The Coming of Age Rituals
What a truly amazing world we live in where circumcision, scarification, and a myriad of other pain inflicting actions are considered to be what make a people part of a tribe or take a person from childhood to adulthood, all under the guise of coming of age. Why can’t coming of age be as simple as a nice get together with family, or a trip to a new land, or some other non-violent event? Possibly there are these coming of age rituals and possibly they just aren’t the attention getters as some of the other, bloodier coming of age rituals.
As a child I understood my coming of age ritual to be joining the military and going to war. From this I expected to return a hardened man that was ready for any situation which presented itself. So I joined the military and spent my time sweeping out bomb dumps in a foreign land. I made the best of it and tried to learn from the experience as I could, but also exited from the experience as soon as the opportunity presented itself. No war, no hardening, no nothing except for a better understanding of how beneficial the words Sir and Ma’am are. So although my coming of age experience in the military might not have played out like I wanted, it was still worth it.
Why tie pain to the idea of a coming of age ritual? Is it to ensure that however plush a life as a child might have been, there is a thorough, if only once, understanding of pain and punishment; hoping that through this pain there will be the ability to reflect upon it in the face of adversity? And why is it that most of these rituals seem to only exist in non-industrialized cultures (not to say that circumcision is less barbaric than other mutilating practices)? Some may feel that a mandatory military sentence is a coming of age ritual that not only benefits the individual, but also the state and the people of that state. Some may see college as a coming of age experience that again aims to benefit society as a whole; both a struggle, but not quite of the physical nature as cutting up someone’s body. And so we now draw a distinction between intellectual coming of age, physical coming of age, and spiritual coming of age, each with its own rewards and none, necessarily more beneficial than the other. It just depends on the culture and the common needs of said culture as to what the coming of age ritual of the day is.
And what of those who do not pass a defined coming of age ritual? Are they forever relegated to a lesser status in the tribe? I remember my Grandfather speaking to me about the difference between an honorable discharge and one of the other, less savory sorts, and thinking what a surreal experience it must be for those individuals who were booted from the military, or flunked out of college, or lost the job in a town where jobs are scarce. How much emotional baggage and trauma must be cleaned up before the individual is able to move on and regain a sense of worth in said society, if it is even possible.
So whatever coming of age ritual is ahead of you, behind you, or by your hand about to be forced upon others, please reflect as to the gains and losses of said coming of age ritual and determine if it is really something that needs to be participated in, and propagated to others. College is a great experience, but not meant for everyone. The military teaches many sound principles, but again may either not be needed or may be too much for some. And as far as inflicting physical pain or disfigurement upon others in the name of “coming of age;” this doesn’t seem fair, but I would only ask that we reflect back upon our time of the acceptance of the pain and determine if it really helped, or was just something to keep the tribe together.