rituals


I drove my youngest brother and his new wife from my parents’ home to the airport this morning, bound for medical school, out-of-country. It was a nice scene, sentimental in a heartfelt way. Hugs all around, my mom crying, and my brother, too. When I got home, my mom said he reminded her of Bilbo Baggins, all cozy and comfortable in his home, dragged away to confront a dragon. That feels right. Or destroy a Death Star.

On the way back, it hit me that we lacked a ritual for sending him off. I suppose what our culture has to offer is the going-away party. We didn’t do that. We had a few nights, informally talking about hopes and fears in our parents’ living room, which was good, but it would have been good for all of us to have more of a ritual. My own leaving home twenty-some years ago was even less acknowledged–my best friend and I packed all of our possessions into the back of my truck and moved hundreds of miles away early in the morning, before anyone was awake to say goodbye. They knew we were going, of course, but no sendoff. My brother may have preferred it low key, of course; we also dropped their marriage license off at the county building on the way out of town with no other ritual attached to that major event.

In these moments I wish that our culture was more prescriptive. You have a going away party when you go away. It doesn’t matter if you don’t want it, because it’s not just about you. It’s about the family and the community who are losing you. Cultural prescriptions have their downsides, of course, but in our freedom- and individual-oriented culture we lose sight of the benefits: emotionally satisfying communal markers of major life events, phase transitions facilitated and eased, powerful rituals of induction into new freedoms and responsibilities, the strengthening of “us” as a family and community and culture. Real family and cultures don’t just exist. They are subject to entropy. We continually remake them with each acknowledgement, with each bond strengthened.

To my dear brother, Ben: Welcome to your new adventure. I could tell how deeply you feel the sacrifice of leaving and I know we feel the sacrifice of losing you. What you are going to do for the next bunch of years will be a sacrifice, too. But it will also be an adventure, and we will all benefit from what you do out there. Take care of yourself and come home when you can.
Love,
Nathen

bnr-psp-2

 

 

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It is difficult to know when you are an adult in our culture. It is easy to find people in their 20s and 30s wondering if they are a “real” adults, and what that even means. They don’t “feel” like an adult, and their archetypes of adulthood—parents, mentors, maybe bosses, celebrities—are moving targets. This was not the case for our ancient ancestors, and maybe all of our ancestors before the 20th century. There was a moment in your life after which you were an adult, by community decree. What you could expect from others and what others expected from you changed forever. It was this renegotiation of relationships that made you an adult, not how you felt and not even really what you did. I imagine this was in some ways terrifying but far less prolonged and anxiety provoking.

The downside of the old system, from a modern perspective, is the loss of freedom. Along with ka-chunk adulthood came a tightly prescribed life in terms of age and gender roles that most of us would find intolerable today. It’s very difficult to imagine moving back to that. And that’s the sticking point. An initiation is meaningful to the extent that it has permanent consequences, but permanent consequences tend to mean a loss of freedom that is difficult for an individual to choose.

Here are some thoughts about our various initiations into adulthood:

Turning 18 is pretty weak. On the plus side, everyone does it—it just happens to you—and it comes with privileges and responsibilities; in a sense it is a renegotiation of your relationship to the state. On the other hand, your life and personal relationships do not change, especially now that kids have unlimited access to pornography on the internet. The ritual itself, the birthday party, is barely worth mentioning.

Turning 21 is also barely worth mentioning except to say that the freedom to drink legally, while a renegotiation of a few relationships, is a step backwards from adulthood for some.

High school graduation is a little better. The ritual is easy and boring, but there is a major consequence: You can never go to high school again. This means a major renegotiation of lifestyle (in most cases) and expectations. On the downside, not everyone does it and no one considers you an adult because you did it.

College graduation is not as effective as high school graduation. It’s available to a much smaller subset. In some ways, your freedom increases—certain jobs may be open to you—but the major consequence is that you start having to pay off your debt, which you can always put off by going for another degree. If your family is rich enough to pay your way, you are shielded from all consequences.

Boot camp in some ways may be the best initiation into adulthood we have. Only a small subset do it, but it is a before-and-after ordeal and it carries major consequences, in the self-image of the initiate, in lifestyle, and in role shift between teenager and soldier.

My wedding was by far the most powerful initiation ritual I’ve experienced. It felt meaningful, carried strong role consequences, and involved the participation of most of the people who are really important to me. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to marriage, at least in a way that is supported by our culture. And it is badly timed for an adulthood ritual for some people. It took me decades of adult life, for example, to find a person who I wanted to marry and who wanted to marry me.

Self imposed ordeals can be valuable, but have limited effectiveness as an initiation into adulthood. Many young adults try to use solo travel or some other ordeal to induce a feeling of adulthood, but it doesn’t tend to work because the ordeal doesn’t carry cultural or relational consequences. They may have an increased sense of their own power and others may be impressed with their accomplishment, but without the buy-in of the family and culture, without a role shift as a consequence of undergoing the ordeal, the young adult is left with a sense that nothing has really changed.

In my first round of thinking about this, I thought maybe we could remedy the situation one individual at a time: Each young person could decide what adulthood would mean for them, design an ordeal or ritual, and invite everyone important to them to witness and support them in their new, adult roles and relationships.

After talking with a bunch of late-adolescents about this idea, though, I realized it won’t work. They either reported being completely uninterested in the idea, interested but not ready to do it, or (very rarely) already identifying as an adult and not interested in doing all that work. Once you are ready, it’s too late.

So it has to come from the culture, not from the individual. It has to be the individual participating in the culture. And unfortunately, that leaves us with just a few, mostly tepid initiation rituals, and a lot of young adults wondering when adulthood will come to them.

I am piloting a new project this year at Not Back to School Camp called “On Becoming a Man.” I thought it would be a salient topic for many of the 13-18 year old males at camp. This is how I described it for campers looking for a project at camp:

“This project is for campers who are interested in becoming a man. It will include exploring the issues of what it means to be a man, the difference between manhood and boyhood, and the freedoms and responsibilities of manhood. Each participant will be supported in coming to a personal definition of manhood and, if they so decide, design a ritual entry into manhood.”

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of manhood a lot for many years, so I feel prepared for that part of the project. I am least prepared for the part where we design a coming of age ritual for each camper who chooses to have one. I’m doing some reading on it (Imber-Black and Roberts Rituals For Our Times) but not having had a coming of age ritual myself, I have next to no concrete examples. The gom jabbar ritual from Dune springs to mind, but I don’t have a poison needle or a pain box. (Plus I don’t think the NBTSC consent forms cover the possibility of death by poison needle!)

Did you have or have you witnessed a great coming of age ritual? Why was it great? Any horror stories? Thanks!

2011 Cohort (I love these people!) by Hillary Nadeau (I'm at the top right, hatless)

Jeff, Deanna, Christian, (Faculty) In Regalia, photographer unknown

Post-Graduation With Reanna's Family, Dad, & Robert, by Aly

Post-Graduation With Reanna's Family, Aly & Robert, by Steve Lester

Faked Post-Graduation Shot With Pikes, Including Grandpa Bob

Goofy Faked Graduation Photo With Pikes

Sealing the Deal by Dunking in the Willamette, by Steve Lester

I turned 39 at 8:50 this morning. I’m on the cusp of middle age! As usual, I used my flights to and from Not Back to School Camp to brainstorm about my 40th year. Camp is a great end-of-year celebration and source of inspiration. I’m going to do a lot this year–finish my Master’s degree and see clients for at least 400 hours, for example–but I’ve decided not to put that stuff on my list. I want to concentrate on how I do it. I just watched the outgoing cohort finish up my program and they seemed really stressed out. I want to do it without overwhelming myself, in good health. I want to enjoy it. So I came up with one intention that sums it all up:

This year, I intend to take exquisitely good care of myself.

To me, that means that I think about myself like I do my best friends, with affection and optimism, with care. I am not a slave to being productive.

When I touch myself, I do so gently, with attention, not mechanically or absent-mindedly. Like I would someone I love.

I don’t eat crap.

I meditate 30 minutes every day.

I exercise 45 minutes every day.

I do my physiotherapy daily and get health care whenever I need it.

I get good attention, from friends, co-counselors, or a therapist, when I need it.

I take a day off every week.

I say yes to social invitations.

I sleep a bare minimum of 8 hours a night. That means giving myself an hour to chill out with nothing electric and no reading before bed, and an hour to lie in bed before I need to be asleep, so I don’t get worried about falling asleep quickly enough.

I keep my living space looking nice.

I have some ritual (yet to be designed) which helps me stop thinking about my clients when I leave the clinic.

I’ve also put a lot of thought into how I will prioritize my commitments. They will probably often conflict with each other and I’d like to be able to make choices about what to do and what to leave out with minimal stress. That part will be a work in progress for a while

I just read in Brock & Barnard’s Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy about Wolin and colleagues’ research into rituals in alcoholic families. Apparently, the negative effects of an alcoholic parent were predicted better by the amount that family rituals were disrupted by the alcoholism than by the presence of alcoholism itself. For example, if the family continued to eat dinner together every night, continued with their bedtime rituals, etc, children remained about as well off as those in non-alcoholic households. But if the family rituals were destroyed, the children were much worse off, including much more likely to become alcoholic or marry an alcoholic themselves.

I haven’t read any of the original research, so I don’t know for sure if it is that these rituals actually provide resiliency or if the presence or lack of rituals served as a proxy measure for how bad the alcoholism was. It could also be a combination of the two. It does look like the family therapy literature considers that rituals promote resiliency in general, providing structure and comforting predictability for kids, and resulting in better outcomes. (I doubt they are bad for the adults, either.)  Something to think about, parents!

“I think the best function of funerals is served if it brings relatives and friends into the best possible functional contact with the harsh fact of death and with each other in this time of high emotionality. I believe that funerals were probably more effective when people died at home with the family present, and when the family and friends made the coffin and did the burial themselves. Society no longer permits this, but there are ways to bring about a reasonable level of contact with the dead body and the survivors.”

Murray Bowen, in Walsh & McGoldrick’s Living Beyond Loss: Death in the Family

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