Covid-19: What We Can Learn From Rites Of Passage

Ancestral rituals can teach us something about coronavirus

Apr 21, 2020

odern culture venerates the new. Yet, there’s a reason wisdom from the past is still part of today’s discourse. Our ancestors knew a thing or two about struggle, conflict and pestilence. They would have recognized Covid-19 as a plague, just as we do. Yet, we also have an opportunity to use their wisdom to clarify our purpose in the face of it. They used rituals, such as rites of passage, to find belonging and purpose in times of uncertainty and large transition. Because that’s what the global Covid-19 pandemic is: a liminal experience, where we are between who we were and who we are to become, as a society.

The Liminal Collective team, in collaboration with Collective contributors Preston Cline, Sue Phillips and Peter Rea, has taken the opportunity to share insights from ancient wisdom to shed some light on our current situation. This is the second in a series of articles on the topic: The rite of passage.

The rise of Covid-19 has thrown us all into a period of transition, or liminality, as we wrote in our first article. This was something our ancestors were familiar with, particularly given the greater uncertainty that characterized their lives. They used rituals, like rites of passage, to manage this uncertainty. In turn, we can use the rite of passage as a powerful metaphor and tool to cast light on our current situation.

Historically, ancient wisdom tells us that a rite of passage is a symbolic journey at a transitional time of life. This could be natural - a pubscent coming of age - or a social passage into a post-liminal state. Examples abound:

  • The Maasai youth who, until recently, proved his worth as a moran (warrior) every decade or so, through a ceremony of circumcision and the killing of a lion.
  • The b'nai mitzvah - both modern and ancient - for Jewish boys and girls who undergo the ritual that sees them grow, through ceremony, into fully responsible members of their community.
  • Tuareg veiling ceremonies, or elmengoudi,  for boys who have reached puberty
  • Various Native American ceremonies for the coming of age of their adolescent boys and girls, including the Ojibwe berry fast for young women.

These examples all have a few things in common. Their ultimate goal was to allow an individual to mark a point in their life with an experience that acknowledged their growth, or transformation from a previous way of being, into a new way of being. In some cases the rites involved were purposefully challenging in order for the liminal event itself to impart some lessons or experiences that better prepared the individual for the new journey ahead.

The parallels with modern rites of passage are apparent: from corporate internships that see graduate students become paid professionals, to medical residencies that take young physicians and form them into practicing doctors, to military boot camps where young civilians are inducted into military expectations and levels of fitness before learning their craft...these are all rites of passage.

Given that most of us have been immersed for several weeks into a completely new, uncertain, stressful, chaotic, even devastating reality, there are some interesting insights that we can potentially take from this ancient wisdom of rites of passage. If they can help you navigate these strange moments we’re living, then so much the better. Needless to say, we share these observations as a few of many people trying to make sense of the world right now.

...there will be another phase beyond this transitional uncertainty. We are not there yet. We will get there.

Three phases; two guiding hands

The deepest power of rites of passage lies in the pathway they lay to help us navigate from one place or age, to a new one. As van Gennep outlined, rites of passage have three phases: separation, liminality, and return with incorporation. And as you’ll see, those three stages, require bigger, helping hands to ease the transition:

Separation: This phase was very simply described as separating an individual from an existing life or way. When the Liminal Collective team is running performance training, we often think of this part as where we shift environments from the daily routine to a new unknown. The characteristics of this phase are change, and in many cases abrupt change.

Right now, people are being separated physically, emotionally and spiritually from everything they have taken for granted to date. Worse still, for some this is a very literal separation from loved ones who are seriously ill or who pass. If you’re a twelve year old, it’s a novel experience, but you have some familiarity with braving the new. For those of us who have lived decades, this is unprecedented - a separation for most, from everything we’ve experienced before.

Transition - the liminal stage: This phase sits between the first and the third - a transitional phase between the state of previous being and the state that follows; between old and new; a phase of growth. It is characterized by ambiguity, a sense of loss for the old, uncertainty for what’s to come, and, in some cases, social isolation.

Ancient cultures teach us that the transitional phase is often experienced alone. They also show that somewhere, although it may not be immediately present, there is a hand that helps, mentors or teaches - a greater guide through the liminal process. In traditional rites of passage, this is often what elders offer to younger members of the community. As a result, there is a knowledge that helps us in our transition: we know that we are not the first, the only or the last to experience this - we’re part of a greater community...a greater story.

Right now, social distancing and remote work are just a couple drivers that exaggerate our feelings of isolation, uncertainty and ambiguity. For those of us feeling out of control, alone and unsure of the future, don’t panic. However alone you may feel, you are part of a community going through the same experience. And you are experiencing the emotions of transition. That is easy to say, and it should not take away from the very real pain and trauma you may be experiencing. In our first article we suggested ways to help navigate such a transition - there are guideposts to point the way.

Return and incorporation: This phase marks an individual's return to society having undergone the “rite”. It signals a moment of incorporation into the community, but not as before: as a new person, and sometimes as a new culture. Often marked by celebration or ceremony, the common belief is that those who return are now more ready to take on the next phase of their life having been through the liminal, transitional stage.

We will get there

The parallels between ancient rites of passage and today’s exceptional period of lockdown are clear. However, it’s too easy to say that this phase of transition - the passage from our old life to a different one - will lead inevitably to growth and a new society.

Today, there are people struggling. They have lost family or friends; they fear for the future; they are working out how to pay the bills or meet the rent; they struggle with isolation; they are caring for others on the front line, sharing their pain. The list goes on and the trauma deepens with the detail.

So, you would be right to say, “More important things are going on right now, so who cares about your liminal phase!” Agreed. Hopefully, however, it helps a little to put into context the emotions you’re feeling, and to understand there will be another phase beyond this transitional uncertainty. We are not there yet. We will get there.

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