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Rite of Passage

July 11, 2012

A distinct image remains in my mind from this year’s North American Debate Championships.  It was the night of the formal banquet, a tradition title tournaments feature where everyone wears fancy clothes, sits in the university’s nicest banquet hall, eats bad vegetarian food, and nervously wait for the break announcements.  In Canada, the drinking age is 19.  I know this because at the time of the banquet I was 18 years and 352 days old.  The Canadian government had yet to deem me fit for the consumption of alcohol.

Others partaking in the banquet did not have the same restrictions I did.  I saw five our so Canadian debaters I didn’t recognize standing in a circle, talking.  Dressed in evening gowns, crisp black suits, laughing coyly, and glasses of red wine in hand, they resembled what someone might find in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.  As early as 5 years ago, they would have been signing yearbooks, worried about getting grounded, eating lunch in a stuffy school cafeteria with hordes of other kids.  In light of this, it seemed to me that the people I was watching were “playing” being adults, similar to how one would play house as a child.  I could not fathom what had happened in between their past as children and their present as “adults” that marked the transition from adulthood.  Without declaration, they seemed resigned to acting out small moments of adulthood when they could.

Maybe I’m allowing my own preconceptions to generalize the situation.  But from personal experience, our society lacks a mechanism that indicates to someone a solid transition to adulthood.  Instead I feel like I’m simply “playing” adult at some moments while being anything but during the rest of my life.

I believe that my society would benefit from a real, recognizable rite of passage.

Not substitute rites of passage either, a term I define as certain events that have a main utility that isn’t to mark an entrance into adulthood. For example, getting a driver’s license or graduating high school is seen as a rite of passage by many. But I think they really exhibit my point in how much society craves rites of passage.  We latch onto things that deal with learning how to parallel park or to do algebra and add secondary associations of transition because we are desperately looking for a hard trigger to act as a societal parameter.

The few true rites of passage that exists today, such as Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Christian Confirmation, suffer from glaring issues that prevent them from solving the issue. First is that they’re only recognized by sects of society. Going through a Bar Mitzvah doesn’t mean that a boy’s transition will be recognized anywhere outside the Jewish community.  Second, ingrained traditions override the practical utility that you get from recognizing a Rite of Passage.  Bar and Bat Mitzvahs set the age you become an adult at 13.  This made more sense thousands of years ago, when people lived shorter lives and didn’t go to school so as soon a they turned thirteen, males would go straight to full-time farming or other professions while women would start a family. But in America today I don’t think you can find anyone, even among the Jewish community, that would say the age of 13 is when one is capable of handling the responsibilities of adulthood and should be recognized as such.  It’s my observation that Jewish communities use it more as a way to stay connected to their culture and values and less to indicate someone as an adult.

A unified, broad, rite of passage that’s accepted throughout America could clear up so many of the muddled emotions people feel as they get older.  Walking through the forested paths of Douglass campus in the middle of the night would cause one’s mind to wander. I always found myself walking the paths around 1 or 2 AM on Tuesday and Thursday nights, after debate meetings. I thought about a lot of things but one topic continued to remain salient.  I would remember pulling away from my driveway, my mom driving me towards New Brunswick, and moving into my dorm. No ceremony, no overt or covert acknowledgement.  One day I was living with my family, the next day I had moved out. I thought about how with barely a word I had just left my father as I went down the driveway, and would soon be leaving my mother and brother after they helped me move in. Walking in the night, the trees lit by moonlight and street lamps, I would find myself enveloped by a deep sadness and repressing a tear. I felt that I owed to my family and myself that such a moment shouldn’t be so quiet, so confusing. It would only feel right if such a moment was given true recognition of  it’s massive transition. But instead without a solid rite of passage to indicate I was ready and my family was ready for such a change I feel we were both left deprived of a needed reprieve.

This is why we need a rite of passage.  It removes a major part of our lives from doubt. In the Maasai culture, men and women must undergo circumcision before they’re considered a member of their tribe.  The process is done without an anesthetic and is incredibly painful, with weeks of recovery time afterwards.

Listen, I’m not saying our society needs a rite of passage that brutal. But in Maasai tribes, after a guy goes through the process, no one can call him a child anymore.

Including himself.

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