Quote of the day: INITIATION

July 24, 2015


The biggest single reason our culture views death as unimportant is that we don’t practice any childhood-ending rituals. When there’s no initiation into adulthood, death cannot assume its rightful place in a culture…An initiation is a person-making event, which means the cultures that practice initiation don’t see children as people. Children are hugely important. They are a privilege and a joy and bestow richness by their presence. But in these cultures they aren’t understood to be full-fledged human beings, because a human being is a participant in the back and forth of life. Children are no capable of that. A child’s job is to be self-absorbed. And for them to become adults, that self-absorption has to be killed off, because nobody gives up childhood willingly, certainly not here. Hence you encounter fifty-five-year-old adolescents everywhere you go.

Childhood gets killed off in initiation ceremonies. Overtly that is achieved through isolation and fasting and darkness, but covertly it is by the purposeful and skillful introduction of the child to her or his personal, meaning-burdened death in a ritual guided by older people whose lives have prepared them for such moments. Through the ceremony, the awareness of death, its meaning and justice, is granted to kids. It’s not what they were seeking, but it’s granted to them. It’s like a nuclear bomb goes off, and childhood does not survive the radiation. It cannot, because childhood is predicated on everything lasting as long as we want it to, and nobody who loves us ever leaving, and so forth.

If the initiation is successful, you come out of it able to see the centrality of death in life, which is the beginning of your capacity to participate deeply in the indebtedness that is the basis of all real culture. This is not macabre. It’s not fatalistic. It doesn’t legitimize people committing suicide. I sometimes get those responses from people who’ve had no initiation. Their objections arise from the idea that life is not supposed to be burdened by the awareness of death, but everybody who’s been through an initiation knows that death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life. The centrality of death gives you the chance to live, because it says, “Here’s the bad news: it’s not going to last. And here’s the good news: it’s not going to last.” You can choose how to take that. You have the opportunity to sink both heels into the soil and say, “Here I stand, and while I do, there are things I can do.” The news of your imminent demise is enabling, when all is said and done.

— Stephen Jenkinson, interviewed in The Sun


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