The Search For A Rite Of Passage

May 19, 2020
Sam Marfleet

The boy stands atop a cathedral of wooden stakes.

Thirty meters below, at the base of the tower, his village dances, sings, and cheers him on.

He approaches the edge of the platform.

Lashed tight around his ankles are rough cords of vine. They’ve been hand-measured by a village elder. Too long and you will crash into the ground. Too short and you will be impaled on the wooden structure.

The voices vibrate louder.

People rarely die but they do. The boy has seen this. The men who helped him up the tower were filled with nervous energy. Yesterday, two of them were not on speaking terms. Today, they have made amends in case either man is to perish.

The voices reach a crescendo.

It is time to jump.

Refusal of the Call

What if I refused?

What if adventure came a-knockin’ and I said, “No, thank you, sir, I like the shape of my head exactly as it is”?

Who could fault me?

I’d be in good company. The stories are filled with people who at least attempt to refuse. Frodo tries to convince Gandalf the Grey that he is unfit to carry the ring. Luke Skywalker won’t join Obi-Wan until the empire murders his aunt and uncle. “I’m too old for this shit,” declares the salt and peppered veteran detective.

For every Theseus there’s a King Minos.

For every hero there’s a thousand people like me who just want things to stay the same.

But there is no “staying the same”. There is no safety in refusing the call to adventure.

Joseph Campbell wrote the definitive work of comparative mythology in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Life, he explains, is an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth.

Fortunes are constantly being lost. Societies crumbling. Sauron’s armies approaching. The empire is sweeping across the galaxy and so forth.

All things are dying.

Our survival—the long survival of our species—relies on the miracle of birth. On the heroes that brave the fact of death in order to make new life possible.

The idea that one can secure their status in the world by burying their head in the sand is a childish fantasy. It is a refusal to leave the nursery with its promise of eternal safety under watchful parent figures.

Our communities are counting on our contributions.

Harvests must be sown and reaped. Sickness and drought are guaranteed. Our parents will grow old. They will need our care.

What hope does a man-child have if it is only at his parents’ funeral that he is forced to give up his childhood fixations?

Here is the truth as I see it. It is only because I am ignorant to the ways of the world that I can think it is possible to serve myself by being self-interested. Running from my task will not save me. It will simply prolong the discovery that my happiness is to be found in service to others.

Or put into the language of myth:

“The effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world. . . wherever they fail, life decomposes into death.”

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2004. Print.

Stepping Beyond the Threshold

When do I stop feeling like a child?

It’s a hell of a question to ask living in Los Angeles—a place that so obviously runs on the vitality of youth. Asking to grow up is close to blasphemy in the city of thespian baristas and back-alley acupuncturists.

But I’m asking anyway.

When the Vanuatu islander jumps he falls 30 meters through the air just to kiss the earth with the top of his skull.

The boy jumps for many reasons. He jumps to become a man. To secure a bounteous yam harvest. To honor the ancient traditions.

Some jump to impress a woman. Others claim to jump for the fun of it.

After some reflection, I’d like to propose an interpretation:

The boy risks his life to be born a member of his community. To show that he truly understands his interests to be second to the interests of the tribe. He says, “I cannot pretend to live in safety if safety has not been secured for my people.”

His future is the future of the community.

So how does a thoroughly globalized fella such as myself ensure that he hears the call to adventure? How do I know that I am not sacrificing the happiness of my family while I waste away praying to the boyhood fantasies of a million-bajillion dollars, a harem of busty housemates, and all the honors and titles in the world to fulfill my parents’ expectations of me?

How do I ensure my wife married a man?

I’m starting to take seriously the idea of rites of passage.

Our species has an entire library of technologies for managing transitions from one stage of life to another. They are called rituals.

One particular genre of ritual is the rite of passage. The threshold crossing that marks the child’s journey into adulthood.

As we face the coming period of scarcity, we will need to bring our best efforts to our communities. We will have to be stronger, wiser, and kinder than we have ever been.

My answer, and suggestion to you, is to seek out rites of passage. To use these technologies as psychological support for this transition.

Believer or non-believer, religion and tradition are your friends here.

Be not too proud. Our most developed thinking on rites of passages can be found in the sacred texts. Separate the meaningful from the metaphysical, if you must, but use them.

One day we may have secular coming-of-age stories that can match those that have brought us through every catastrophe prior to this one. Until then, use the ones we’ve got.

The world needs your service.