Rites of Passage are a Necessity: The Lobotomizing Effect of Unchallenging Childhood

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What would you die for? When did you know you were an adult? One hundred years ago, and certainly 10,000 years ago, these questions would be easy for anyone to answer. Today, most under 30 would be flummoxed and, likely, disingenuous in their responses. Most youth spend a great deal of time wearing masks of bravado and creating social media profiles that project passionate living and a broad circle of friends. But, in fact, youth are more lost and alienated than ever. How can you know who you are and what you are made of until you face adversity?  In our headlong drive for hedonistic pleasure, we’ve removed the impetus for growth and purpose that are foundational to the thriving human.

This morning as I rode my bike to work at the local high-school, I passed a group of students waiting at their bus stop. Picture six high-school students waiting for their school bus. You likely have memories of yourself doing the same. You picture kids standing on the corner laughing, joking, talking; being kids. Throw out that image completely. I saw what I see every morning: six kids, sitting (yes, sitting) on the curb silently scanning their phones. Heads tilted to the side lazily, faces numb to the world, thumbs swiping steadily in search of distraction. Each is a solitary island completely unconcerned for the life form sitting inches away. They never even registered the large, bald, red-bearded biker, until I was right next to them. Upon seeing one young man’s surprised recognition of who I was, I succumbed to the first grumpy old man comment that crossed my mind: “You could talk to each other, you know.”

I’m embarrassed by the comment. It contradicted all my personal expectations. I’m usually quite concerned about having a positive “emotional wake.” Yet, this morning I resorted to grumpy old man speak. Overcome with frustration, I pedaled away with a question bouncing around in my head: “What are we doing to our kids?”

“My dear child, I do not worry about the bleakness of life. I worry about the bleakness of having no challenges in life.”

–Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Letter to my Unborn Daughter

The past few generations experienced a developmental paradigm that prioritized all-encompassing protection and providing the maximum for each child. The privileges of adult responsibility became automatically transferred with the passage of time, while the capabilities and values that once defined adulthood, were never refined. The result is a dependent generation, increasingly unable to live up to their own vaguely defined value systems and increasingly passive about their integration into “the real world.” In fact, after the delayed developmental playground known as college, we now see over 85% of students move back home. It is not just a short term fix, either. The job site Indeed completed a survey in 2016 that showed a full 36% of college graduates planned to live back at home for at least a year. While this may be welcome by empty nesters searching to rediscover purpose, it goes against the spirit and needs of a strong generation. These perpetual training wheels are not a Utopian solution where all is ease, but a hollow world of mindless impulsivity.

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Until recently, every society had clearly defined rites of passage. These marked the shift into adulthood. While their outcome was a change in status that came with more rights, the far more important reason for these rituals was the competency they required, thus ensuring each generation became capable of the expectations for adulthood. These trials developed a person’s capacity to contribute up to a baseline level that ensured the future of the community. The values instilled served to further bond members of a society through mutual experience. Anyone who has survived intense team sports training or military style boot-camp understands the deep emotional connection from such experiences.

Despite their challenging nature, rites are almost universally looked back upon with a sense of gratitude for the transformation they prompt. While often difficult to willingly enter, significant challenges are the only doors to our self-realization. We cannot grow and approach our capability without experience. It is the hardships that create purpose, perspective, and self-awareness. We are far more passionate and fulfilled tomorrow, because of today’s challenge. While choosing temporary pleasure is always more comfortable in the moment, as a pattern it brings only a shallow, unimpressive life full of regret.  

Throughout history, most rites worked in accordance with our nature. They demanded physical literacy, mastery of the environment, and a propensity for movement. Furthermore, they instill inclinations towards purpose and contribution that create strong communities of thriving humans who are capable of heroism.

Some aspects of many historical rites were negative. At times, they normalized abuse and subjugation of minorities. With the agricultural revolution, came civilizations too large for egalitarian communities. There are barbaric examples of torturously brutal requirements, but the overwhelming majority of these rituals had great utility. To discount the essentiality of rites of passage for their negative aspects is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These experiences intentionally created the qualities that communities most valued in an attempt to produce generations capable of making a great future. They passed on values, inclinations, and perceptions that made fulfilled, passionate living far more likely.

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Only recently has it become possible for a community to continue to exist without directing all talents towards the greater community vision. All people had purpose- all were needed and thus all developed a mature sense of self-worth and personal meaning in their lives. They came to know the heroic capability within themselves as they were put into situations that tested their physical and mental mettle, and instilled a sense of their immense power. They knew what they would die for and lived liberated from the limits of constant risk aversion and dependency on comfort. Life was intentional and they felt clarity in how to create passion and impact. They had purpose beyond finding more net pleasure.

In many ways our world has made tremendous progress. It is a wonderful thing that we can expect to graduate high school without our existence being threatened. More wonderful still, our generation genuinely abhors bigotry. Yet, somewhere between the ancient Spartan’s wilderness survival ritual and the modern American’s peculiar practice of paying for their spoiled daughter’s car, phone, clothes, and college even after a life of no chores and subpar academic performance, we have lost ourselves. As of 2015, the second leading cause of death for both the 15-24 and 25-34 year old age brackets is suicide. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over the past 45 years suicide rates have gone up 60% with the greatest increases in developed nations. Likewise, depression, anxiety, and obesity skyrocket. In this time we’ve also seen a disturbing increase in school shootings. In the 1960’s there was one- the 1990’s 27- the 1990’s 58- and in the past decade we’ve seen over 120 school shootings. We have sterilized life of all risk and color only to leave ourselves as the greatest threat to our own existence.

Contrast these findings with those of Sebastian Junger’s social critique, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger notes an amazing pattern throughout history- humans love times that demand physical hardship and heroism. We thrive on crisis and survival. Repeatedly throughout history people abandon the comforts and wealth of modernity for the bonds of tribal life. During the colonization of the Americas, thousands left the colonies to join Native tribes, yet there are no recorded incidents of Natives doing the opposite. Likewise, despite the pains, losses, and personal sacrifices required, mental health has universally improved in times of disaster. Whether the Bosnian civil war, the Battle of Britain, or Hurricane Katrina, we’ve watched as humanity rallies together, finds meaning, and experiences improvements in emotional health and wellbeing. When interviewed later, survivors almost universally report missing the crisis. As Junger puts it, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It's time for that to end.”

It’s virtually impossible to feel necessary when you are incapable of standing on your own two feet. The self-esteem movement that promised to make our kids more positive and emotionally stable has produced the exact opposite- loneliness, entitlement, and a reflexive victim mentality.

"A soft, easy life is not worth living, if it impairs the fibre of brain and heart and muscle. We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage... For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out."

–Theodore Roosevelt

Today’s culture of participation trophies, grade inflation, and Barney’s message that “everyone is special” have significantly blurred the lines that once indicated our level of preparation and gave instructive feedback. Constructive criticism is re-branded “picking on my child” as parent and kid alike grow increasingly delusional and entitled. Certainly, messages can be offered diplomatically, as wise teachers have understood for eons. But the fact remains, real world preparation requires real experience and the opportunity to fall. As our culture increasingly turns childhood into a fantasy land bubbled from consequences and littered with unearned distractions, the masses will continue to be unprepared, uninspired, and incapable of autonomous, purpose driven lives. We give abundantly and shelter children from all hardship only to find that we’ve sown the seeds for lifelong narcissism, depression, anxiety, and dependency.

It certainly isn’t our kid’s fault. When a class of high school students does not know how to attach a file in an email- when they have never cooked a meal, managed money, or mowed the lawn- when the majority of freshman athletes cannot do a proper push-up, much less a cartwheel, or a pull-up- it is not their fault. Yet, it is them who will pay the price and not just with poor health, financial decisions, and job performance. This prolonged childhood of perpetual training wheels scarcely directs teens towards exploration of the existential questions that bring life direction and context. For most, death is just an abstract notion, like space travel or telepathy. Integrity and values are buzzwords, not clearly defined drivers. We have programmed youth for lives of mindless consumption and to seek the path of least resistance. We have sapped them of the joys of movement, production, and growth, creating expectations that ensure most live unfulfilled lives. Blame matters not. Now that we understand where we are, solutions are all that matter.

We’ve lost this concept: you don’t get to be an adult just because you claim to be one and you aren’t awarded a spot on varsity just because daddy thinks you are the best. You are not entitled to anything other than life and liberty. We need to restore the obvious. It is far better to get a B in an AP course that challenges us immensely on the road to growth, than to coast to an A in a regular level course. We need to bring back the climbing rope in P.E. Some will fail. Weaknesses will be revealed. We should all be so lucky. Socially ascribed statuses are arbitrary. It is the less quantifiable abilities that are truly relevant- character, grit, inclination to learn, toughness, and a propensity towards contribution.

The rites of passage today are overwhelmingly automatic upon the passage of time with little to do with achievement. If you don’t quit high-school, you will graduate. At age 18, we call you an adult even while parents continue to pay your bills and fight your battles. When are you an actual adult? When do you feel that sense of self-worth from knowing you have the power to create a life of impact?

Our phony self-esteem tactics serve only to preclude growth while instilling entitlement. Mine is a paradoxical message. Everyone is special in that they are capable of heroic strength and character, yet we are not special just for being alive. We can normalize obesity and tell people they are victims, but it doesn’t make them feel better. We can inflate grades and convince kids they are ready for the ever-changing work-force, but it doesn’t get them a job and it won’t make them an asset. People want and need challenge. They truly need constant growth or they will be unsatisfied, bored, and purposeless.

These aren’t just moralistic rosy recollections about how life was better in “the good old days.” These are the needs of the human spirit going unmet. From their earliest age, youth are striving to imitate their elders and become capable of more. They want to lift like mommy, mow the lawn like daddy, and shoot baskets like their older cousin. Then they are lobotomized with a world of distraction and promised they can have whatever they want.

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With our IHD blog, Justin and I are trying to create an often uncomfortable conversation about what humans need for a meaningful, fulfilling life. Justin has outlined the steps for Creating Your Own Rite of Passage, but society at large must begin to embrace the question. Let’s explore the vivid values that guide diverse communities and the rites of passage our societies must adopt to instill these values. Let’s create transformative experiences that bond a nation behind an ethos of strength, vitality, and contribution to a greater purpose. These are the inspiration for our original 6 IHD Courses.

This is the great opportunity of education. No question should carry more weight than this: What are the optimal developmental training experiences to create a generation of physically and mentally strong thriving citizens who are opportunistic, capable, growth-minded, and inclined to contribute their gifts towards creating a greater world?