What is a rite of passage? The dictionary definition is: A ceremony that marks a significant transitional period in someone’s life. Regardless the event – it marks a permanent change in your status as a person in your community.

A rite of passage typically involves a particular activity or education intended to move you out of your original role in preparation for a new one. Although usually associated with ‘primitive cultures,’ rites of passage form the fabric of our lives.

Imagine how much poorer life would be without:

  • Religious ceremonies (baptism, bar-mitzvah, etc.)
  • Birthdays
  • Graduation ceremonies
  • Funerals

These ceremonies are such an intrinsic part of our lives that we can scarcely conceive of life without them. But, each one (and many others) is essentially a rite of passage that commemorates a significant change in our lives.

Transitions Are Important

Transitions are about change.

For the young celebrating high school graduation; it’s graduating from the role of student to being an adult and joining the adult world of:

  • Getting a job,
  • Going to college
  • Finding a place to live
  • Developing mature personal and social relationships
  • Getting involved in their community

While the transition from high school student to adult doesn’t require all of these things at the same time, most young people will do (or want to do) the things adults do during their twenties and thirties – imagine not having the experience of graduation to mark this momentous entry into adulthood. Graduation ceremonies prepare you emotionally for the shock of leaving the joys of childhood behind you.

Housewarmings are another critical rite of passage.
Once you’ve moved into a new neighborhood, a housewarming party signals that you’re part of a new community and have cut your ties to your previous one. This rite of passage marks as not merely a visitor, but a resident in your new community with all the responsibilities and privileges that come with that new status.

Consider how cruel it would seem to start retirement by working your last day just like any other and then just going home? Your retirement party prepares your coworkers for your permanent absence while easing the shock of you leaving the world of work.

When someone important to you dies; a funeral allows everyone to say goodbye and marks the beginning of life without them. How horrible would it be to have a deceased family member just disposed of by something like your weekly trash pick up? A funeral is a rite of passage that eases our fear of death and gives us needed closure when we lose someone who played a significant role in our lives.

Change Is Good

change is a good thing
Change isn’t just good; it’s essential for a fulfilling life.

Imagine a life where everything stays the same; the same friends, neighborhood, home, job – forever. You’ll know what every day has in store for you; who you’ll see, where you’ll work, the roads you’ll travel.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a nightmare! Change, whether planned are unexpected is a chance to extend yourself in new ways.

Moving to a new country can entail learning a new language, customs, and city. Changing jobs can give you the opportunity to practice new skills, advance in your career, and make beneficial professional connections.

Ultimately, change in our lives is essential to develop the range of experiences that allow us to become the best version of ourselves possible and enter old age with a well of wisdom to draw upon that earns the respect of everyone around us.

Rites of Passage for Mental Health

Human beings have the most incredibly complex mental processes compared to any other life on earth.

Of all the animals on this planet – only a human can sit down someplace; think hard for a few hours, then get up with an idea that changes the world.
Our mental state is delicate at the best of times and rites of passage are an essential psychological lubricant that keeps the gears of our minds from grinding together painfully.

Without rites of passage; the shocks, changes, and challenges of our lives can seem like no more than a chaotic and frightening mess that we face alone. The rituals we invent for each major transition that we face are critical to our mental health.

By not only sharing but celebrating the milestone events in our lives; we turn stressful transitions into cherished memories that enrich our lives.

We Need a Way to Remember

mental bookmark
What is a rite of passage if it isn’t the ultimate mnemonic device?

We all remember graduating from school, our 18th birthday, marriage, the birth of a child, the death of a parent – and the rituals surrounding these events ensure that we always have a ‘mental bookmark’ to refer back to when we need to recollect the events that surrounded that transition.

Rites of passage create an emotional charge around each memory that guarantees you’ll always be able to recall what happened and how it made you feel.

Rites of passage are a way to forever preserve the most important times in our lives where it matters most; our minds.

What Happens When We Don’t Have a Rite of Passage for Something?

man holding a picture
We make up a new one!

Modern civilization may have lots going for it, but most of us still feel ‘lost at sea’ as we proceed through our lives. Why?

Consider that many modern rites of passage are cobbled together, with no history behind them. People of all ages are trying to recapture the structure that ceremony gave life in the early days of human society.

Consider these modern ‘traditions’ that have been created:

  • Skipping the last day of school
  • Getting your first license
  • High school prom
  • Getting drunk with friends once you hit legal age

Each of these new rites of passage is how modern society deals with the important transitions to adulthood that have no traditional counterpart.

We live in a complex world that creates transitions that have never existed before – with no way to ease the stress passing each one can cause.

Children and teens are especially vulnerable to the lack of new rites of passage for the unprecedented transitions they experience. Unfortunately, rapid technological changes keep changing the goal posts we use to measure our lives. But experience shows that we will continue to meet the changing times of our lives with new rites of passage that will give life the structure we need for a fulfilling life.

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George Citroner

GW Citroner is a Hudson Valley, NY based writer whose work has appeared in over 20 publications and on an incredible range of Health & Wellness topics.

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