Journey Of Life And Rites Of Passage

I turned 50 this year, and when you look at my photograph, I know what you are thinking — wow, he’s still so sexy!

Yes, but my hair is turning white, and there are indications I’m getting old. I now receive mail from AARP. And if that didn’t make things clear enough, when I asked my children about their schoolteachers, one of them told me, “She’s sort of old, but not as old as you.” When I first got my Ph.D., I was young enough (in theory) to date some of my students. Now, I am old enough to be their dad.

When did I get old?

As I write this, I’ve been alive for 18,452 days. At one point, though, I held the world record for being the youngest human alive. Which day did the infant become the toddler? Which day did the toddler change into a teen, the teen to an adult, and on which day did the young adult become someone entering old age?

If you had a photo of yourself for every day of your life and you spread them out across the floor, the photo of you at day 6,000 would not be much different from the photo of you at day 6,001. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find any difference at all. However, if you compared photo 6,000 with the photo of yourself at day 10,000, you would see a noticeable change.

When did the change occur?

Life is lived on a continuum, but not being able to differentiate one experience from another is troubling. In the past, this could be fatal. Was the rustling in the bushes merely the wind, or a hungry predator looking for its next meal? It was vital to know the difference.

A mindset that arbitrarily manufactured discontinuity in a continuous reality emerged in response. It was important to separate our experiences into manageable units, regardless if the divisions were sensible or clear-cut. This explains why we impose subjective age markers that determine when a person can begin to drive a car (15 years, 6 months), register to vote (18), purchase alcohol (21) and rent a car on another island (25). There is no convincing reason why these particular ages should be defining points and not a year older or younger. There are 17-year-olds who possess a more mature grasp of the political, environmental and social (and religious) issues than I do, yet they cannot vote. There are 70-year-olds who are more active than I am, yet I am suddenly young by comparison. Still, we establish these milestones to signify the emergence of a new self, and as passageways toward acquiring a new status.

We break the continuum of life into manufactured parts — assigning arbitrary divisions and transitions to mark quantitative and qualitative changes — because we seek patterns in our experiences. This enhanced the survival chances of our ancestors.

Rites of passage — and by extension, religion — are expressions of our pattern-seeking, discontinuous mind. Birth, puberty, marriage and death rituals move us from one unit of life to another, preserving and perpetuating culture, tradition and perhaps ourselves along the way.

One indicator of a change in the self in its journey from one stage of life to another is connected to bodily hair. We are social and physical beings. There are two areas where we have holes in our bodies (head and genital region), and we use one for socializing and the other for our physical needs. Bodily hair grows close to both regions. Hair, then, can be interpreted as a symbol of ourselves — emerging, growing, graying and being shaped along the way. One’s hair-style reflects one’s personality. Many religions and cultures share common themes regarding hair and rites of passage: Hair is shaved shortly after birth, the first haircut is significant, the emergence of pubic hair signifies a new status, special effort and care (and money) are expended to create a hairstyle suitable for one’s wedding, and some color their hair to hide old age.

Hair is utilized in rites of passage to create patterns and divide our life experiences into manageable units, informing us of new responsibilities and privileges and at what age we receive them. As we journey from childhood to adulthood to old age and death, hair is a marker of the changes we experience along the way. And like life itself, it’s hair today and gone tomorrow.