Chapter One -- Life Passages
Whatever lives, changes. Growth and decay comprise the
cycle of life. Change itself is not steady; change also changes.
Through most of our lives, we experience long periods of slow
and steady growth. We call those life stages, although
we are not static even then. We also all experience stuck points
and growth spurts. Certain moments of particularly intense change
are experienced as gateways - clear and irreversible transitions
into another time of our lives.
A passage ritual is one in which an individual, witnessed
supported by their community, acknowledges, integrates and honors
an experience which has forever changed them. Some of our changes
are natural and inevitable, predictable bodily changes like puberty
and menopause. Others are happily-chosen commitments, like marriage
and initiation into the priesthood. Still other changes come without
choice or warning: illness, violence and natural disasters that,
if navigated successfully, may render us wiser and deeper.
Life passages are basically psychological in nature, but
are also traditionally the concern of religion. One thing
all religions have done for their people is to guide and support
them through life's changes with rituals of passage. Before creating
or conducting such rituals, it is well to understand the different
kinds of events that mark and change people and some of the issues
that they raise inside us. Both religion and psychology offer
models that can help us toward understanding.
The Wheel of the Year: a neo-Pagan religious model of
Reality is very big, and can be understood and
different ways. Each religion construes that-which-is in its own
unique manner. Religious symbols encapsulate those understandings
and values that lie at the heart of each particular religion,
passing on to believers deep and complex concepts, allowing believers
to grow at their own pace into fuller comprehension. Our religion,
like all others, has certain central symbols, shorthand for our
perception of life: the quartered Circle, the Wheel of the Year.
One set of meanings we can find in The Wheel of the Year
way of interpreting life passages that takes them as an important
part of our psychospiritual growth path. The Sabbats place us
on the Earth, in the human community, and on the time-lines of
our own lives. The seasonal cycle
is inherently sacred and is
also the Great Model, the framework for celebrating the longer
cycle of human life. Thus we connect the two, as we so desperately
need to do. By mapping the human life cycle onto the Wheel of
the Year, we place our changes in a greater context. This broader
view shows us several important things:
- we are part of Nature. Our lives reflect the life of
and Hers reflects ours.
- we are part of the human community. There is a certain
in the broad outlines of our lives, basic experiences that all
or almost all of us share. So even if we are not at that particular
point in our own personal life, by remembering or anticipating
the common passages, we contemplate our common humanity.
- we have a chance to anticipate and prepare for changes
to come. (specifically, we think that many years of celebrating
Samhain cuts through the general culture's denial of death, and
allows us to enter later life with something more like equanimity)
- we have a chance to reexamine the issues of life
behind us, and perhaps to come to new insights and better integrations.
Erik Erikson's developmental stages: a psychological
of the life cycle
In contrast, contemporary psychology focuses in more
the specifics of each stage. Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994) extended
theory of infant developmental stages into adulthood, creating
a model of predictable developmental cycles extending throughout
human life. Although his description of early childhood is basically
a reworking of Freud, Erikson's adulthood stages correspond fairly
well to the most familiar rites of passage. So what he gives us
is a systematic way to think about how our psycho-spiritual growth
moves in organic phases, and just what is happening in each phase.
As Erikson describes it, each stage presents its own
When that conflict is successfully resolved, the person develops
a particular virtue. Although each conflict becomes focal at its
own time and season, it is foreshadowed at each of the antecedent
stages and revisited at each of the subsequent ones, as we express
that virtue in different circumstances, as students, as lovers,
as workers, as parents, or as elders. Erikson describes the critical
conflict of each stage as being between an "ego-syntonic" tendency
and one which is "ego-dystonic." To our ears, these are fancy words
for good and bad. So, for example, the conflict of infancy, is
between basic trust and basic mistrust. Trust is good, mistrust
is bad, right? Not so fast.
Erikson then goes on to say that a baby also needs a
of the "dystonic" quality, a certain amount of appropriate
mistrust, in order to survive and thrive. It's a tough world out
there, and we need to guard against its dangers. Those who are
completely trustful will get needlessly hurt. Well, that's
But then why call one thing syntonic (good), and the other dystonic
There is a neo-Pagan model of psychology, although few of
it as such. Implicit in our myths, symbols and ritual practices
is an understanding about how people develop, interact and behave.
One key concept of this psychology is the notion of polarity.
The word "polarity" may set your teeth on edge. It once
was - and in some backward corners of the community still is -
a code word for heterosexism and for shallow and simplistic notions
of gender-role stereotyping. However, our Traditions have always
contained a more complex and sophisticated understanding of polarity,
waiting for us to grow into it.
In this understanding, polarity means two things that
good and necessary, but which are perceived
as being opposites.
We are advised to seek both, and to hold them in dynamic balance.
Some familiar Wiccan polarities are:
- power and compassion,
- honor and humility,
- mirth and reverence, and our own great favorite,
- continuity and change.
The effort to hold these good things in dynamic balance,
to bring them to integration, is what energizes our growth.
So, back to Erikson. Perhaps we could better understand
between trust (good) and mistrust (bad but necessary) as a polarity
between trust (good) and caution (good). Furthermore, when you
look closely at the conflicts of each stage, they turn out to
be various expressions of conflict between two particular kinds
of good things: autonomy and affiliation. This is one of the most
basic of all the polarities humans constantly work with. The
can probably be seen most easily in graphic
form. Obviously, the
last four stages are the ones that immediately concern us. Still,
since the later ones build on the earlier, we'd like to briefly
review all eight:
The eight developmental stages
- Infancy refers to the time before the baby
crawl. Erikson identifies the basic conflict of this period as
being between syntonic trust and dystonic mistrust. The child
is totally dependent on others for basic survival needs. If these
needs are adequately met, the baby will learn to trust its caregivers,
and its environment in general. Still the child must retain enough
appropriate caution to recognize when its needs are not being
met and to make a lot of noise about this when necessary. The
virtue that develops in infancy is hope.
- In the toddler phase, the child is beginning
around on his or her own. The polarity at this time is between
spontaneity and appropriate restraint, or, in Erikson's terminology,
between syntonic autonomy and dystonic shame. The classical expression
of this conflict is the process of toilet training. If the toddler
phase goes well, the child develops a well-balanced will.
- Play age is Erikson's term for the pre-school
period. The child
and talk, and is learning to interact with other youngsters as
well as with caregiving adults. Children learn to play together and
to share their toys. In the peer group, they learn to balance
assertiveness with co-operation (for Erikson, syntonic initiative
vs. dystonic guilt), thus acquiring a sense of purpose.
- The period of elementary school is when the
to balance work and play, hedonism and diligence, while
acquiring the basic skills of learning. Erikson calls this the
conflict between syntonic industry and dystonic inferiority. The
virtue that develops during the elementary school years is the
sense of competence, the feeling that we can learn what we need
to learn, do what we need to do.
Jewish people have customs for the celebration
of a child's first
day of school, like cookies baked in the form of the alphabet
to associate learning with sweetness. Starting school is a very
significant passage, a complete change in the child's life. We
would do well to develop comparable customs of our own.
- Adolescence is the time of the famous "identity
crisis," when the young person's primary task is to discover who they
are and what they are about. Most religions have
puberty rites, once marking coming of age but in modern society
really signifying the beginning of adolescence. The developmental
task of adolescence is to explore all possibilities in the realms
of both work and love. Erikson identifies the conflict of this
period as being between syntonic identity and dystonic identity
diffusion. We might call these concentration and experimentation. In
the course of this exploration, the youngster develops
a cohesive identity while retaining enough flexibility to see
her or him through all the changes that still lie ahead. A successful
adolescence develops the virtue of fidelity, the clarifying and owning
of one's abiding beliefs and core values.
- Early adulthood, for Erikson, is about the
a mate. It seems to us to be equally about the search for a career. In
either case, the open ended exploration of adolescence is replaced
by a sense of commitment and focus. Growth now is toward depth
rather than breadth. So Erikson, orienting to family life rather
than career, identifies the conflict as being between syntonic
intimacy and dystonic isolation, and the resultant virtue as love.
Marriage rites are associated with this phase,
and for many the
passage from adolescence to adulthood in general is marked by
their wedding. We also need some sort of passage ritual marking
commitment to a career, an equally important -- and more universal
-- life choice.
- Mature adulthood is the time when we primarily
ourselves with nurturing the young. This might be our own children,
our students, or younger professional colleagues. It's also the
time to learn to take care of ourselves, in recognition that advancing
age will diminish our energy and physical capacity. So, in maturity,
we balance between generosity, care for others, and prudence,
care for ourselves. In Erikson's terminology, this period presents
the conflict between syntonic generativity and dystonic
The virtue that develops from this, no surprise, is care.
Becoming a parent is a major milestone in a
person's life, and
so is taking on an apprentice. What rites we have for these occasions
are directed to the young, but the other side of the relationship
needs recognition and support as well.
- Elderhood is the period when the bodily
of old age require a progressive withdrawal from active
in the world. The elder balances graceful surrender to the realities
of the Cycle with the maintenance of as much self-sufficiency
as is reasonably possible. The final virtue, with which we approach
the Veil, is that of wisdom.
For women, this passage is conveniently mapped
to menopause, even
though childbearing and child rearing are no longer the only ways to
define us as productive
adults. Possibly because there is an easily recognized marker,
we have been creating rituals of croning for older women, while
neglecting older men. Retirement from employment is a more significant
change in the way we live now, and is not gender specific. It
would make a better marker for an gender neutral ritual of
eldering. To some extent, funerals also are rituals of eldering.
We most often think of them as passages to the Otherworld for
the recent dead, but funeral rites also change the living from
spouses to widows.
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