Rites of Passage

Presumably your education, like mine, included a discussion of rites
of passage. That your teacher discussed various cultures’ rituals,
along with a discussion of how our western culture also has rites of
passage: graduation, driver’s license, and so forth.

Now, maybe I’m slow, but it only recently occurred to me what function
these rites play in the life of a person, and society at large: they
mark transitions between one chapter and the next: switching from
child to adult, from bachelor to husband, from prince to king.

These are the points where the rules change. In most societies,
children are allowed to spend the day playing; adults are expected to
plow the fields or mend fishing nets. Children are allowed to run and
hide when raiders attack the village; adults are expected to help
defend it. Single people can quit their job and wander the world for a
year; family heads are expected to stay home and provide for their

From a society’s point of view, this makes sense: someone has to plow
the fields, someone has to defend the children, someone has to make
policy decisions, and so forth. If there’s a role for everyone and
everyone does their part, society works.

This also means that ceremonies like first communion or bar mitzvahs
aren’t really rites of passage in today’s society: a thirteen-year-old
Jew may say that he is a man as part of the ceremony, but in practice,
he’ll go back to the same school the next day as he did the day
before, and stay there for several more years, until he goes off to

Modern western society has similar chapter transitions: going off to
college, when you learn to live on your own without daily support from
your parents; marriage, when your plans become inextricably linked
with another person’s; learning to drive, when you are expected to
wield half a ton of steel without killing anyone. And so forth.

Chapter transitions also make sense for the individual, since they get
rid of a lot of possible ambiguity. You don’t have to figure out when
and how to transition from your child role to your adult role, or from
your carefree bachelor role to your breadwinner role. The change is
abrupt, and marked by a memorable ceremony. It often comes at a
predetermined time (like puberty) or is planned long in advance (like
marriage), so you have time to get ready for the transition.

Of course, in today’s American society (and in other countries as
well, I’m sure, but I’m most familiar with the US), a lot of
traditional rule changes have been blurred: people live with their SOs
for years — including having sex, raising children, and buying a
house — without getting married. Many offices allow you to wear
the same jeans and T-shirts as you wore throughout college (although
you’re encouraged to launder them more than once a semester).
Thirtysomethings play the same online games as teenagers do. A lot of
the hard rules of earlier societies have become optional.

By no means am I suggesting that we should return to a more rigid
society. I happen to like playing video games. And if you don’t live
with someone for a while, how can you tell whether you’ll be happy
married to that person, or whether your sexual tastes are aligned? And
some of the most impressive Lego structures are built by people far
older than the age on the box.

But I think it’s worth looking forward to upcoming life changes and
figuring out who you can and want to be before and after. Do you want
to gallivant around India for a year? It’s probably best to do that
before you settle into a steady job. Do you want to join a startup or
start your own business? Consider that it’ll probably mean long hours
for a few years, and you may go broke. So you probably don’t want to
bet the kids’ college fund on it. And speaking of kids, if you’re
raising any, you may want to consider what sorts of chapter
transitions they’ll be going through as well, and plan for those as

Consider, too, how to commemorate the event. Ideally this should be
something unique, memorable, and pleasant. By the time you retire,
you’ve probably seen enough office parties that they all start to blur
together. So go to Acapulco or Greece for a week to mark the occasion.
If you’re lucky, you’ll only be married once, so don’t just run down
to the registrar’s office and sign a marriage license; go all out and
have a bash to remember. And assuming that circumstances permit and
all parties are cool with it, you may even want to lose your virginity
the day you get your driver’s license, commemorating a new phase in
responsibility with an eminently memorable experience.