Opinion » John Rember

Rites of Passage

Defining our own mile markers


Last fall, after a lot of hesitation and anxiety, I signed up for Social Security. I did so after our financial adviser said that if I waited and signed up for full retirement at 66, I'd be 87 before my benefits would exceed what they would be if I signed up at 62.

"Think of how much you're going to enjoy that extra money when you're 87," he said.

Still, I put it off for a couple of months. Social Security seemed like an unwelcome rite of passage. Before you start getting that monthly check, you're living in a world where you could be somebody. Whoever buys Tamarack could hire you to put the resort back on its feet. Halliburton could hire you to design fracking procedures that wouldn't destroy the water supplies of farmers. Ford could make you the spokesperson for its new line of F-150s, and let you keep the hat and the boots and belt buckle when the job was over. President Barack Obama, noting your plain-spoken English and common sense, could appoint you to the Supreme Court, where you could write the opinions that would guarantee voting rights for poor people, strip corporations of personhood and make Rupert Murdoch go back to Australia for nine years to wait for a visa to enter this country.

But after that first Social Security check, it's over. You build shelves in the garage. You print up business cards that declare you a consultant. You check out the thick works of academic historians from the library, and fall asleep with your nose stuck between the forewords and the first chapters. Your wisdom, such as it is, comes from song lyrics popular in the 1970s. You wander around town, noting that young people look younger than you did when you were that age, and that there's something sick and wrong about a man in his 30s wearing short pants and riding a skateboard down the sidewalk. You rant about tattoos on the shoulders and lower legs of otherwise attractive young women.

At least that's what I thought you did. It hasn't worked that way. What I thought was a rite of passage has turned out to be just a monthly check from the government. My brain has not stopped working. The aged boys on skateboards sometimes look like vital young men out embracing the world, although it helps if I've been reading Walt Whitman before I dodge them on the bike paths. Tattoos on young women can look quite attractive, although I confess that some of them made me hope their tattooist quit tattooing after a year or two and did something he or she was good at.

Once, in a freshman comp class at the College of Idaho, two of my female students announced that after class they were going to get tramp stamps across their lower backs. They weren't sure what they would be, although they were leaning toward a flattened X made up of lightning bolts, or double-headed eagles with wings outspread, or "something Art Deco."

"Whatever it is," I told them, "make sure it'll look good on your butt. Because that's where it's going to be in 20 years."

They decided not to get the tattoos. I now and then hear from their mothers, who thank me yet again for my plain-spoken English and common sense.

Which brings us again to rites of passage. We live in a culture where rites of passage have lost meaning and permanence. You can get your driver's license, but it can be taken away. You can get married, but you can get unmarried. Graduation ceremonies--when they haven't been robbed of meaning by previous graduations from junior high, elementary school and preschool--deliver you, often enough, not to adulthood, but to an infantilizing world of unemployment and impossible loan repayments. You can be confirmed in religion, but you can lose your faith to scientific materialism. You can go to war, but you can come home to a world that provides few post-war identities for warriors.

No wonder people are drawn to tattoos, because they are a do-it-yourself rite of passage. Leaving home, a divorce or an overseas deployment can all be made official by a tattoo. You are a different person after than before. But diplomas, certificates, legal decrees and oaths in front of hundreds of witnesses--not so much.

In Carl Jung's autobiography, he wrote little of his chronological, physical life. Instead, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections records moments when he felt the gods move beneath the surface of life, and moments when dense bits of the unconscious flooded into his awareness. These were the kind of pivot points he found important. Without them, people cannot grow up. Without them, people cannot be sane.

It's hard enough to grow up in a culture that provides meaningful rites of passage. When the culture sucks the meaning out of things, as ours does, it's nearly impossible. Hence the aged boys and girls, the compulsive focus on things that gave pleasure at 17, the obsession with spectator sports, the preference for one's buddies or women's group over one's spouse, the body as surgically alterable terrain rather than housing for the spirit.

If I ever run an old people's home--not that I will--there would be an elaborate induction ceremony. It would say, in effect: "Welcome to adulthood. Your life has been long and hard, and you've spent much of it doing meaningless things in meaningless circumstances. But now you have time to add meaning to your life. Look for the things that move your heart. Wonder at the separate existence of other human beings. Learn from the people around you. If you succeed at making meaning in your life, share that meaning with others."

And that would just be the ceremony for new employees.