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Trevor Stone's Journal
Those who can, do. The rest hyperlink.
Rights of Passage 
23rd-Jul-2002 02:00 am
Trevor baby stare
I have for some time believed that small communal societies would be the most psychologically healthy way for people to live. It's communism, but not the Soviet monument to beaurocracy and leader psychosis seen by the 20th Century. The advantages of such a system are numerous and rest largely on the fact that everyone knows and cares about everyone else. Case in point:

In the law, we recognize that young people are not yet prepared to make certain decisions -- the decision to responsibly use substances, the wealth of mature decisions needed to drive safely, the decision of whom to have sex with and when, and so on. But anyone with even a few acquaintances will acknowledge the arbitrarity of the ages of 21, 16, and 18. High schools, while not full of, do contain examples of young people who can fuck with all required maturity, situational understanding, and psychological soundness. Meanwile, every college can attest that countless 22-year-olds have yet to learn how to drink and think at the same time. Yet the demand for a method of categorizing those able to decide and those unable seems legitimate -- no one would advocate treating the six-year-old's declaration that he would join the army and fight the terrorists with the same consideration as they would a 20-year-old's pledge to join the service. A contract signed by the former is cute, by the latter it is binding.

The commune offers what the national law cannot provide -- a way for distinguishing children (or those who carry not the freedoms and responsibilities) from adults (who do) in a non-arbitrary manner: initiation. When a child's elders know her and watch her development, they can perform the rituals of rites of passage, which at the same time teach the initiate her new responsibilities, show her her new freedoms, and signify her new social role to the initiate and the society. Since this is done in a close environment, the elders, perhaps even in consultation with the individual, know when the pupil is ready. Without close community and without shared traditions, such as changed dress or bodily mutilation upon initiation, a society of anonymity cannot call upon such an advantage. A bouncer cannot be expected to accept a letter from a teen's parents indicating that he has often had a glass of wine with dinner, nor can the woman claim in court that her young consort was capable of making sexual decisions, for he had undergone ritual circumcision. Exhibit A would not be allowed.

Rites of passage persist today, but without the gravity nor efficacy that they deserve. At 16 the birthday girl strides into the DMV. At 21 his friends lead her to the bar and carry her home. In late August, millions of parents give a hug to their children as they set off on the new path of college. But rarely are the themes of such a step even symbolized, let alone explicitly acknowledged. Rather, the child waves with ambiguity and turns to his new peers still attached to the past and unclear of his role in the future.

Even religion, where ritual and ancient ways often remain, if hidden beneath the surface, falls prey to the automatic turn-over. Baptism, Confirmation, the Bar Mitzvah, happen at specific times based on the birth of the individual, not his spiritual development. Different people grow at different rates -- many abandon the church after confirming because they finally reached a critical stage in development, and should only have been questioned for confirmation, providing a negative answer, at that time. In a few weeks time I will initiate into the Wiccan tradition, a step which has no tie to absolute chronology, but which was set by my own decision (and just happens to coincide with Hiroshima Day). I decided I wanted to learn to drive at age 19, and decided to finally get my license again at 21. My parents stopped worrying about where I was when they hadn't heard from me after I'd proved myself mature, not because I'd reached the magical age where one can buy lotto tickets.

Interestingly, (most) colleges recognize this. Four years of enrollment doesn't guarantee a degree. Students must complete a certain number, and certain types, of classes, demonstrating their readiness for the next stage. Unfortunately, in many public schools this practice has been lost -- four years with your ass on plastic guarantees a diploma, even if you can't read and think, like an embarrasing majority of Harvard grads, that the summer is warm because the Earth is closer to the Sun.
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