Rite of Passage
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I suppose you could say that I have been through several rites of passage, from high school graduation to my wedding day, my first period, or my first child. However, I don’t really see these as equivalent to those in most cultures. Especially the ones we saw in videos this week, many cultures have rites that involve some form of challenge- three days of dancing and behaving stoically, actual pain and suffering, the requirement to fend for yourself instead of always relying on your parents (or government) to support you.
I suppose you could say that the four years of high school are a challenge, but there is no identifiable difference between those who have completed the challenge and those who did not (like my youngest brother), and there is no real separation phase. Many people get married, but how many of them are truly changed? How many last more than five years? Sometimes I wonder if I will, and our five year anniversary is next month! In addition, many people are choosing to live with their fiancees before getting married (or even engaged!) anyway. “Becoming a woman” is something hidden in our culture, and something that, again, is not a challenge and is only a matter of time, not to mention that it happens before one is truly considered an adult anyway. Some people choose not to have children of their own, but would not be considered less of an adult for not doing so. It used to be said that getting your driver’s license is one, but many teens these days aren’t getting one. Some say it is cell phones, but I know people who have given their kids cell phones at ten! They certainly aren’t considered adults!
The only *true* rite of passage that I can claim came near the end of Navy boot camp. Boot camp in itself is a bit of a rite of passage, since it separates you from the civilian world, keeps you from too much contact with your parents and supports, breaks you down, then builds you back up to the sailor/soldier/Marine they want you to be. For me, though, the real experience came in what we call “Battlestations.” All throughout boot camp, you are referred to as “recruit.” You have no rank (even though I was getting paid as an E-3 for other reasons, nobody was allowed to wear their stripes), emphasizing the equality between neophytes. One particular night, the “elders” told us to hit the rack early because it would be a long night. Not long after things quieted down, we were woken by loud noises, shouting, lights, and the orders to get dressed and get going. What followed was hours of intense exercise, teamwork, obstacle courses, and physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive challenges. If you messed up a part, you failed. If you walked a single step during the many times we jogged from building to building, sometimes clear across base, you failed. If you failed, you would be separated from your group and possibly given a chance later with another group. There was a chance that if you failed, you would be dismissed. We ran, we did first aid, we ran, we crawled through dirt, we ran through puddles in Chicago in November. We sang “Anchors Aweigh” and recited the Sailor’s Creed while we ran. When it was all over, we stood at attention in a room with multiple TVs showing a video that would work wonders for recruiting while “God Bless the USA” played in the background. Exhausted, tears streaming down our faces, we accepted our ballcaps with “NAVY” emblazoned across them from our leaders. On the march to breakfast (the best breakfast many of us had ever had) many of us were sleep-marching, even “halting” when the command was called, but it was a moment not soon forgotten. The day I came in as a recruit, a child, a nobody, and walked out a sailor, an adult, someone the Captain called “Shipmate” was my rite of passage, and quite possibly my biggest accomplishment in a particular amount of time to date.
I think that perhaps what we need in America is a true rite of passage. A universal challenge that, once completed, lets everyone know that you are a responsible adult. Maybe there would be fewer aimless people without a clue how to provide for themselves. Since a rite of passage also acculturates the inductee into society, maybe there would be a clearer vision of what it means to be an American, and less partisanship and hostility. I’ve heard many times that naturalized citizens (another rite of passage) feel more pride in being an American than many of us that were born here.
Moro, P. & Myers, J. (2010). Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Eighth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.