Rite of Passage

The Cherokee have a rite of passage for their youth. Whether the rite is still practiced I have no idea, but I hope it is. Apparently a father takes his boy into the wilderness, blindfolds him, and has him sit alone on a stump. The boy is to remain on the stump throughout the night in complete silence, never crying out for help no matter what happens. If he survives till morning he is granted the right to be called a man.

To be honest, compared with a lot of rites of passages I’ve heard over the years this one does not seem that extreme. I would definitely chose it over the Satere-Mawe Bullet Ant Initiation or the Vanatu Land Diving tradition any day.

land-diving

But if you’ve never spent the night alone in the woods its difficult to appreciate the Cherokee rite. I once spent 8 nights alone in the woods, unarmed and without food. I fell asleep most nights terrified of coyotes and bears, of trees swaying over my tent ready to break in the heavy winds of the nightly storms that came through, or of the possibility of people who may have seen my camp earlier in the day and staked me out for a good old fashion murder in the night.

Any rite of passage should include a good dose of fear, whether real or contrived (the realer the better). There’s something about experiencing your true fragility, your dependence on others in a hostile world, that quickly humbles any arrogant illusions of self-assurance, or delusions of independence.

I think the Cherokee man is the better for it. I think that by experiencing even one such rite of passage he is better equipped emotionally for the extreme existential leap from childhood to adulthood, a leap that we moderners stretch out for 5 or 6 years and call it adolescence. The reader might not be aware of this, but adolesence is a stage that was basically invented by developmental psychology after ritual had died out in the West to describe that weird twilight-zone between childhood and adulthood. We, the ritual-free orphans of the Enlightenment, wander aimlessly through this period where we are expected to navigate the gauntlet of adulthood while still children emotionally. It is fraught with danger and our solution to the problem is often psychopharmaceutical drugs and third party counseling, but that’s a different article.

Oh, and I forgot part of the rite – The Cherokee father is there the whole time and the boy doesn’t know it. When daylight breaks the boy removes his blindfold and finds that his father has been sitting there all night protecting him from any harm. What a beautiful rite. All the terror and insecurity necessary to traverse the chasm from boy to man, and all the security of communion with a father who loves his son enough to put him through it. Even if our culture wasn’t ruined with fatherlessness, it would be a miracle if under the guidance of current cultural norms a father would even conceive of this sort of rite to bring his son into manhood.

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3 thoughts on “Rite of Passage

  1. This was a good post. Rites of passage are the most glaring thing, but we have a general shortage of ritual in our civilization. How many people go to church every Sunday? How many people say Grace before eating? How many people have ANY structure in their day/week that is not dictated wholly by industry or commerce?

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