prom? Please!  I may be a prude, but I am kind of adverse to any excuse for mass public puking.

No, unfortunately, the only events in Western Society by and large that represent “rites of passage”  these days are so unnoticed they are not marked in any way, and as such remain unsanctified.  The day you move into your first apartment, or co-habitate with someone, or take your first real job, or get your first poem published- these are days you should have celebrated with society.

Is there no wonder that big sister does not appreciate little brother’s “effing” graduation?

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About Valerie Freseman

Valerie Freseman is a Unitarian Universalist minister and a 2014 graduate of Union Theological Seminary. She completed a chaplain residency at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, CT, and served as the first year-long Killam Ministerial intern at the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. She is passionate about spinning the inter-dependent web, creating a more just world, and applying the arts to faith.  She is also becoming increasingly well-known for her sock collection.
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2 Responses to Where have all the rites of passage gone?

  1. Jen says:

    My mom framed my first paycheck from my first “real” job – at McDonald’s. I would say that was a rite of passage, honored and commemorated by my family. But graduating from high school, college, and law school – none of those felt special. There was only the relief of being done, and the stress of moving, finding a job, studying for the bar, etc., that came after.

    Most of the events in my life I would consider “rites of passage” have been things I accomplished alone, often without the support of my family and friends. I do think that we humans have a need for this type of experience, but our day to day lives are so diverse that not everyone in a community will have the same “rites of passage” and so they end up not being celebrated the way they might once have been. Becoming a “woman” able to bear children does not have the meaning it once did because not every woman wants to get married and have children, certainly not at age 18 or 20 as was once the case. And not everyone gets a job when they turn 16 and can legally work. I knew people in law school who had never had a job, they went from high school to college to law school, completely supported by their parents.

    I think today we often spend much of our life searching for our real “tribe” because the one we may be born into does not share the values and goals we set for ourselves.

  2. Kirk Thomas says:

    In many ways I completely agree with you. One of the bad things about us not having more real rites of passage is that the few we do have, and weddings in particular, become terribly out of balance, leading to massive expenses for the new couple’s family, and even that bridezilla syndrome we see on TV. But only we can change that. We have to invent and practice rites of passage for our friends and family, and through our religions.

    As for graduations, well, there sure was pain – just getting to the point of being able to graduate could be a bit painful. (grin) But I see your point – the experience itself is a bit bland.

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