I recently rediscovered “Finding Nemo”. We’ve had an unusually sad stretch of news lately: roiling conflict and bloodshed in Gaza, wholly unnecessary civil war in Ukraine, yet another killing of an unarmed African-American teen, and the heartrending death of one of my favorite comedic actors. I don’t generally turn away from difficult political and psychological events, but I finally cried “Uncle!”and introduced my kids to a plucky clownfish and his hilarious blue tang sidekick. Days later, I am still chuckling at Ellen Degeneres’ voiceover and her attempt at “speaking whale.” I find myself amazed that a Pixar film has prompted me to contemplate rites of passage.
When young Nemo is snatched from the ocean and brought to live in the tropical fish tank of a Sydney-based dentist, he’s thrown in with fish from a variety of pet stores and one mysterious Moorish idol fish from the “Big Blue” named Gill. Gill, the elder of the group, understands that to unify these disparate fish, they must all go through an initiation rite. It involves swimming to the top of “Mt. Wannahockaloogie” and then passing through an intense bubble storm caused by the filter, which they have dubbed “The Ring of Fire”. It is not dangerous, but it appears so. Nemo, delightfully proud of his accomplishment, is welcomed into the “bonds of tankhood”. Nemo’s disposition changes dramatically when he is received into the supportive group.
We all want to feel a sense of belonging and fellowship. Positive rites of passage and initiation can provide our children and teens with a means to center themselves in a world fraught with the perils of uncertainty and disconnection.
A dear friend recently decided to send her adolescent son to the group of camps in central Vermont where we’d both worked 20 years ago. It is a remarkable organization and one’s whose mission I still completely embrace and support. But, as is true with any multi-week residential summer camp, it is not cheap. Amid much anxiety, she signed him up before she and her husband had any idea how they would pay for it. She told me, “I realized this was more important in his development than wherever he’ll go to college.” She thought about his being on the cusp of adulthood and sensed that this was an absolutely critical summer for him; he needed meaningful rituals to both ease his transition into adulthood and help him embrace his wonderful qualities. She took a leap of faith and was able to do a work exchange to offset the cost of the camp. I saw them both at the end of his camp session; she’d made the right decision.
At this particular camp, each boy receives a special name at a ceremonial gathering of the entire camp. It is done at night in the firelight’s glow and many members of the camp community take turns speaking publicly about each boy’s special qualities. The rite is both deliberate and spontaneous. The staff and senior campers meet before the ceremony to discuss each boy and his unique personality traits. At the naming ceremony they then invite the younger boys in the group to add their reflections on what their friend contributes to the community. Although to an outsider it might seem hokey and contrived at times, it is not received this way by the adolescent boys. It is a sacred time imbued with meaning and tenderness. My male friends who attended this camp as boys (or worked there as adults) are still hailed by their camp name—decades later—by former campers and staff members. They never forget the time when the camp community held them up as absolutely special and critical to the group.
Arnold van Gennep—French ethnographer and folklorist—is often credited with articulating the importance of rites of passage ceremonies. His seminal work, “Les rites de passage”, published in 1909 was highly influential among Western anthropologists. But, let’s face it: Cultures around the globe have understood the importance of ritual and rites of passage for thousands of years. We have our own humdrum examples—graduation, earning your driver’s license among them. And certainly religious traditions have their own weightier ones: Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, etc. But there are so many youth in our communities who do not partake in any positive, meaningful rites of passage. We must do a better job of intentionally tethering them to something larger than themselves. Creating powerful rites of passage won’t solve all society’s ills, but it would guide many young people towards a clearer path to finding themselves.
Twenty summers ago, a colleague gave me a walking stick that he’d made for me. We were wilderness trip leaders together, and at the end of the summer, as part of an appreciation ceremony, he gave me this carefully crafted stick—ornamented with beautiful thread, strips of leather, and feathers—and told me what he appreciated about me. I have moved it over 15 times from home to home; I wouldn’t dream of tossing it out. When I see that stick, especially when I am gripped by doubt, I remember his belief in me and what he told me I contribute to the world.
Several months after he lovingly and purposefully fashioned this gift for me, he died in a fire that had been deliberately set. Of course, that stick means even more to me now than it did on the night he spoke of why he appreciated me. It was a rite of passage at its best, becoming more meaningful as the years pass: connecting me to him, to my younger self, to my community, and to the very best parts of me.