“Deprive young people of a rite of passage into the social order and they will look for a rite of passage out of it…The effect of current policies has been to subsidize out-of-wedlock births, to remake marriage as a contract of cohabitation, and to drive religion, which is the true guardian of rites of passage, from the public sphere. Those policies have been embarked on with the best of intentions, but with a remarkable indifference to what we know of human nature.”
~ Roger Scruton
What is adulthood? We have no idea, of course. No one does. All we know is that that’s what we are—we are “adults.”
So ignorant are we all on the subject that we decided to put in place a law to tell us who is and is not an adult. Age eighteen sounded about right. That’s completely arbitrary though, and we know it. That’s why we continue to forbid so-called adults from doing things as simple as drinking alcohol. We feel the need to be cautious when dealing with this “adulthood” thing which is so elusive and mysterious to us.
It weighs on us though, this ignorance about our state in life, always wondering whether we are boys, girls, men, women, or just hovering in some intermediate state. This is yet another entirely new problem, suffered by no civilization before us. And here again we can see the cause in the same poisonous root: abstraction. Here as everywhere else we have withdrawn into our heads to try and find security in a reality which has become absurd.
Remember that man is now a “person,” and a person contains within it no real qualitative distinctions. In our agnosticism we gave up on that whole effort, the effort at making distinctions between things, because it terrified us. We cannot even say for certain if a person is a man or woman, remember? It only makes sense that, along with the loss of all our other certainties, we would lose our ability to distinguish between “child” and “adult.” That’s just one more qualitative distinction, and it must go out the window with all the others, no matter how much we need it. And we need it badly.
Everyone needs to know where he stands in life. He needs to be provided with methods and instruction through which he can learn to align his inner world with the world outside of him, teaching him how to deal with the struggles that will inevitably weigh upon him in that world.
What good does it do a man if an external law says to him: “Happy birthday! You turned a certain age and now you are a man!” This tells him nothing about himself, only about exterior things. It tells him that the world will now treat him differently, but it does not in any way explain to him how he himself has changed, how he has suddenly become adequate to these new circumstances, and why he should now be expected to meet what, the day before, was considered too great a burden for him to shoulder. A dramatically new degree of accountability is simply applied externally to a “person” who may or may not have graduated to a higher state of being.
Any hint that a particular youth may not be equipped for the task automatically registers as shame and is met with disdain. If you aren’t ready, you only have yourself to blame—that’s what we’re told.
Oh how our elders love to say: “You are eighteen, you are a man, now act like it!”
“Act like what?”—we respond.
“You know…like that…like a man!”
And it is at that moment that we realize they have no idea what they are talking about.
It has been said that “indignation is the soul’s response to doubt about its own.” By making our elders conscious of their own ignorance about what it means to be a man—both in the general and the developmental sense—we ignite indignation, for which we must suffer the consequences.
The same goes for women, though of course in a different way. Regardless of gender, then, the message is clear: adulthood is something that is supposed to occur naturally and automatically with no special affirmation, intervention, or graduation. According to our civilization, adulthood is not something to be facilitated; it is only something to be acknowledged legally for the sake of categorization and social organization.
To begin to understand this crisis, we must again speak of individualism. If we do not understand this existential, spiritual, and psychological plague, we will make no progress. Here, in the realm of human development, the contemporary man suffers most acutely and obviously its repercussions; here individualism undermines itself and brings civilization itself to a halt.
The problem is one of deprivation. That’s what individualism is: it is a deprivation of cooperation, proper peer relations, and cultural supports. Individualism suffocates the process of spiritual and mental growth by limiting each to what he himself brings to the table, which is never very much. It works the same for entire generations.
Let us examine the process broadly:
In order for a generation to successfully achieve the transition from childhood to adulthood—in order to make that qualitative leap—three things are required: 1) a supporting and reinforcing culture, 2) a group of caring, experienced elders to guide the way, and 3) the empathy and companionship of their peers.
These three requirements must all be present within the actual context of graduation into adulthood. That they exist generally in a society is irrelevant.
So first, in regard to culture, each generation needs a specific and colorful framework in which they may develop, mature, and take advantage of guidance as they grapple with maturity. Because of our deep and near universal mentality of individualism, this aspect of the “coming of age” process is totally non-existent.
In an individualistic society each man’s fate is entirely in his own hands. No one owes him anything; but more than that, there is an almost mystical belief that, even if someone wanted to help his neighbor with some great personal struggle, he couldn’t do it. It’s as if we believe we can’t touch each other in that way, even if we wanted to.
Thus, in regard to the would-be man, his neighbors are not only absolved of any assistance they traditionally may have owed him in the journey, but he is also made very aware that he should never have needed their assistance in the first place. We say that the young man should be able to transform himself from child to adult entirely without any beaten path designed specifically to assist for that purpose. You are left to your own devices.
Without culture, the remaining two requirements (the guidance of elders and companionship of peers) naturally fall apart. They rested on the first.
The elders forget that it was ever their job to lead the young through the moment of transition. They were once given this task consciously and with great fanfare. Each year they proudly led the graduates across the intimidating and precarious abyss between child to adult. It wasn’t just for fun and ceremony. Their guidance was considered vital, and their experience was life-saving.
But what’s more, and perhaps what is even more foreign to our mentality, is that their acknowledgment was also vital. They not only must guide the young across the bridge, but also must stand with them on the other side and affirm their success. Adulthood was a credential, and it came from other adults, not from any abstract law.
Today, because the elders believe that adulthood just “comes” at a certain age, they can only offer surprise, frustration, and anger at the fact that it never comes. They blame the youth exclusively, not knowing that their own absence and condemnation is a profoundly undermining force in the failure.
This also creates the problem of “surrogate initiations.” Beneath all the individualistic rationalization, there still exists amongst parents a strong desire to see their children become adults. Even though their individualistic mentality denies their ability to facilitate such a transition, it persists nonetheless. Because it persists, it sooner or later finds unconscious expression in dangerous ways, such as when “recreational activities” like youth sports are given a shamefully exaggerated importance in the social life. You see, we cannot help but acknowledge that there is something in this struggle for victory over some obstacle that is good for young people, but because we don’t know exactly what we are admiring, we fail to see the obvious: that an infatuation with “sports” cannot get the job done.
Moving now to the third requirement, which is peer support, we can see that, lacking both a social framework and a group of wise guides, each generation remains atomized and estranged, seeking something, but unsure of what it seeks. Camaraderie of the young evaporates. We can no longer cling to each other as we endure the vicissitudes of “growing up.” We are individuals. We cannot empathize even with those closest to our condition.
Here surrogate initiations enter the picture once again. Resourceful as young people tend to be, and feeling in their depths the need for a dramatic transition—something more experiential than some abstract legal acknowledgment—they develop new “rites” and attempt to force themselves, often violently, through these rites and into adulthood.
What was once a community affair, planned and conducted with purpose and within conditions of relative safety, guided by the wise and shared with one’s fellows, now takes place willy-nilly and in the dark.
Sex, for example, is probably the most widely utilized surrogate initiation. In fact, phrases like “right of passage” and “coming of age” almost automatically make the modern mind go to sex. That is because these phrases have taken on an exclusively sexual connotation.
We see every day the results of the “sex right”—this unconscious sex initiation—through the problems of sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancies, unwed mothers, and absentee or irresponsible fathers. To this the elders have reacted with typical blind futility, trying to remedy the problem by teaching a purely physiological kind of sex to children in school.
We already know the results of that sort of “sex ed.” Without taking into account all the non-physical considerations involved with sex, the effort backfires. “Sex-ed” creates a child who then goes forth eating the rind and discarding the fruit—missing the best parts of things and remaining empty. Rinds don’t nourish. And so, after the failures of sex-ed, we find abortion. That’s what passes for progress today: solving human problems by destroying human life.
While the sex initiation does violence to both men and women, the other surrogates seem to have greater impact on men. The reason for this is obvious. There is just something in the polarity of the masculine soul that seeks initiation almost violently. A man cannot rest without it. Man is the pioneer, after all. He is the warrior. He therefore must know when, how, and why he is a man, and he will have that affirmation one way or another.
Some men express this need in humorously obvious ways, such as driving a vehicle that is large or loud beyond all reason; some men, again, look to sex; some take an inordinate interest in sports or hunting; some take drugs; some get drunk; some get drunk and fight; some rebel; most find some odd combination of all these. Street gangs and their infamous pseudo-initiations are nothing but a very obvious and aggressive expression of this need, writ large for us to stare at wide-eyed and aghast. We must not lie to ourselves and think that simply because “gang beatings” are extreme that they are unique.
The biggest difficulty with all these surrogate initiations is that they are sought and acted out unconsciously. This means that they can neither serve their purpose nor be controlled within safe limits. They are just traumatic experiences sought in an effort to satisfy a valid desire, but doomed from the start to undermine the participant. They are truly counterproductive. Rather than leading to a stable adulthood, which is the goal, they preclude the possibility of it ever happening. They lead to prison, single parenthood, injury, degradation, addiction, or death. They short-circuit an initially valid aspiration and drive the person into self-destruction.
That is our situation: deprived of culture, abandoned by our guides, and isolated from our fellows, we travel alone. Most of us never reach the destination. We never cross that bridge into the land of men and women. It’s like someone forgot what the bridge was for, and so they set it on fire. Now we just feel the cold air rushing out of chasm and dream of what the other side must be like. We are not children, but neither do we feel like whole men, or confident women. We simply exist.