Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Initiation rites

Coming home from an African art exhibition today I got to thinking about rites of passage and how they play the role of landmarks and boundaries in people’s lives. And I realized they’ve been blurred and transformed so much we don’t know when we’re past a milestone anymore. Where is that ceremony for entering adulthood? How do we know that society welcomes us as full contributing members? And are there different rites for different aspects of our lives?

Of course, the most classical ones remain the coming of age parties. Some have a sweet sixteen, we have a big eighteen party, other cultures have full-fledged rituals of initiation that include separation from the family and learning what adulthood is all about. But in our society, are we really made privy to grown-up life? Not really. It’s a great thing that we are encouraged to figure it out on our own and build our own definitions of being an adult. Crossing to the other side might happen when we leave our parents’ house, or when we get a family of our own, or when we get a job or finish school. Or whatever we choose to see as a landmark. Finishing school, by the way, is a pretty common one. As I wrote a while back, it’s when former generations expected they would find employment, move into their own homes and start a family. But people now are marrying older, are traveling a lot or studying for a longer period of time. So it doesn’t really apply to as many people anymore. Although, if I may make a short comment, even this view is a bit too centered on our own cultural experience. In some cultures marriage comes first, at a very early age and it’s a rite of passage to adulthood as well. In others it’s strictly a question of coming of age and all the rest can follow only after being introduced to society as an adult.

But what about love life rites of passage? I amused myself trying to figure out when did I actually start dating. Because if it was when I had my first “boyfriend”, it means I’ve been doing it for a really long time. When I was in 5th grade a classmate sent me a piece of paper asking if I wanted to be his girlfriend. I wrote back yes and a while later he sent me a Valentine card and we went for a walk around the block. And that was it, we didn’t even hold hands. Could it have started when I had my first kiss? Or my first “I love you”? Or my first date? That would be weird, because I had a couple of committed long term relationships before I even went on a real first date. So when did it start? And moreover, is it going to end? Not making a big deal out of serious dating anymore, as we are no longer pressured by time or society to marry in our 20s, we’ve grown to treat it so shallow. We “try on” people, see if they fit. We actually run from commitment because we are scared of ending up with the next best thing. It’s a great thing that we are allowed to choose and experience, but the question is if we see the larger picture and whether we actually choose to enjoy all the opportunities that cross our path or we just ended up in a vicious circle of bad choices, when all we wanted was somebody to cross the borders with.

I’m not saying I want to live in a rigid society. It’s just that some sense of tradition would be nice and I’d like it if there were some rules and boundaries I can then choose to rebel against. I know that they haven’t disappeared completely and that we still have unwritten rules we live our lives by. But now the limits are so much wider this freedom feels overwhelming sometimes. Or it’s maybe just me, after all I am just a conformist little girl…

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