Maybe It’s Time We Brought Back The Vision Quest: Why Rites of Passage Create Wiser Adults

Have you noticed that many of today’s “adults” are adults in name only? In terms of outlook and behavior, these “grownups” more closely resemble adolescents.

“…Not only are many young people blocked from reaching adulthood, but they are bombarded with role models for childish and irresponsible behavior,” writes Stephen Schwartz, P.H.D in Psychology Today. “Lifestyles that would have been considered deviant 50 years ago are now commonplace.”

What can explain this alarming tendency? Perhaps we should look towards a once meaningful practice that has largely disappeared. Rites of passage are meaningful traditions across many cultures, yet we have mostly abandoned them in our modern society. Instead, we barely acknowledge milestones, such as obtaining a driver’s license, or growing old enough to vote.

To be sure, there are truly horrific rites of passage we should all be grateful to avoid, but the symbolic meaning and importance of this ritual has profound implications we ought to consider for our young people. According to anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep,  “Rites of passage exist in order to consolidate social ties, establish roles, and give members of a group a sense of purpose and placement.”

Gannep is not alone in his assertion on the importance of rites of passage. It is backed up by the Jewish culture that emphasizes Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for 13-year-olds and the Quinceañera for Latin American 15-year-olds. A similar and compelling argument can be made that our own society would benefit from events in which the whole community witnesses a youth’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the infantilizing tendencies of today’s “grown-ups” may be partly due to the absence of these types of meaningful markers designating when a child can be considered an adult.

“Going out by yourself and a spear and coming back with a lion’s pelt doesn’t just mean you’ve been ushered into the world of men. It also means that you are a capable hunter; a valuable addition to the group who can likely handle what the world will throw at you,” writes Mark Sisson, author of the Primal Blueprint. “Having your first menstruation isn’t just a symbolic shedding of your girlhood; it means you’re physiologically capable of getting pregnant. Rites of passage are also very utilitarian and practical, then.”

Ultimately, no one is suggesting that we isolate our children and/or force them to sharpen their teeth into canine points like the Mentawai tribe. However, we do owe it to our young people to find honorable ways to acknowledge their shift from adolescence to adulthood. We might consider designing our own set of challenging, yet meaningful ordeals to help them develop both resilience and self-reliance. If we are successful in our efforts, our society may be rewarded with wiser, better-adjusted adults instead of just larger adolescents.

In closing and just for fun, the next time your adolescent complains about something, here are three gruesome rites of passage ceremonies you can share to let them know just how good they have it:

1) After being ceremoniously circumcised, young boys and girls of the Okiek tribe in Kenya are secluded from adults for months. During this time they paint themselves to resemble a wild creature and are then haunted by a mythical beast whose terrifying roar can be heard at night. The youths only become adults when the elders show them the roar-producing instrument and teach them how to make its sound for themselves.

2) Girls from the Fula tribe in West Africa must have their faces tattooed for hours with a sharpened piece of wood before they can be considered adults. If a girl cries or grimaces she is believed to be too immature and must wait to finish her tattoos in order to marry.

3) To become an adult hunter in the Matis tribe of Brazil, young boys must endure much. First, a bitter poison is dumped in their eyes to “improve” their vision. Next, they are beaten and whipped. Finally, they must inject themselves with poison from the Giant Leaf Frog using wooden needles.



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