Is true adulthood missing from contemporary culture?

Adulthood in Western culture usually has the person engaging in activities that were once prohibited i.e. drinking of alcohol, driving a car and casting one’s vote at the ballot box (hopefully not all at once). There may be a celebration with friends and family on the 18th or 21st year, perhaps a symbolic gift of a key to the front door. Significant and pleasant memories may endure, but is it worth asking if this constitutes adulthood; if thought patterns and behaviour have changed, combined with awareness of being an adult member of one of the planet’s species, conscious of one’s own power and different modes of being?

old key

Across the planet, indigenous cultures have been conducting rites of passage and rituals to adulthood for thousands of years. This ancient knowledge is maintained by tribal elders and rituals are carefully crafted to deeply affect the conscious and subconscious mind of the initiate. A sense of awe is paramount and the personal experience of the initiate is sacred and supported by the community. These experiences enhance the individual expression of the initiate as a significant member of the community, and simultaneously refresh the tribe and remind them of the natural cycle of life.

Most rituals have three key stages, which can also be found in the mythologist Joseph Campbell’s narrative of the Hero’s Journey. First there is a seclusion, separation or crossing of a threshold. This is to leave behind all that is familiar and known, as well as recognising and confronting a fear of the unknown. The community has a responsibility here in recognising when the initiate is ready. In the second stage follows the adventure, ordeal and transitional event. Fears are tested and darkness entered, which culminates in death and rebirth. There is an acknowledgment of the Mystery that is behind all things. In the last stage, the initiate, who has now been transformed permanently with deeper self-realisation and understanding of the cycles of life, brings this gift back to the community who welcomes the return with celebration.

Initiated boys, Rumsu in north Cameroon. [By Zeratime - African Studies Centre (Leiden), CC BY-SA 3.0,]

Initiated boys, Rumsu in north Cameroon. [By Zeratime – African Studies Centre (Leiden)]

These rites of passage connected to nature offer deeper transformation of consciousness which promote stability and awareness in the indigenous community. As much as the initiate has surrendered to the Mystery, they have come to fully express their own self in freedom and confidence.

In modern culture one can observe pack mentality and disconnection, combined with the resulting devastation of the natural environment, and so perhaps adulthood should be questioned.  Deep ecologist Thomas Berry argued that “we must go beyond any transformation of contemporary culture. We must go back to the genetic imperative from which human cultures emerge…”. Perhaps we need to have another look at “primitive” cultures to see what we have lost?

Bill Plotkin, a wilderness guide and depth psychologist in Colorado and author of Nature and the Human Soul, has guided thousands of people through initiatory nature-based passages. Through these experiences he has produced an excellent model for the relationship between the human psyche and nature. Starting from the innocence of childhood, moving through adolescence to adulthood, and lastly elderhood, he integrates ancient wisdom into a modern perspective, remembering what it means to be human connected to the natural world. These stages can correlate to age, but he argues many humans are stuck in adolescence.

While this is one developed model, we have a duty to ask ourselves from our seat of apparent power over the natural world if our applied technology is matched by equal, adult responsibility.

How would humans make political and business decisions if we were fully connected to the natural world? It would not be from a place of narrow human interest, but from a larger perspective of natural ecology. Is this what is missing from the human psyche?


This article can be found in SALT magazine.