The Purpose of this Book
The world is a pretty scary and confusing place right now. Change is happening so fast. For many, it’s difficult to know who or what to trust. In the United States today, there has never been so much general distrust of traditional institutions: Our political system; our media; schools; the legal system; religious organizations; our science; our financial system; our police; and, at the end of the day, each other.
As change accelerates and trust diminishes, conspiracy theories fill the void. A shared understanding of truth itself breaks down. Young people look up at the adults in their lives, communities, and on digitally shared spaces, and see rampant hypocrisy everywhere. Saying one thing and acting the opposite. They see adults who seem to be absorbed with themselves and their issues, if not perceived enemies. What young people often don’t see very much, is a concerted effort among adults to sacrifice and come together to ensure a better, safer future for all their children.
This book is designed to provide an additional resource for counselors, higher education professionals, teachers, parents, business leaders, mentors, and other interested members of our communities regarding a most important responsibility: How to help young people successfully transition from college into adulthood. It is a book also meant for young people themselves, who may seek insight on how to prepare for both college and adulthood from a different point of view.
There are many wonderful written works on Coming of Age rites of passage, and many on the so-called Hero’s Journey. This book is unusual in that it synthesizes the two concepts into a framework for understanding how college can be seen as society’s most common Coming of Age rite of passage today, and how college might be redefined and refined to better prepare our young to not only find work, but also meaningful purpose. Purpose that is oriented towards serving not only the self, but communities and others in ways that can contribute to a safer, better future for all.
A Society in Crisis
It is early 2021 and the United States is experiencing multiple crises.
There is the massive public health crisis posed by COVID-19, which is projected to take over 400,000 lives by April, 20211. While 300 American servicemen died each day during World War II, compared to 11 for the Vietnam War and 2 for the Iraq War, 900+ Americans are succumbing daily due to causes related to COVID.
There is the related economic crisis wrought by this novel coronavirus, resulting in the tragic loss of work, business and even home by tens of millions of Americans. As of early November, close to 20 million2 laid-off workers are still requesting unemployment insurance assistance. Meanwhile, millions3 of our fellow citizens and neighbors have or are facing imminent foreclosure of or eviction from their homes.
Then there has been the flaring of the malignant crisis of racial injustice which— some 400 years after its importation to our lands—the viral murder of George Floyd4 starkly illuminated for all with hesitant eyes to see.
Compounding misery, multiple environmental catastrophes of historic natures have created exceptional hardship for millions more Americans. An unusually destructive Spring tornado and hailstorm season, a devastating Iowa ‘derecho’ or windstorm, battering and flooding from record numbers of named tropical storms and hurricanes, and unprecedented numbers of large-scale fires across the West (fueled by record-setting heat waves) have resulted in a year filled with the highest number5 of billion-dollar natural disasters in U.S. history.
This is not exactly an original perspective. Apart from virtually all other nations, ours was founded upon a conception of the nearly unfettered right to pursue individual liberty and happiness. Under the guise of equality, this conception has in binary practice pitted settlers against natives, Whites against people of color, Protestants against Catholics, science against faith, humans against nature, rural interests against urban, Democrats against Republicans, males against females, conservatives against liberals, straight against LGBTQ and young against old.
At this juncture in time, our society is an easy target for the rest of humanity. Where many other nations have found the collective desire and ability to unify6 in the face of the pandemic, ours has tragically failed7 due to a monumental abdication of governance and a confluence of self-defeating public half-measures.
This pandemic has served—as perhaps no other crisis in our history has save for the proliferation of slavery itself—as a mirror that has reflected and accentuated our worst attributes for the entire world to see. Entrenched polarization. Extreme inequality. Systemic racism. Scientific ignorance. Rampant selfishness.
And yet, even as much of the world looks upon us with varying degrees of disdain, disbelief and even pity, they are still transfixed by our struggles (indeed, the killing of Floyd followed by widespread protests throughout the U.S. swiftly triggered fellow protests8 in over 60 countries). Globally, millions are nostalgic for the leadership, inspiration, and opportunity we have long provided which they now see fading9 away. Where for generations we have essentially served—however imperfectly—as a beacon and haven of hope for aspiring dreamers around the world, we are increasingly viewed10 as a dysfunctional mess. What happened?
Collapse of a Unifying American Myth
Drawing from a work by Philip Gorski, commentator David Brooks posits that the enduring American story11 from the arrival of the Puritans into the heart of the 20th Century has been a reframing of the biblical story of Exodus. According to this narrative, our Founding Fathers and families escaped the bondage imposed by the Old World to establish a new promised land that in turn fulfilled their Judeo-Christian God’s providential plan. A promised land that offered justice, freedom, and prosperity for all who worked hard and abided by its laws.
The fatal defect12 in this myth is that freedom, justice, and equal opportunity were never meant to be fully afforded to anyone but white, heterosexual, non- disabled, Christian males in practice; preferably those who owned property13. The monstrous outcome of this inconsistency was that the American nation was built by forcibly removing and massacring14 the natives who already lived here on the one hand, with labor provided by millions of enslaved15 Black people on the other.
Despite its gross contradictions, this over-arching story of America largely prevailed into the 1960s16, as systematically reinforced through interlocking political, economic, educational, and cultural institutions. Since then, various movements have with uneven success organized for justice and equality on behalf of disadvantaged groups, within a larger world that has been interconnecting17 at an accelerating rate in terms of travel, trade, ideas, and technology. The U.S. itself has undergone tremendous demographic change; a nation that was roughly 80% White Christian in 1950 had become about 45% White Christian18 by 2018.
This coupling of increasingly organized calls for social justice with rapid sociocultural change has accordingly contributed to the weakening and growing inapplicability of the traditional American myth. In the vacuum that has been created, we now have four primary competing American narratives, according to19 the writer George Packer. As shared by David Brooks, they include the following.
First, there is what could be called the Republican establishment narrative that celebrates freedom in all its forms; a land of self-responsible free individuals ideally operating in a free market unconstrained by stifling and tyrannical governmental intervention and oversight. The challenge with this worldview is that it is heavy on personal freedom, very lite on personal responsibility to a common good. We are atomized consumers, entrepreneurs, workers, and taxpayers; not so much citizens.
Second is an emergent story popular in Silicon Valley and with other proponents of the Digital Revolution. We are an intimately connecting species that is out- growing obsolete border states, striving for a more open, flattened, and interconnected world. Fading are the old obstacles to progress including hierarchies and entrenched systems run by out-of-touch elites. This vision, however, leaves behind millions uncomfortable with such reliance on technology to guide our future and how such reliance could further exacerbate inequalities in our society.
Third is a compelling story of multicultural America that seeks to validate, celebrate, and empower every group that has been oppressed by White Christian America since before the founding of our nation. This narrative is especially prevalent in many of our schools from elementary to graduate. Individual identity is equated with group identity, which is often organized around the concept of struggle in relation to more privileged groups. Critical discussion is narrowly focused on how to overcome inequities. Necessary as such a process is to calling out and addressing systemic social injustice, however, it is often wanting in terms of building common ground with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. It values inclusion but, as Packer noted, doesn't really answer the question, "included into what?"
Fourth is essentially the vestige of the original American myth, as recast in reaction to a rapidly changing America and world. It has morphed into the story of America First, of Donald Trump and his ardent followers. It is the story of a country that has lost its way due to the contamination of 'the Other': foreigners, Muslims, immigrants, Democrats, LGBTQ people, global elites, Never-Trumpers, Blacks and Christians who have lost their conviction. To make America Great again, it is necessary to aggressively confront and fight the corrupting forces of pluralism, even if it means sacrificing traditional Christian values. Trump is our chosen battering ram and before him power is personified, and truth is bent to validate he and us.
Of course, any attempted categorization of tens of millions of Americans into such broad patterns of meaning is doomed to over-simplification. In reality you will find many Americans who exhibit overlapping characteristics of each (e.g. moderate Republicans who embrace a technological future; White evangelical Christians that fervently support Black Lives Matter ambitions; Trump voters who support LGBTQ and immigration causes; minority voters who find some agreement with White Trump supporters and so forth). However, such artificial groupings are useful for making meaning of how and why our society is so fragmented today and where we could conceivably start in terms of building common cause and understanding.
The problem for young people today is, how do they find an inspiring, guiding, and unifying narrative amidst these conflicting worldviews? One that does not perpetuate fragmentation, fear, and mistrust? Is it a wonder that young people hold less belief20 in our societal institutions than their parents and grandparents do (who themselves have gradually lost belief over time)? How do our young construct personal stories that relate themselves to the whole community and the Other?
The Human Thirst for Story
The human compulsion to organize and make narrative meaning of everyday experiences is universal21. We hunger for inspirational myth. Talking story22, as Hawaiians exemplify, is the oral, interactive process of sharing and processing experience that builds community over time and infuses living with spiritual value.
Humans across cultures are habitual storytellers and listeners. Our minds seem to be hard-wired to make narrative meaning of even inanimate objects, as a famous experiment from 194423 revealed. Storytelling has many vital uses24, including transmitting culture and knowledge, providing entertainment, imbuing our lives with structure and meaning, and even serving as a way to improve relations between people of differing backgrounds.
One study found that reading fiction significantly increased empathy25 toward others, including individuals initially considered as outsiders or ‘other’. Most teachers come to learn that the fastest way to lose your student audience is to lapse into a didactic and jargoned recitation of facts, figures and theories; whereas, to regain your listeners’ attention you need merely to share a coherent, relatable story26. Many of our most effective political and business leaders have long realized this, from Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, and Obama to Andrew Carnegie and TED talkers.
Americans are especially attracted to stories. Our preferred way to spend our leisure time is to watch programs on TV, video, or at the theater (at least during non-COVID periods), with almost 80% of us27 watching shows on any given day. When we engage in or view popular athletic events28, each game is structured in familiar 3- or 4-part periods that arguably follow traditional narrative arcs, featuring identifiable heroes and villains that align fans into ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ binaries. At work, storytelling29 metaphors often dominate discourse, commonly translating abstract business entities into relatable family-like teams; teams that are striving to achieve worthwhile goals on the path towards building stronger communities.
Over-arching stories that effectively connect disparate peoples to each other amid life’s ever-changing circumstances are termed ‘living myths’ by Joseph Campbell.
The Four Functions of a Living Myth
According to Campbell, who immersed himself in myths from around the world, over-arching stories of meaning that have managed to resonate with the people of a given society provide the following critical functions30:
1. Evokes a sense of awe and wonder in people regarding the great mystery that is their own existence. From a microscopic embryo that grows 10,000 times in size during its first 30 days of existence, into an autonomous creature that regrows its skin about every 27 days while guided through life with an organ containing roughly 86 billion neurons. And what is life in its most elemental form? An eating and absorption contest between millions of animal and plant species hurdling through space; upon conceivably the only location of sentient life in a universe composed of billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars and planets. How do we relate to all that? With meaning-making story.
2. Presents an image of the cosmos that retains a connection to the mystery of being, while providing a model and attendant explanations for life and the cosmos. Where do we come from? What makes us tick? What happens to us when we die? How do we stay alive and thrive amidst all the challenges in our lives? What are all these strange things around us and how do they relate to ourselves and each other? What makes us happy? A living myth answers these questions in real time, amidst constant change and challenge.
3. Validates and maintains a societal order through time and change, giving rise to customs, mores, traditions, and laws that bind and sustain societal connection. A vibrant over-arching story giving impetus to moral and ethical teachings from adults to young that justify how and why life should be lived; teachings flexible enough to incorporate new insights amid a changing world.
4. Teaches how to live a fulfilling life from birth to adolescence to adulthood to death from a personal, psychological perspective; to do so according to the dictates of one’s society and with awareness of the greater environmental and other influences and forces impacting one’s life and vice versa.
Per Campbell, when a myth no longer adequately performs all four functions for a substantial portion of a given society, it may come to be viewed as a questionable guide to understanding and living life. In other words, it may increasingly be viewed by skeptical members as a kind of lie or deception. The contemporary outcome of this distrust is the common dismissal of any narrative or concept as a ‘myth’ if it is deemed factually incorrect.
The Four Functions of a Living Myth
Evokes Wonder and Awe of Life and Cosmic Mystery
Relates Us to an Intelligible Framework of Reality
Validates and Maintains a Social Order through Time
Teaches Us How to Live a Fulfilling Life Through Life Stages
Regarding the four competing American stories above, none really meet all four criteria. The many forms of Christianity practiced today may each attempt to address all four functions, but science has largely assumed Function #2 for many while polarized legal and political powers have vied for Function #3 during our modern secularized times. Meanwhile, social constituencies as represented by organized churches, academia and governmental and legal institutions often clash in their vision for and practices on behalf of a desired commonwealth.
Campbell believed—as shared with interviewer Bill Moyers during their popular Power of Myth series—that modern life is simply changing too fast31 for a new myth to emerge that would perform all four functions for a rapidly globalizing nation and world; one that would necessarily include the entire planet and all of its peoples and ecosystems. When Moyers pressed him on how people could continue to develop and live in the absence of a shared story (i.e. Function #4), he replied it was up to each of us to construct our own32 unique stories. How? By drawing upon and synthesizing wisdom and knowledge sources we encounter. As offered by still compelling religious and spiritual teachings, scientific insights, caring parents, inspiring teachers and mentors, evocative writing, inspirational art and—most of all—our own life experiences and realizations.
Scholar Sharon Daloz Parks33 speaks eloquently of our lack of unifying myth: Meaning-making is distinctively challenged in today’s world. We live in a time “between stories.” The great cultural myths—religious, political, economic— that have guided our societies are now under severe review as our generations are asked to live at one of those great hinge times in history. We are contending with unprecedented conditions (e.g., breaking open the human genome, climate change, a global economy), and we now stand on new moral and ethical frontiers. (Nash, & Murray, 2010)34
The pressing question is, how do we create new stories of meaning that bind instead of divide? Including those related to transitioning into adulthood? In ways that are recognized not just by our families and cultural tribes but by our fractured larger society? The good news is, there is a solution: rites of passage.
Rites of Passage
What are rites of passage35? They are culturally informed ceremonies or events that sanctify (whether from religious or secular perspectives), affirm and celebrate key occasions in the life of a member of a given society. For millennia and across cultures, these communal rituals have signaled a transition from one developmental life stage to another, including birth, puberty, adulthood, marriage, eldership, and death. Rites are designed to bind and sustain communities and can exist even in the absence of a shared societal myth, as is evident today in multicultural societies such as the United States.
Rites of passage have taken on an amazing and often bewildering (from the perspective of other cultures) array of forms across the globe. However, they generally share three phases36, as defined37 by the late ethnographer Arnold van Gennep. These include separation, liminality, and incorporation.
Separation involves moving from one place or status to another. For example, leaving high school for life beyond high school, or moving out of one's parents' home into one's own abode. This phase may still be communally marked by a myriad of symbolic rituals today, such as high school graduation ceremonies, or the shaving of hair upon joining the military. The second liminal (transitional) phase is the period between states, where a given individual is between clearly demarcated stages or groups (for example, between childhood and adulthood).
The third phase of incorporation is characterized by communal acceptance of the given individual into the new stage or group, as characterized by such ritualized events as debutante balls or college graduation parties.
A central feature of these rites and their phases is a focus on life transition, or movement from one communally recognized stage of life to another. Generally speaking, three primary transitions across cultures include: From womb to birth; from childhood to adulthood; and, from life to death. This book concerns itself with the second of the three, which are also known and celebrated as 'Coming of Age' ceremonies (see here38 for some contemporary examples around the world)
Another important aspect of a rite of passage is its potential to provide structure and space for individuals to make meaning of life and their world. A way to offer a meta-narrative where the participating individual can situate and relate themselves to the people and world around them in ways that resonate within the given individual. From this perspective, rites of passage can be understood as comprising key elements of a given culture's myth or encompassing story that situates the culture itself within a mysterious cosmos.
A third important feature of traditional rites of passage has been their universality. Every member of the group or culture is expected to successfully transition, for the sake of the culture's very ongoing existence. And once the transition has taken place, there is no going back, without risk of severe social censure, punishment, or even ostracization and death (for the literal sake of the survival of the tribe or community during ancient times).
A fourth feature, as explicated in depth39 by Blumenkrantz and Goldstein, is their integrative function. Rites of passage are designed to connect and integrate a given initiate to the community in ways that create and sustain a sense of belonging between initiates and observing and sponsoring adults. As such, rites of passage serve to re-vitalize the entire community in a way that is consciously experienced by all participants. They can also be understood as helping a given community and culture sustain by harmonizing all of its participating members in relation to the supporting ecosystem. From an individual perspective, rites of passage help each member to holistically develop in spiritual, physical, and psychological ways; to become a complete individual. Such rites can occur over hours, days, weeks, months, or even years, depending on the group and culture.
Rites of Passage: Why They Matter