The Rite Thing to Do

My sister eloped. Okay, not exactly, and it’s old news, really, since this was brought to mind by my recently receiving an invitation to the celebration of her twentieth anniversary. Which is interesting, because I wasn’t invited to her wedding.

See, she and her boyfriend were vacationing in Hawai’i, when they decided, on the spur of the moment, that this romantic tropical setting would be the ideal place to get married. They are far from the only ones who reach that conclusion, of course. Having made their decision, and arrangements, they then informed the families. Well, by families, I mean my parents. I wasn’t informed except by my father, who was, as is understandable, grousing long and loud about having to fly to Hawai’i at the last minute and at enormous expense.

He didn’t have to, of course. My older sister didn’t go, and was fine with that, despite having a very close relationship with my younger sister. “What’s the big deal?” she said. But my father understood, which is why, in fact, he did have to go. His daughter was getting married. For some reason, he felt that was an important thing to attend.

I didn’t go. There was no way I could afford it. And that hurt. She was my sister, and I had looked forward to being at her wedding, even standing up in her wedding party as she stood up in mine. It was important to me that she be there, and I would have thought it might be important to her that I be there for her. It wasn’t. But I think what hurt me even more than that was realizing that it wasn’t important to her that it was important to me.

That’s the thing about weddings. Despite all the “Bridezilla” stories, it’s not really about the bride, nor the couple, or anything like that. It’s about the people in attendance. It’s for the father who has dreamed about walking his little girl down the aisle since she was… well… a little girl. It’s about the family. It’s about the community, bearing witness to a couple passing through one of the last surviving rites of passage our society affords.

I use that term intentionally. A wedding is a moment of transition, one most people experience. It is a common experience. And there are rituals involved, the exchange of rings, the vows, the “march,” all that. That’s why a lot of people get very nervous at any attempt to change that. The pastor who officiated my wedding said he was very reluctant to allow a couple to mess with the ceremony too much, especially when it came to writing their own vows. We didn’t do that, although we did personalize a bit by opening the ceremony with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Oh yeah, and I sang at my own wedding. I’d sung Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” at all of my friends’ weddings, and I wanted it sung at mine, but by the same person who sang at everyone else’s. So yeah, I sang it at the beginning, and watched my wife come down the aisle toward me during the flute solo.

But we didn’t mess with things too much, and the pastor was right about that. He explained it. He pointed out that the familiarity of the vows binds us all together. Not just the couple, but the whole community. They are sharing something with everyone who has gone before. He pointed out that, when the bride and groom are up there reciting their vows, all the married people watching are silently remembering, and re-reciting, their own vows. Why do you think so many babies are born nine months after a major wedding?

This shared experience is why some conservatives are extremely uncomfortable at anything that would change the “definition” of marriage. And it’s why advocates of gay marriage fight so hard to be able to share the common experience as well. “It’s just a piece of paper,” people might say (my sister likely among them), but it’s so much more. It’s a step further into the adult world. And we have very few left.

Rites of passage tie us together, going through an experience knowing those around you went through it themselves. In earlier times it might involve a test or an ordeal, sometimes dangerous, and it’s okay with me that we have removed most of the danger. But we maintain the vestigial ritual in initiations into social organizations, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons or the Elks or whathaveyou. Those are dying out, but such traditions do live on, somewhat, with fraternity initiations, although the significance is increasingly lost in the face of ever more dangerous hazing. But perhaps that’s an attempt to cling to our true roots. Because part of the purpose of the ordeal is to come out of it stronger, more confident. Ready for the challenges that face you. Ready, in many cases, to truly be an adult.

We no longer have a clear delineation between child and adult. We lost the ritual where you officially cross the threshold between the two worlds. Certainly it still exists in some cultures. The Hispanic Quinceanera is one case, although it could be said that’s a remnant of Patriarchy, where a girl is announced as a now-available commodity. But it’s a very important moment in the girl’s life, where she really gets to feel like she’s a woman.

A better example is the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. This is the moment when a boy literally stands before the community and says, “Today I am a man.” He has studied and prepared, and his parents watch with pride, while everyone else nods and smiles, remembering their own passage. It is a welcoming into the adult world. And what’s important is that it was preceded by serious lessons on what it means to be a man. We used to teach our children how to be adults. Boys learned to take off their hats indoors, or when the flag is passing. They learned how to shake someone’s hand. They learned how to behave like a responsible adult. And, yes, this was true for girls as well, but the fact that this has largely disappeared is a more serious problem for boys.

The very recent concept of adolescence is actually causing difficulty for young people. It takes nearly a decade to transition from child to adult now. I’m not advocating we return to a time when children were put to work as soon as they could pick up a tool. But we take a long period where teens aren’t really sure if they are children or adults, nor which they want to be. It’s a troubled time, full of raging hormones. We treat them like children and they chafe because they are ready to be adults. Then we treat them like adults and they cower because they actually aren’t ready. And at no time do we show them a point of passage, one where yesterday they were children, and today they are adults.

Consider: you can work at age 15; drive at 16; go to an R-rated movie at 17 (not that that means anything anymore); vote, sign contracts and join the military at 18; and drink and gamble at 21. Which is adulthood? We could say 18, but that’s arbitrary, and mostly just corresponds to the end of universal education, another recent invention our society once thought essential for a robust democracy, but which, sadly, conservatives are now trying vigorously to tear down. Education is also, by the way, why legal age of consent laws tend to pin on age 18, a biologically ludicrous delay. We don’t want sexuality to distract “children” from their schooling. Of course, it does, far more than it would if we were tolerant of the reality that teens are sexual beings.

So what happens? Teens, whose bodies are screaming their readiness for adulthood, are cast adrift by a society who sees no value in rituals and transitions, with no one telling them who they are, or what they should do. They take their lessons from any place they can: books and movies and music and games and other media that isn’t there to strengthen society, but to make money by pandering to adults’ darkest instincts. And that’s how boys learn how they are “supposed” to treat girls, and girls learn how they are “expected” to respond. They learn to solve problems with violence. They learn it’s all about “me,” rather than about “us.”

And the teens eat it up. That is, I think, a symptom of a deeper hunger. More than just sex drives and bloodlust. Teen books are full of stories full of tests and ordeals; it’s a central theme, the “child” proving him or herself by overcoming a great challenge. We yearn for these rites of passage, especially children, who, unable to experience it for themselves, seek it out in their fiction. In that respect, I suppose it could be said that teen fiction is serving an important purpose, but maybe it shouldn’t have to carry the entire burden. Rather, we could be mindful that we are a community, a common people.

Social rituals and traditions connect us, and I think it’s no coincidence that, the more we abandon them, the more fragmented and fractious societies become. Rituals are the embodiment of order, and the absence of order is chaos. The authors of teen books offer many anarchic, dystopian societies, where the dignity of life and the spirit of community have lost their meaning. But rarely do they really explore how these societies came to be. That’s a shame, because I suspect that it would look much more familiar than we might like.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Rite Thing to Do

  1. A very thoughtful article, thank you. As a parent I do wonder if we are preparing our children for adult life well enough – and I’ve often felt that the whole concept of the ‘teenager’ (which, as you point out, is a relatively recent development) is a troublesome one, all too often neither one thing nor another.

    And thank you for raising the issue of gay marriage in a balanced and thoughtful way, resisting the temptation to demonise either side and instead recognising that the value of marriage is exactly the reason why some are so nervous of changing its traditional concept while others want to be included in it themselves. It’s a complex and sensitive issue, far more so than all too much of the gay- and God-bashing on the Internet appears interested in recognising.

    • Thank you for your response. One of my primary goals with this site is to generate discussion. I don’t have children, which gives me a unique perspective (though some would say I can’t possibly understand). I worry a lot about the way things are going for children and teens. I don’t want to make blanket accusations, but I can’t help noticing that things really took a turn when the baby boomers started having children. Their mantra was “question authority!” which got awkward when they realized they had become the authority, and many of them didn’t want to be. But that’s too simple

      And as for gay marriage, I’m straight, but I want to live in a world where people can love whoever they want, however they want, whenever they want, wherever they want. But being a knee-jerk moderate,I have the unfortunate tendency to see where both sides of an argument are right. It’s a good way to make extremists’ heads asplode.

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