Why doesn’t life come with an outcome summary? Decisions and life choices would be much easier! No regrets. No doubts and no looking back. Did we make the right move? Did we chose the right job? Did we get married too soon or too late? But life’s core is structured into phases and sequences. They are our rites of passage designed to be experienced, learned from, and often celebrated. Thousands of years of living before us has given us a roadmap. Across race, religion, and culture, a common denominator emerges: When celebrated, life’s milestones strengthen and root an individual. Discussing diverse cultural rites of passage rituals with children is sure to make them appreciate their own transitions, whether large or small.
When Gail Sheehy’s Passages was first published in 1976, her insights into the challenges of going through phases of adult life spoke to millions of readers. More relevant than ever, this timeless landmark book makes sense of the universal and inevitable passages we experience in our twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond. Sheehy’s book appeals to many for an obvious reason; it provides basic reminders of the inevitable changes we experience in a lifetime. By discussing life’s normal trials, Sheehy demonstrates how to use each challenge as an opportunity for creative change and growth. Maybe that’s our timely lesson again; to stop, regroup, and go back to basics. By taking her advice, we can help children appreciate what they have, look forward to every phase of their lives, and achieve their full potential.
Many psychologists, philosophers, spiritualists, and scholars speak of a spiritual passage too. In a book, The Five Stages of the Soul, Dr. Harry R. Moody, cofounder and director of the Brookdale Institute of Aging, that interweaves twenty years of research into aging. He reveals the spiritual passages that we encounter in life and explores the opportunities those spiritual stages offer us in inner fulfillment. He identifies these stages, intermixing insights from Western and Eastern spirituality. The interesting aspect of Moody’s quest is that it occurs at a later stage in his life.
The message is that it’s never too late to find a life’s purpose or give it meaning. Everyone, he writes, starts thinking about spirituality in the middle years and he sees five stages; the call, the search, the struggle, the breakthrough, and the return. He illustrates each stage with stories, historical worldly anecdotes, and aside from his own spiritual beliefs. This read offers an interesting glimpse into aging and the common thread that binds us all as humans. Moody’s reflections seem to compliment Sheehy’s as they both study the journey of a life, due passages.
No matter your religion, books like Moody’s, offer a leap off discussion as we question, at one point or another, the purpose of our existence. M. Scott Peck and Thomas Moore offer similar perspectives in their books.
Usually life-changing events, such as a birth or death of a loved one, push us to evaluate our existence and question our spirituality. Why wait for a life-altering event to do that? Throughout history we have witnessed how celebrating life’s inevitable rites of passage has created more rooted traditions and more bonded communities. Around the globe, life’s phases are celebrated so differently; a mere appreciation of that is a learning tool. I highlight below just a few. And, it’s good to remember why they were created especially if they are part of our own culture. Many of us, in our fast moving cyber cities, have lost touch with life’s basic sequences that occur to teach us. Sadly, we end up appreciating, our present life stage, when we’re faced with a serious illness or a death of a loved one! We shouldn’t let a lifetime go by, without bringing the significance of its cycles into focus whether with religion, tradition or simple community interaction.
It’s fun and informative to discuss with children why and how life’s cycles are revered across cultural and religious communities. Here are a few:
In Christianity, Catholics observe seven sacraments that mark life’s cycles. Each is highlighted by community engagement and festivities and helps to bond an individual to family as well as to church. It begins a very short time after birth with Baptism and continues on to marriage and final rites at death.
Judaism provides for several rites of passage and unique ceremonies, ranging from naming a child, to circumcision of a baby boy, to ritual redemption, to Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to marriage and divorce and, finally, to death. Jewish people get together with family and friends, for seasonal celebrations and to mark life’s milestones. They have managed to keep alive traditions that are embedded into their faith for over a thousand years.
Muslims strongly believe that strong faith and adherence to traditions fosters family and community bonds and it starts at birth. They believe that the first thing a newborn should hear is a prayer, and it is; “God is great, there is no God but Allah.”
As with Judaism, the most important Islamic rites of passage are circumcision, reciting of Quran from memory and marriage. Similar to other cultures, birth, and entering adulthood are major milestones for a young boy while marriage is a celebrated rite of passage for both girls and boys. Circumcision isn’t performed shortly after birth as with Judaism but between the ages of three and fifteen years. A milestone is celebrated upon a boy’s first Quran recitation from memory. Festivities are held during the month of Muhammad’s birthday and are accompanied by Quranic recitations. A daughter’s wedding is her most important rite, marking her movement from girl to woman, to wife and motherhood.
Native Americans ceremonies occur during all life’s stages and four of them are still practiced, in varying degrees, depending on the region and the community. They believe these ceremonies bring psychological, physical, spiritual and emotional healing to individuals and communities.
Canupa: The Sacred Pipe Ceremony
Smoking the sacred pipe is symbolic of the breath of God, the Great Spirit, Wacan Tanka. To inhale the smoke, and then exhaling it into the physical world, illustrates speaking the truth and is the right of passage in a young man’s life.
Inipi: The Sweat Lodge
Mainly a symbol of purification and rebirth and a way to reconnect with the four earthly elements of air, fire, water, and earth.
Hanblecha: The Vision Quest
Deep meditations are observed to seek connection with spiritual guides and understand life’s purpose.
Wiwangwacipi: The Sun Dance
This special dance is mainly to demonstrate to a dancer, continuity between life and death, and that life is a series of cycles, truths and rebirths. The dance also shows how we’re all intertwined and dependent on one another. Some dances involve skin piercing as a way to offer personal sacrifice for the benefit of one’s family and community. The dancers fast for days, and the ceremony takes place over a four-day period and planning for it sometimes takes months. Depending on region, ceremonial details are protected to ensure correct conformity to the way of their ancestors.
Hindu Rites of Passage
Hinduism places high importance on family values and rites of passage. Even today, most Hindus observe the 16 samskaras, which originated thousands of years ago. Ceremonial rites of passage of an individual nurture feeling of brotherhood. They strongly believe that when a person is connected to his or her community they will be less likely to stray. Again, reflecting on such ceremonial passages with children can highlight their own stages and make them appreciate whatever they have. Hindus insist that a lack of samskaras gives rise to self-indulging in physical pleasures which leads to the degeneration of oneself and the society as a whole.
African Rites of Passage
African rites of passage use artifact and folklore to dramatize their personal life changes. Celebrations ensure community bonding, from coming of age ceremonies where youngsters undergo their initiation, to specific roles defined by age until adulthood in the mid-twenties and marriage. From seasonal transitions to life passages from ritual harvest blessings to first hunting trips to passages from childhood to adulthood. In almost every life stage, they appeal to the spirit world for guidance and ceremonial festivities mark each step. They serve as a community bond and a way to upkeep traditions. One of the most unique and colorful one is The Woodabe charm dance, when young men beautify themselves in what’s called the Yaake dance, to be selected as husbands and lovers.
Even though different, Native American, Catholic, Muslim, Judaic, Hindu and African, passage rituals seem to appreciate life and its stages. Embedding, early on, a reverence for life and an appreciation might lead to social engagement and responsibility. When rituals are shared and individuals are embraced and welcomed into a community, problems or challenges that might occur later on will be easier to tackle.