Musings on Rites of Passage

Several years ago I began a process of introspection to try to understand why I felt so dissatisfied with my life, so hollow, and why it felt as if I could not just “move on” and progress both personally and professionally. After some time and much hand-wringing I concluded that the problem is partly because the way we pass through life is lacking something, that the loss of a cultural “rite of passage” ritual to delineate between childhood and adulthood has for many people resulted in a stunting of their psychological growth.

Think about it: we spend twelve years in schooling, get handed a slip of paper and told we are an “adult”, and then head right back to another four to six years of the same. New responsibilities might arise, such as holding down a job or paying rent, but what real impact do those have? Certainly, I know many people who have been “independent” for several decades, yet are just as irresponsible and immature as they were when they left senior high and still living like their first day in college. Simply having to take care of your most basic daily needs and the legal right to get hammered are not, I believe, a sufficient gateway to truly being an “adult“.

Thus, I decided that I needed to seek out my Rubicon to cross. I decided that without a trial by fire which put all of my skills and knowledge to the test, I would be unable to move on from childhood to adulthood, I would continue to stagnate in this in-between as I saw in so many of my peers. I shifted goals often, moving from the grandiose (and almost certainly deadly) to the simple and achievable.

Eventually, after a long period of acquiring gear and the necessary skills, I decided to attempt a ten-day solo hike of the Stein Traverse. A trek through over one hundred kilometers of pristine alpine and untouched valley bottom, almost unheard of in BC. Even better, I thought to myself as I began the greyhound trip up to Pemberton, that for thousands of years this place had been used by the Nlaka’pamux for exactly what I wanted: a rite of passage. Young men and women would enter the Stein at the end of childhood, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for up to a year,  and when they emerged they were welcomed back into society as adults.

Going into my trip, I’d somewhat pushed my ideas about all this to the back of my mind, mostly out of embarrassment and the fear of being ridiculed. Having experienced what I did, I no longer feel the need for such self-censorship. In the end I cut my trip from ten days to six, pushing my body to (and far beyond) its physical limits in order to survive. I was tested, I was found wanting in many respects, and I was forced to confront my own mortality with no recourse and the very tangible possibility of death.

On my final day in the Stein I was greeted by the dawn as I walked past panel after panel of pictographs, many pre-dating even the Norse expeditions to North America, and the experience was something for which I lack any words which might do justice to it. This last day brought me full circle to my earlier musings however, and cemented my belief that a visceral challenge with clear failure and success states is absolutely necessary for personal development. It need not be anything remotely similar to what I did, in fact I would argue that the process of seeking out a challenge which spoke to me deeply was in itself a critical part of the ordeal.

Four days after I returned from this trip, while still recovering and processing everything I’d been through, I was struck by a car while I was riding my bicycle and sent cartwheeling through the air. Miraculously I walked away from the accident with a handful of scratches and bruises despite witnesses claiming that I visibly bounced off my head. This second near-death experience, in the span of a week, on the same day of the week, powerfully underscored and emphasized the personal lessons I learned during my trip.

Life is short, and shirking responsibility and challenge for idle amusement and bacchanalia is all together too easy in modern society. There is a lack of purpose, a lack of perspective, and a lack of understanding flowing as an undercurrent in everything we do. People are all too willing to take the easy road, especially when dealing with each other, and avoid confrontation of any sort at any cost. I would argue that a struggle, one that that forces you to face death and seriously think about the reality of it and then to survive it without any outside assistance or influence, is a necessity for vanquishing these childish tendencies.

4 thoughts on “Musings on Rites of Passage

  1. eblakefisher Reply

    I went through a similar realization in my mid 20’s and embarked on the Heather Trail in the north part of Manning Park to try and see how I’d handle over 70km’s of overnight camping, grueling hiking, foraging, and fishing over 3-4 days. It really stressed my physical limits and made me realize how close we are to death in the wild. Especially when some wolves stalk you throughout.

    A few months later after the fall had set in, I was nearly killed while driving in New West by a drunk driver who sped through a red light and ripped off the front of my car. In my recovery and dumbstruck realizations to come, I realized that I needed to start taking things more seriously and that my invincibility complexes needed to be questioned.

    Adulthood, in my opinion, is a matter of understanding what experiences you would like to have and to take responsibility for your own actions. The ability to live ahead rather than just in the present. A teenager is happy to have the present experience but concepts of the future either terrify or confuse. A lot of adults often go on about their retirement, or plans for travel or what they’re saving and working towards. It’s important to convert pessimism/nihilism about life into a stoic work drive or blind optimism. It’ll feel fake at first but if you’re dedicated towards a goal it’ll eventually take.

    It’s something I’m running through lately. I have trouble focusing on my own issues and get blitzed by the world around me and the negativity and hopelessness that feels ever-present.

    When you are able to spend sometime alone in the elements, you realize that you should always focus a little more on the things that really matter.

    1. Ryan Reply

      Word, my friend. It’s reassuring to hear that I’m not just speaking from the addled position of a lingering concussion!

  2. Kent Reply

    I don’t know if I ever told you this story, but of course I did the same thing in my mid 20s. It lasted nearly 5 years. It was the reason for my work with r/van.

    And once I stepped away from that project, it came back.

    Then, a few weeks ago during one of my Wednesday lunch conversations about economics and social studies, a friend of mine mentioned the following article:

    This got me wondering if this listlessness has always been a part of the male mental growth, or if it’s a product of this growth in being absorbed in lives that have no meaning to us. It seems like this all started during the birth of the modern age, during which the cultural role of “men” changed from the classically masculine tasks of “production” or “destruction” and switched to “optimization”. Small changes, that improve something pre-existing.

    I know all three of us work in “optimization” jobs. That is to say, our entire reason for working is to optimize the processes of a company so that they run a little more efficiently. We don’t actually produce anything, we don’t add anything to the world around us. We just optimize what’s there.

    You know what’s scary? This kind of job now makes up 3/4 of the job market. We’re a generation of editors.

    And it’s only going to get worse.

    1. Ryan Reply

      Doing nothing except copy and paste the same data into a spreadsheet, 8 hours a day, for five years, has certainly not been a motivating element in my life. That I started doing it directly out of highschool, with no firm delineating event between childhood and adulthood, is definitely a contributing factor.

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