My Photo
Location: Newark, Delaware, United States

My name is David P. Bellamy. The only significant thing not mentioned elsewhere here is, I think, that I almost always prefer to read a book instead of watching a movie.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Initiation from childhood into adulthood

I posted this entry a few years ago in another venue. It just came to my attention again, and I thought it would be useful, perhaps, to edit it slightly and post it here.

I have often heard it said that we have no satisfactory formal rite of passage initiation into adulthood, for either boys or girls. I think this is true, and I think it causes us much trouble when teen gangs, groping in the dark, so to speak, attempt to create their own. I have friends who say that our culture's only boyhood-to-manhood initiation is military basic training, which only a minority ever experience. In some imperfect way, the self-reliance and original contribution to knowledge, followed by defending what one has created, in the course of earning a Ph. D. degree, plays a similar role. I have experienced this one, but not military basic training. Regardless, both are missed by the vast majority of young people.

It is popular in some circles to decry this situation and work to create rituals which meaningfully initiate young people into adulthood; I have participated in such in the Pagan community, and I think some other groups do similar things. I believe that these have SOME merit.

I think there is a deep and serious problem, however, which reaches far beyond the question of each individual's journey. In many societies, wild creativity is tolerated in children, but adults are required to think "inside the box" and to abandon the free-thinking of childhood. Saint Paul (for whom I have no love whatever) wrote (KJV, quoted from memory) "When I was a child I spake as a child, I thought as a child, and I understood as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.*" This pattern exists in almost every society, where adults become much more rigid in their thinking, giving up their childhood creative energy as irresponsible. I read an sf story years ago which had the thesis that gorillas do the same thing: Adults lose the playfulness and accompanying creativity which they possessed when immature.

It is easy to see how sociobiological selection creates extreme pressure in this direction. Unbridled creativity most of the time leads to disaster. Changing the tools or methods of hunting, gathering, or even agriculture will lead to extinction of the whole culture if it does not work, so keeping things the same is a major survival trait for cultures unless they have an abundance of resources and so can afford lots of mistakes.

Our own culture, having a lack of adulthood rituals, does not effectively initiate this rigidity of thinking which the vast majority of cultures do, at least not in every person. As we live in relative plenty compared to many human societies, we can get away with this. The result has been, in the past few centuries, the greatest flowering of creativity in art, science, and engineering that humanity has ever experienced. (Yes, the ancients in Greece, India, Egypt, and Rome, accomplished a lot in this regard, but they never came close to going to the moon or creating the Internet, for example.)

So I think this is a serious conundrum. We, individually, desperately need serious transition-to-adulthood rituals. But, if we create them in a way which is really satisfactory for individuals, we will lose the creative edge which has made our times so amazing in so many ways, and fall into a state of stagnation.

I would love to read the reactions of other members of this group to this. Does anyone else feel that there is an ultimately insoluble problem here, or does anyone see a way to have both needs met?

It seems to me that this is both our culture's greatest strength and, simultaneously, its greatest vulnerability.

*Aside footnote: I confess that I have never seen the connections between the first 10 verses of I Cor 13 and the text I quoted. My father always used the "When I was a child..." text to explain why it would be a sin for him to play with his three sons while we were children, even though when he did so, I think he enjoyed it. But he felt guilty afterwards. Since I no longer regard the Bible as an important sacred text, I do not expect to spend any significant mental effort to further understanding this particular Biblical passage nor any other. Admittedly, some of my fellow Wiccans and other Pagans think I am making a mistake with this attitude.