I left for university on a sunny, August afternoon. I was at the wheel of my parents’ Chevy Astro van. A wooden trailer swayed along behind us, overflowing with my worldly possessions held down by a blue tarp.
We hadn’t gone more than ten minutes out of my hometown when the wind began to switch. Dark clouds ripped across the blue sky as a gale force wind snapped trees in half.
I pulled to the side of the road just as hailstones the size of my fist started smashing into us. We watched as the roof of an enormous shed lifted off and blew across the highway behind us.
Maybe that should have been a sign.
The thing is, going off to college is one of the few common rituals we have left in our modern society. In my small, mining town in northern Canada, going off to university— which meant moving at least 300 miles away—was ritualized. Parents helped their kids find housing, loaded a car with belongings, and took one last symbolic road trip together, hopefully without tornadoes.
That child isn’t a child anymore. They’re about to become an adult, with bills to pay, classes to attend without being told, and lots of beer to drink.
There was a time when every transformation was marked by a ritual. Certain communities still have these: Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, the Quinceanera.
These rituals, especially at points of rapid transformation or disruption, help to acclimatize someone to a new reality. In close-knit communities, these rituals help members to understand their transformation—in the words of Tevye, “Without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
Rituals and transformation
In religious traditions, rituals don’t just help someone to walk through a transformation; they also imbue that change with meaning. The transformation is symbolic of the goodwill of a deity, one’s place in the world, or one’s progress in a spiritual journey.
In 1909, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep published a study of rites of passage in several societies. His ideas were adopted and adapted by Victor Turner in the 60s.
Both scholars recognized that societies use rituals to help people through points of transformation, such as the transformation of a youth to an adult. The transformation marks a change in life that people in that community understand.
The transformation—as van Gennep and Turner theorized it—took place over three stages:
- Separation- a departure from the old world and old self.
- Liminality- the middle ground, where the individual hasn’t transformed, but is on the journey.
- Incorporation- where they adopt their new self.
Of these three, I find the liminal period to be most interesting.
Taken from the Latin word for a threshold, “liminal” refers to an in-between place. In the case of personal transformation, you are neither your old identity or your new one. You are sort of in limbo until you cross over into a new reality.
Although not necessarily part of a spiritual journey, we could see the car on the way to college as liminality. Mom’s crying, dad is giving advice about life or else is really quiet and about to burst into tears, and the kid looks out the window, nervously excited.
The kid is no longer in their parent’s home, but they’re not yet a fully-fledged college student.
There are different versions of this and different family structures, but most kids who go off to college will understand it in part.
Liminal is middle ground. It’s a place you go through, but don’t usually stay.
You don’t stay, because the people in charge of the ritual, whether an elder, a priest, or parents, know how to bring you through to the final place: incorporation.
I observe from working with students that there’s a ritual for going off to university, but there’s not really one for leaving. Some get jobs, and the transformation is marked by “adulting,” getting a big-kid job and a mortgage.
But this doesn’t happen as much anymore.
In fact, if we think of post-secondary as a liminal stage of a life transformation into an adult, there’s a clear way to enter, but no clear way to leave.
Finding direction after can be a sad and lonely experience.
Lots of students get stuck, existing in that middle state. The debt payments come due. The rent goes up. The job market is a hostile place for your degree. Even if you could get a job, you’re not sure if it’s the one you want—but you’ll take it cause you gotta pay rent.
In fact, there’s no clear way out of this middle place. It can feel like the world is against you and nobody will help.
The transformation/social gap
Historically, young people going through ritual transformation were guided by those who went before. But what if you don’t have anyone who’s gone before?
What if you’ve already gone further than your parents ever did?
A few years ago, I came across the work of the Canadian sociologist Wolfgang Lehmann through an article written by the Canadian journalist, Shannon Proudfoot, on the Canadian working class. Lehmann’s work studies the influence of university training on this working class, how they transformed their attitudes on life and work from their blue-collar roots.
His work uncovered an unusual phenomenon among these “working-class” university students. They spoke of an unexpected alienation from their blue-collar roots, their feelings of displacement as they realized that they couldn’t go back. Their transformation meant that they were now—in a sense—caught in between worlds. They felt like they didn’t fit in the new world that the university gave them entry to, and their roots no longer made sense to them.
This interesting finding gives me a way to look at what I see among students.
Other than graduation, there aren’t the same rituals around leaving university. There is not always a knowledgeable guide for finding direction, your own personal Yoda to bring you through it.
Students who came from the working class are now left to stumble into a world their parents never understood and couldn’t have prepared them for anyways. The parents of many first-gen students wanted something better for them, but other than getting them into the doorway of a university, these parents don’t really understand the transformation from university to life.
Students who are better-educated than their parents ever were are left to figure it out. And we don’t always do it.
This means that we are lost on two fronts.
First, we’re confused about the mechanisms of leaving and finding a job. There’s no one to tell us that we need to network, or whether it’s appropriate to drop our resume off at that company or not. We just have to figure it out, and Google is our best friend.
But in looking at the process through the lens of ritual theory, we might actually understand the second loss. The second loss is that, by going through transformation alone, there is nobody to imbue the new reality or the transformation itself with meaning.
When I left my hometown, the small village in northern Ontario, I unknowingly left behind my world of meaning too.
Transformation, in historic rituals, usually came with a guide to tell you how to make sense of your new reality.
I never had that. Maybe you didn’t either. Education meant a loss of my background, my way of speaking, my worldview, my peers, and even my religion.
When this happens, transformation isn’t a meaningful path to a new reality. It’s a fearful jump into the shapeshifting unknown, with nobody to tell you what’s true, good, or beautiful.
Many of the readers of Roostervane are students. Lots of you will graduate soon or have already graduated and are trying to figure out what’s next.
You’re looking at that liminal, in-between place and wondering what it’s going to bring.
The good news is that most people figure it out eventually, maybe with a few hard knocks.
But I need to tell you that our society, at least in the West, is going through a transformation.
Most of us expected that there would be another ritual at the other end of college, where you get to start your job, buy a house, and invest in a 401K.
That’s what our parents and teachers prepared us for.
But it doesn’t always happen anymore.
So, stepping out of university once had a clear set of rituals attached to it to ground you in your new life as an adult. The rituals involved, not only getting a job, but starting a career that would give you your identity for the rest of your life. It would define you. That’s why a generation of adults that came before us figured that you could understand everything you needed to know about someone by asking one question: “What do you do?”
Instead, we’re confused and lost, with nothing to ground us. We get stuck in the liminal period for months and years, not really knowing how to progress and not being able to make sense of our identity in a society that doesn’t look anything like what we were trained to expect.
I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but I’ve been doing some thinking about it.
Can we create our own transformation? Can we get ourselves out of the liminal stage?
If you’re undergoing a loss of an old way of being yourself, and you’re standing in between your old world and a potential new world, how can you get across the threshold?
Here are a couple of ideas:
a. Choose your destination
The beauty of this new world we live in, as confusing as it is, is that we have tremendous freedom to choose who we will be. There has never been greater freedom or possibility, we are privileged to live in this time.
Unlike the village blacksmith or carpenter of old, we don’t need to be initiated into our parents’ lives, because we’re not going to have our parents’ lives.
We’re not taking over the family farm. We’re not going to be shoemakers or hatmakers just because our parents were.
We get to choose a destination. That’s a tremendous luxury. It’s really hard work, but we still get to do it.
If you want some more guidance on finding your direction, I wrote this post on starting over.
b. Create your own rituals
Since societies have used rituals for thousands of years to help people in transitioning from one stage to the next, it stands to reason that we could simply adopt our own rituals.
Not waiting decades for new rituals to evolve, just choosing your pathway and identifying the rituals that will come along with it.
If you already belong to a religion, you might have a community or some beliefs to help you through a transformation.
But even if you don’t, don’t forget that transformations are easier when they have meaning attached to them. And the meaning doesn’t need to be given to you by a village elder or a priestess.
You can choose your own meaning to attach to your transformation. Whether you want to believe that it’s your metamorphosis to a new life or believe that it’s a dead-end, you get to assign it that meaning. You might as well choose something good.
When I had my last major transformation, out of academia, I wallowed for a long time. I felt sorry for myself and assumed that the meaning in this moment was that I was a failure and that people had led me astray and lied to me.
One day, I woke up and realized that I had a tremendous education and the ability to get just about anywhere I wanted to go. The meaning wasn’t that I was a failure. It was that I was trained, skilled, even gifted with some things, and had the opportunity to go and use those things to make the world better.
That’s something approaching a calling, even if I gave it to myself.
And I created rituals to help through the transformation. I journal, work out, and at least once a week I light a candle and meditate. These are rituals I live by.
c. Join a community
Rituals don’t usually happen in a vacuum. They often take place in society or religion.
Since we have a secular society with less rituals, and many of us are less religious, we need to work a bit harder to find communities to belong to.
One thing we rarely get anymore is inter-generational conversations, which is too bad. It is exactly these relationships that help people go through rites of passage, older people who have walked through them before.
Finding a community can also help you get past this, can help you make meaning again.
And it definitely doesn’t have to be religious.
You might choose to join a volleyball team or a bowling league. You could join a craft club or get involved in your city council.
Or, you might look to a religious or ethnic community to help you through the transformation, even if it’s a new community you’ve never belonged to before.
Whatever you choose, community can be vital for walking you through change.
d. Find a mentor
I think real, true, mentors are really hard to find. Students often get someone called a “mentor,” but whether they experience any mentorship is another question.
If you can find a mentor to walk through a time of transformation with you, it can radically change the experience. Talk to people who have walked through a similar journey, if you can find them.
If you can’t find someone in real life, read books and watch videos by transformational leaders to help you grow through the period of change.
We live in a confusing time when technological change, a pandemic, social class jumping, and evolving labor markets make transformation something we need to get better at.
If you’re a student at the end of your school journey who needs to transition into the next phase of your life, whether you’re 24 or 44, that transformation can be lonely and lack direction.
To make matters worse, a deeply personal experience of finding direction becomes reduced to a mechanical process called FIND A JOB.
We need to find ways to imbue these life transformations with meaning, learning from generations before us. This sets us up to succeed.
So, here’s to you becoming an expert at reinvention. Because if you can handle radical transformation, there’s not much else you won’t be able to do.
Originally published at https://roostervane.com/finding-direction/
Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960)
Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1995).
Wolfgang Lehmann, “Habitus Transformation and Hidden Injuries: Successful Working-Class University Students,” Sociology of Education 87, no. 1 (January 2014): 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040713498777.