At 25, I recognize and hope that I’ve probably still got a generous chunk of life left to live. I am by no means over the hill, day old bread, slipping into the grave—or whatever other toxic euphemism we’ve got stored up in our cultural arsenal.
I am probably, given my vocation, more aware of my age than most. Even so, to claim I consciously think about it—or that its presence in my headspace is significant—would be dishonest. More often than not, I think about aging abstractly, not personally. In fact, very few things actually get me considering my chronological age.
Very few things besides major life events like my birthday and recent engagement on my birthday. (You can be sure that I’ve only recently sobered up from several weeks’ worth of careless, sugary-sweet euphoria.)
Since our engagement until now—between incalculable congratulations, celebratory meals, and tireless wedding plans— my euphoria has transformed into something more contemplative, something quieter. A transformation, no doubt, complexly but certainly weaved into the visceral, concrete, no nonsense reality that I—like you, my 60 year-old parents, and great Aunt Vilma—am aging. I'm inching closer, and inevitably, to the other side. If you’re already conjuring up protestations (You’ve got time, kid! Your entire life is ahead of you!), you really are as predictable as I anticipated.
Rites of Passage
Scholarship credits French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep for conceptualizing the rite of passage, an anthropological term describing an important transitional period in a person’s life including puberty, childbirth, marriage, retirement, and death. They are the social rituals through which boys become men, girls become women— the processes that transform daughters into wives and mothers, sons into husbands and fathers, mothers and fathers into grandparents.
According to van Gennep’s conceptualization, rites of passage comprise three phases—separation, liminality, and incorporation, in that order. During the first phase, individuals detach from an earlier fixed point in the social structure. Often, there is a withdrawing of the former self through symbolic action or ritual. Take, as examples, the recently engaged gal who now sports the equivalent of a headlight on her ring finger, or the newly commissioned soldier who shaves his head.
The liminal phase sits between transitional states, describing that necessarily ambiguous period during which one has left one place, but has not yet entered the next.
Having completed the rite and assumed their new identity—say as a wife, college graduate, recently bar mitzvahed young man—one re-enters society during incorporation, the third and final stage of this metamorphosis. Hallmark features include elaborate rituals and ceremonies, or widespread use of outward bondage symbols like knots, crowns, bracelets, and rings. I trust you can generate a few examples for yourself.
At risk of sounding essentialist (after all, I am not a cultural anthropologist), I’d wager that across cultures and contexts, many of these passages tend to fall into discrete developmental periods—with motherhood necessarily happening later than puberty, or marriage earlier, for example, than retirement.
If this is truly the case, that rites of passage probably behave linearly, then they not only signal changes in social status, they also punctuate the life course— bittersweetly measuring the time and space between us and our end. With each consummation we are in a way—as Elliot Jacques observed— sensitized to our own finiteness and mortality, restructuring life in terms of time-left-to-live rather than time since birth.
Now that the chintzy fondant madness of our engagement has subsided a bit, I am left with the sticky residue of these existential questions—these feelings of what-nextness, finiteness, and the awkwardness of liminality. Feeling not quite like an adult, but certainly not a child; not married but obviously not single either.
Either way, it gets me thinking about a few things. The first: I am unsure why recognizing our mortality, earlier than is culturally prescribed, must carry the penalty of being deemed a "crisis." I say think about death and think about it often. And not in the depressive, idealized way—but in the meaningful, contemplative, deliberate way. Because the sooner you think about it, the more prepared you’ll probably be for it.
Which brings me to my second point, which is that, with the acceptance of finiteness necessarily comes the acceptance of aging, and with the acceptance of aging comes the acceptance of finiteness. In my previous post, I criticized our culture’s preference for words synonymous with aging— like developing and maturing—but its discomfort with the word aging itself, and the assignment of these more palatable alternatives to younger in-groups. Possible functions of this clever lexical tactic may be to otherize older folks, or perhaps, to intellectually and linguistically defend against recognizing our own mortality. The problem with defense mechanisms, of course, is that they don’t really work. And what typically results upon their failure is, indeed, crisis. Denying that you’re an aging being (I call it procrasti-aging), even as a millennial, will eventually set you up for something incredibly, uncomfortably sobering later.
A clinical supervisor of mine once warned me about the dangers of making assumptions, however reasonable they may appear. My supervisor shared his experience with congratulating an older client who’d revealed that he had just recently retired – certainly a sentiment many can imagine offering upon hearing similar news. The problem, of course, was that for this particular client, the feelings and meanings he assigned to his retirement were actually ambivalent—in equal measure joyful and mournful. For him, retirement represented a loss of identity as much as it represented a gain in freedom.
This resonates for me. Getting engaged is among the most exciting, lovely, and wonderful things that has happened to me. Jack, my fiancé, is the love of my life. But as the first of my closest friends to get engaged, I have to admit that parts of this have been isolating and uncomfortable. By no means am I in crisis, but I am confused, anxious, uncertain. What happens now? What changes? What stays the same?
Through no fault of our own (it’s human nature, I think), it is incredibly easy to assume that things like getting engaged or married, having your first child or retiring are all unconditionally fabulous things. And in many respects, they are fabulous (I can’t wait to get married; I’m so excited). But as prudent clinicians or just empathic humans, we must try to remember that the first cousin of change is loss—loss of identity, loss of what is familiar and comfortable, loss of certainty. And for some, change means time's a-ticking.
This is all to say, the next time someone shares with you what you believe to be good news, be sure to blow them away with your clinical acumen/enigma. Don’t congratulate initially; instead, ask: How do you feel?! and then proceed with your warmest congratulations as appropriate: You don’t want to commit a faux pas, either. :)
Jacques, E. (1965). Death and the mid-life crisis. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 46(4), 502-514.
Van Gennep, Arnold (1909). Les rites de passage (in French). Paris: Émile Nourry. Lay summary – Review by Frederick Starr, The American Journal of Sociology, V. 15, No. 5, pp 707-709 (March 1910).
Williams-Murphy M. & Murphy, K. (2011). It’s OK to die. New York, NY: MKN, LLC.