"Hey! Did I Hear You Say You're Leading Rites of Passage?"
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
While I have been creating and enacting rituals since my teens, it was incognito until recently.
Indeed, I spent nearly a decade as an editor and community leader at the George Lucas Educational Foundation. I loved that job; I was privileged to work with thousands of brilliant educators, who were helping students develop grit, creativity, compassion, critical thinking, and other skills they’ll need in the increasingly uncertain future. In this cat-bird seat of a job, I got first-hand insight into what works and what doesn’t to give kids a meaningful foundation for their lives. Plus, I got to hang out at Skywalker Ranch every day.
But after several years, I became increasingly troubled by a contradiction: We know how to design educational experiences to help students reach their fullest potential, yet at the very same time, our young people are experiencing record levels of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide.
Indeed, there is evidence that we are amid a mental health crisis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, girls are nearly three times as likely as boys to be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. From 2001 to 2017, the rate of African American adolescent male suicides increased by 60% and for African American females increased by 182%. Youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to report feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and transgender youth are nearly four times as likely as their cisgender peers to experience a mental health condition.
These numbers were – and still are – haunting.
One afternoon, I was browsing the Skywalker Library and I came across an interview from the early 1980s with Joseph Campbell, an advisor to George Lucas while he wrote Star Wars. Campbell was professor of comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence University – a white guy with a handful of very problematic skeletons in his own closet. But he also had a relatively forward-thinking perspective on the brokenness of our modern extractive patriarchal Western society, and how the mythologies of indigenous and pre-classical cultures have so much to teach us.
Campbell noted that these youth didn’t sit passively in classrooms, listening to lectures and churning out worksheets. They were initiated by the elders in the community, learning meaningful real world skills via rites of passage.
The actual content of these rites of passage differed widely, depending on the skills needed to survive. Hunters needed different skills than agrarian cultures, which were different from the skills needed for wayfinders. But – and here’s the weird and sort of amazing thing: No matter where they were – from South America to the Seychelles to South Dakota – and no matter what the life transition was – birth, puberty, marriage, death – all rites of passage had the same exact structure. It’s not like there was a #RitesofPassageChallenge blowing up on Twitter that they all followed. This rite of passage process and structure arose organically in cultures all around the world.
Then I read a comment from Campbell that hit me like a lightning bolt: If adults don’t provide these mind/body/soul initiatory experiences, young people will “self-render” their initiation on their own.
With all the school shootings, stupid Twitter challenges, and other self-rendered initiations, it’s no wonder anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide rates are soaring.
I decided then and there that I needed to learn more about the world of rites of passage and see about bringing it to today’s world. So I left my amazing job and got my Master’s at Teachers College, Columbia University in a program called the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, where I could explore the intersection of education, psychology, spirituality, and rites of passage.
I dove into the research. I prototyped and developed a 5-step model that incorporated evidence-based practices from education and psychology, and integrated them with this archetypal rite of passage process that is so fundamentally human.
After graduating, I won a 2020 Mira Fellowship to turn all of this into a program. I started connecting with educators and parents, and setting up some experiments.
Shortly after the fellowship began, Covid hit – and everything fell through. None of my education or parent contacts were interested in working on anything other than, well, not dying.
I started to freak out. The clock was ticking on the fellowship and it was becoming clear that I was on the fast track to failure.
One day, I was in line at Boichik Bagels near my house, and I ran into an old friend in line socially distanced, six feet in front of me. He lit up: “Hey Betty! What are you up to?” and I explained the whole rites of passage thing…the fellowship…the pandemic…and the now super-uncertain future.
He told me, “Well, I don’t know any young people, but if you ever want to work with adults, I could really use a rite of passage. I just got laid off from my job and I am a mess. ”
I sat with that for a moment, formulating some ideas for him, when the woman behind me in line piped up no more than 3 seconds later, “Did I hear you say you’re doing rites of passage with adults? Because my father just died, and we can’t even have a funeral because of Covid.”
“Click,” went the light switch in my head.
I ran home that afternoon and began creating an online workshop for adults, using the model I had designed towards a personally meaningful rite of passage to help manage whatever transition their life was throwing at them. Rather than give them some sort of prefabricated ritual that I make up, I used their own personally meaningful symbols, metaphors, and spiritual/religious backgrounds to design a ritual that will resonate deeply for them. Six people showed up at the first workshop…and then 10 at the next…and then 40.
Before long, I was consulting with people of all faiths and no faith at all, going through the gamut of life transitions. I worked with a young Black woman entrepreneur to develop a set of personalized daily self-care rituals to keep herself grounded and focused. I coached a middle-aged white male CEO through the process of a personalized rite of passage as part of his inner work of examining his privilege. I worked with a family of four to create a ritual before a big cross-country move, and a young non-binary person did a series of healing rituals to mark their gender transition and the changes in their family dynamics. I consulted with a diverse community that had been grappling with toxic behavior so they could come together through ritual and discover their resilience. I even helped the guy from the line at Boichik get closure from the loss of his job.
I am not working with youth…yet. My own tween kiddo is going through a major rite of passage, and I realize that I don’t have the constitution to do both. Plus, if we are going to offer these tools to youth, the logical first step is to ensure the adults can hold them.
In the meantime, the world is awash in transitions and the rate of change is only accelerating. Personalized rituals – those that are built around our own meaningful stories, symbols, and identities – can give us a meaningful anchor, helping us process complicated emotions so we can show up in our lives with a deeper sense of clarity and purpose.