Cave paintings have been suggested as an ancient means to confront anxiety

In which the author suggests that the lack of initiation rites in modern society contributes to the prevalence of anxiety amongst new adults.

The Two Sides of Adulthood

Everyone who lives long enough becomes an adult. It’s a natural process which changes us irreversibly, from which the only escape is a premature death.

And yet, for all its certainty, so many of us grapple with what it means to be an adult. Some of us feel inadequate simply to be as old as we are. It’s hard to say whether or not this has always been the case,* but one thing is clear: the age at which social customs are deemed appropriate, seem to move from generation to generation.

Where once 16 was an acceptable age for marriage, the new trend seems to be approaching 30. Where men once joined their fathers in the hunt at age 14, we nowadays enter the workforce at 22.

Our biology hasn’t changed; we still hit puberty around 12, and we still reach maturity around 18. Clearly, adulthood isn’t just physical, though; the delay of social customs would suggest that there’s a mental side too, and that it’s not triggered at a fixed point in our lives, like the physical side.

Coming of Age in the Ancient World

We think of rites as celebration of the transition from childhood to adulthood. If we look back to some older rites, such as the Australian Aranda puberty rites, we also see extreme examples of circumcision, fasting, solitude and beatings.1 The celebration is there, but the individual who is coming of age is removed from it in solitude. Something else must be at work here.

Older society understood that a child does not become an adult merely by turning 18. The rite of passage is a tool used by older societies to cause the transition from childhood to adulthood.

They are given clothes and markings that only adults are allowed to wear, and they take a new name, but these are only markers of something more important: the ordeal.

It seems cruel to modern sensibilities, but it’s not without a point. Primitive society understood the anxiety that comes with an important shift in life. Humans are not built to step outside of their comfort zone. They mitigated this by forcing the individual outside of their small comfort zone, and throwing danger at them. It is controlled enough to keep them alive,§ but the individual, who doesn’t know any better, is literally facing death.

Pictured - Cecil kills a part of himself in order to be reborn as a paladin

The symbolism is evident in mythology video games: Cecil kills a dark knight (his old self) before he can take on his new role as a Paladin. As Jung describes it, the rituals ‘transform a human into a new – a future – human, and to allow the old forms of life to die away.’2

The experience of the ordeal, shared only by you and the other adults proves you are the same. No longer can you expect them to shield you from harm, since now you are one of them. In fact, when harm comes to the village, you too are now responsible for protecting the non-adults from harm. But having faced death, there is very little your comfort zone shouldn’t cover.

Coming of Age in the Modern World

The ordeal would violate a modern individual’s rights, so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t show up in modern rituals. What we’re left with is pure ceremony that sometimes includes clothes and a new name. With the recent jettison of religious though, even those ceremonies are disappearing.

We still observe 16ths, 18ths and 21sts, but another innovation has damaged these: the social independence of children from their parents. Elders no longer conduct an individual’s rites; the job is left to their peers, who are not yet experienced adults. A hunter should be initiated by those who understand the hunt. Unfortunately, our modern hunter is initiated by those who still forage for berries, and have naught a clue about the adult world.

Regardless, turning 18 secures all the rights and responsibilities of a competent adult, but without any mechanism in place to ensure competence. Naturally, anxiety will arise when an individual feels these responsibilities have come prematurely.

Society’s lowered expectations of young adults have tempered this somewhat, but now we are drifting ambiguously from childhood to adulthood, where one bit at a time, we take little steps outside of our comfort zone and slowly prove to ourselves that we have what it takes. Eventually, we might realise that other adults don’t really know what they’re doing either, and we start to relax.

Anxiety as Natural

We don’t condemn an infant for it’s inability to walk; we understand that it’s a necessary fact of their development, and we give them appropriate support. So why do we condemn a child when they are unable to take their first steps into the adult world? Instead of condemning anxiety as a character flaw, maybe we should see it as a fact of human nature to be overcome with appropriate support.

Where the old society would help (or force) us to conquer fear, today we’re left to sink or swim by it. Having outgrown the old ways, we have cast them aside where we should have adapted them. Now we are left with a protracted adulthood which, for some, is a time of exploration and positive development; but, for others, is a period of uncertainty and doubt, to which the natural response is retreat.

As Jung cautions, ‘it would be a serious misunderstanding to confuse the existence of [personal dilemmas] with neurosis.’ If we could understand that anxiety isn’t necessarily a fixed character flaw, but a symptom of something that can be addressed and eased, it might not be so disconcerting a part of modern society.

Footnotes

* Although Alan Watts and others have termed this era ‘The Age of Anxiety’.

† As reflected in our legal system.

‡ Even today, the Baffin Island natives begin their hunting career at 12.

§ Though they may very well be close to death.

‖ Notwithstanding PTSD, which I might look at some other time.

¶ Consider that it is socially inappropriate for an 18 year old to enlist their mother’s help when opening their first bank account.

References

1. Joseph Campbell. Primitive Mythology. 1951.

2. Carl G. Jung. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. 1933.