Chapter One -- Life Passages

Whatever lives, changes. Growth and decay comprise the sacred 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 and 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 they 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 the life cycle

Reality is very big, and can be understood and interpreted many 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 is a 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 the Earth, and Hers reflects ours.
  • we are part of the human community. There is a certain similarity 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 yet 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 stages already behind us, and perhaps to come to new insights and better integrations.

Erik Erikson's developmental stages: a psychological model of the life cycle

In contrast, contemporary psychology focuses in more closely on the specifics of each stage. Erik H. Erikson (1902-1994) extended Freud's 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 critical conflict. 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 certain amount 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 common-sense. But then why call one thing syntonic (good), and the other dystonic (bad)?

There is a neo-Pagan model of psychology, although few of us recognize 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 are both 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, and perhaps eventually to bring them to integration, is what energizes our growth.

So, back to Erikson. Perhaps we could better understand the conflict 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 relationships 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

  1. Infancy refers to the time before the baby begins to 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.
  2. In the toddler phase, the child is beginning to get 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.
  3. Play age is Erikson's term for the pre-school period. The child can walk 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.
  4. The period of elementary school is when the child learns 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Early adulthood, for Erikson, is about the search for 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.
  7. Mature adulthood is the time when we primarily concern 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 self-absorption. 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.
  8. Elderhood is the period when the bodily restrictions of old age require a progressive withdrawal from active responsibilities 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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