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Rites of Passage
A meditation on risk-taking, resilience, community, and personal growth
Imperium & Old Oaks
The first professional piece of writing I did was in 2011. "Professional" meaning only that someone later paid me $50 to publish what I’d written. I was living in London at the time, studying international journalism. The piece was about an 89-year-old barber whose barbershop had been looted during the London riots, which had broken out about a month before I'd arrived. I'd watched them with great interest and anticipation from the US, wanting badly to be there in the madness, taking photos and experiencing life and having a clear reason for being a part of it. The story about the barber was about as close as I could get to the fires after the fact.
I don't know how common it is to go to journalism school with no interest in writing news. But that's what I did. What I really wanted was to travel to dangerous places, encounter interesting characters, take photos, and write stories like the ones I'd read in Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's Imperium. The book chronicles Kapuscinski's encounters with and travels through the Soviet Union, from the Red Army's occupation of his hometown in 1939 through the years just after the Union's collapse in 1991. But it does a lot more than that.
Kapuscinski was also a poet, and much of his writing was ultimately about human nature, in all its glory and contradiction and repetition and suffering. As brutal and memorable as so many aspects of Imperium are, the one passage that I still think of more than the others is about Kapuscinski's visit with a cognac maker in Georgia in the '60s. It's a short piece of prose ostensibly about oak trees and their transition into the barrels from which cognac is made. But because it's Kapuscinski, what the piece is really about is us, people and our relationship with nature and spirits and the circular passage of time.
It comes to mind a lot. Especially around birthdays. Other people's and my own. This week, it's my own that has me thinking about it. I've shared it here before. But as I’m about to complete my forty-third ring around the sun, here it is again in full. (My apologies to the publishers for taking this sweet nugget from from them once again. Please accept this link for readers to purchase the book as a token of my esteem.)
Vachtang Inashvili showed me his place of work: a great hall filled to the ceiling with barrels. The barrels lie on wooden horses, huge, heavy, still.
In the barrels cognac is maturing.
Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.
In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.
Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.
Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lays the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; one must wait. The right time will come for everything. The alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.
That is why it needs calm.
There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will not tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac's age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French Revolution.
One can tell by the taste whether a cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one's head calmly, without hurry.
And it will do what it is supposed to do.
Something Other Than Destruction
I made fast friends with a Norwegian guy in London who was in the same journalism program as me. He was deeply interested in Russia, spoke eloquently, and was handsome enough that—if I remember correctly—he modeled in the city on the side. We were opposites in those ways and just about every other way but two: we were the same age (roughly ten years older than most of the other students), and we had a mutual admiration for Kapuscinski and Imperium.
We eventually fell out of touch, but the few emails he sent me over the years read like letters from Hemingway. He went on to become a published author and illustrator, as well as a father, and to do a bunch of other respectable things I'm sure, while I went on to be whatever I am, to do whatever this is.
Among my many stops and detours along the way, I had one encounter in particular with two men and a knife in Colombia that showed me how cut out for real danger I am not. It rattled me for months and still has a way of showing up and rattling me again from time to time.
A similar thing happened after I’d had a gun pointed at me for a few minutes one night in my early twenties in a suburb of Chicago. I remember feeling like there'd been some kind of a rupture, and like I'd been somehow exposed by it. I remember feeling like a coward, one who'd spent his whole life pretending to be brave, and getting away with it, too, because he’d faced no real tests. For whatever reason, those feelings didn't stay with me for long enough to learn from them that time. I think I was still young enough then to find ways to lie to myself and deny what I'd experienced. The young men with the knife showed up about a decade later, though, in 2014, when I was old enough to face the facts, and when the lessons they carried lingered long enough for me to learn.
There are, of course, different kinds of dangers, different kinds of risks. Causing trouble at school. Getting suspended. Smoking cigarettes and weed. Drinking too much. Driving drunk. Dropping acid. Eating mushrooms. Moshing at metal shows. These are a few of the ways I flirted with danger in my youth. The worst of the drinking stopped (for a number of reasons) after I’d gone to a few of my friends' funerals, which I guess just means that it should have stopped much sooner.
My saving grace through that whole period—i.e., my teenage years up until around my mid-twenties—was my membership in heavy metal bands. This exposed me to an entirely different kind of risk-taking. Namely, positive risk-taking. I learned how to turn my thoughts and feelings into words that I screamed into microphones for long enough to steady my inner turbulence.
Like the "young cognac" that Kapuscinski described, I, too, was sharp, fast, and impulsive. I, too, was sour and harsh. (And I still sometimes am.) But learning how to write lyrics and make music showed me how to channel my angst into something other than destruction. And I wouldn't now trade those lessons and the habits they've instilled in me for anything, including the very things I often use them to chase. Things like equanimity. Because what good is equanimity if it's just there already? Working at it. Working toward it. Improving. In whatever area it is. That's the point. That's where the cognac flows like gold.
Risk-Taking & Proof of Worth
In his 2016 book Tribe, journalist Sebastian Junger has this to say about risk-taking and young men's desire to prove their worth.
In many tribal societies, young men had to prove themselves by undergoing initiation rites that demonstrated their readiness for adulthood. In some tribes, such as the Mara of northern Australia, the tests were so brutal that initiates occasionally died. Those who refused or failed these tests weren’t considered men and led their lives in a kind of gender twilight. Modern society obviously doesn’t conduct initiations on its young men, but many boys still do their best to demonstrate their readiness for manhood in all kinds of clumsy and dangerous ways. They drive too fast, get into fights, haze each other, play sports, join fraternities, drink too much, and gamble with their lives in a million idiotic ways. Girls generally don’t take those kinds of risks, and as a result, boys in modern society die by violence and accidents at many times the rate that girls do. These deaths can be thought of as one generation after another trying to run their own initiation rites because they live in a society that no longer does that for them.
Looking back on it now, the idea that my friends and I were running our own initiation rites makes sense to me. But the fact that we didn't all survive it still doesn’t. Some of us were wild and reckless and got lucky. Others were less so and didn’t. Twenty-odd years later, I still don't know how to square that.
It's difficult to judge the extent to which we were demonstrating our readiness for adulthood. But there was definitely an element of that. We were seeking some way to rise above ... something. Our families. Our teachers. Our towns. Our limits. Ourselves. Probably a bit of all of it. I think, as Junger notes, that we simply saw no road north through modern society. So we made our own, and then we riddled it with risk, which says a lot about life in an uneventful suburb.
On page one of the introduction to Tribe, Junger explains the context behind his decision as a young man just out of college to hitchhike across the US:
The sheer predictability of life in an American suburb left me hoping—somewhat irresponsibly—for a hurricane or a tornado or something that would require us to all band together to survive. Something that would make us feel like a tribe. What I wanted wasn’t destruction and mayhem but the opposite: solidarity. I wanted the chance to prove my worth to my community and my peers, but I lived in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever really happened. Surely this was new in the human experience, I thought. How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
I had similar feelings growing up. But I didn't at the time recognize my desire for community or solidarity. I'm not sure I wanted either at all. I think I actually wanted destruction, or at least disaster. Or rather, I embraced the potential for it, the idea that all of our little worries and hang-ups and fears could be washed away by it. All of mine, anyway. In other words, I was, for reasons unknown, distressed, and what I wanted was to feel calm, some mental pathway to relief and release from myself. And thoughts of disaster and destruction brought it.
Mental Health, Community, & Suicide
Junger writes this about modern society and its effects on mental health:
Numerous cross-cultural studies have shown that modern society—despite its nearly miraculous advances in medicine, science, and technology—is afflicted with some of the highest rates of depression, schizophrenia, poor health, anxiety, and chronic loneliness in human history. As affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up rather than down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in a society seems to foster it.
He goes on to write about suicide past and present (up to 2016):
Suicide is difficult to study among unacculturated tribal peoples because the early explorers who first encountered them rarely conducted rigorous ethnographic research. That said, there is remarkably little evidence of depression-based suicide in tribal societies. Among the American Indians, for example, suicide was understood to apply in very narrow circumstances: in old age to avoid burdening the tribe, in the ritual paroxysms of grief following the death of a spouse, in a hopeless but heroic battle with an enemy, and in an attempt to avoid the agony of torture. Among tribes that were ravaged by smallpox, it was also understood that a person whose face had been hideously disfigured by lesions might kill themselves. According to The Ethics of Suicide: Historical Sources, early chroniclers of the American Indians couldn’t find any other examples of suicide that were rooted in psychological causes. Early sources report that the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Montagnais, the Arapaho, the Plateau Yuma, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni, among many others, experienced no suicide at all.
This stands in stark contrast to many modern societies, where the suicide rate is as high as 25 cases per 100,000 people. (In the United States, white middle-aged men currently have the highest rate at nearly 30 suicides per 100,000.) According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as eight times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities—like the United States—run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. A 2006 study comparing depression rates in Nigeria to depression rates in North America found that across the board, women in rural areas were less likely to get depressed than their urban counterparts. And urban North American women—the most affluent demographic of the study—were the most likely to experience depression.
More recent data from the CDC show that suicide rates in the US "increased 37 percent between 2000-2018 and decreased 5 percent between 2018-2020,” but “nearly returned to their peak in 2021." In all, that amounts to more than 14 suicides per 100,000 people in the US in 2021, with males accounting for nearly 80 percent of them.
The decrease in 2020, which was clearly a year of crisis for many, is notable. Junger writes about this broader phenomenon as well:
The positive effects of war on mental health were first noticed by the great sociologist Emile Durkheim, who found that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped. Psychiatric wards in Paris were strangely empty during both world wars, and that remained true even as the German army rolled into the city in 1940. Researchers documented a similar phenomenon during civil wars in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. An Irish psychologist named H. A. Lyons found that suicide rates in Belfast dropped 50 percent during the riots of 1969 and 1970, and homicide and other violent crimes also went down. Depression rates for both men and women declined abruptly during that period, with men experiencing the most extreme drop in the most violent districts. County Derry, on the other hand—which suffered almost no violence at all—saw male depression rates rise rather than fall. Lyons hypothesized that men in the peaceful areas were depressed because they couldn’t help their society by participating in the struggle.
Writing more recently in The Atlantic, philosophy professor Clancy Martin touches on this same effect as it relates to the pandemic:
During 2020—in the US and in many other countries—suicide rates modestly declined, reversing a decades-long trend. We are learning that this is a pattern: Suicide rates typically go down in times of crisis. The sharpest decrease in US suicide rates ever measured was during World War II; terrorist attacks and other catastrophes have also tended to reduce rates of suicide.
Later in the piece, Martin shares three hypotheses—from Maria A. Oquendo, a former president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention—for why suicide rates decline after public catastrophes:
The first: Crises foster “community cohesion,” which mitigates suicidality. The second: “Individuals become more externally focused.” The third: “Community suffering makes personal suffering more tolerable.” These aren’t mutually exclusive, and they each have evidence to recommend them.
While I have on occasion given brief thoughts to suicide, I have never actually been suicidal. It’s always been more of a wonder than a want. That said, I think the relationship Oquendo describes between individuals, suffering, and community is a deeply fascinating and instructive one (and these days, unfortunately, also a troubling one).
On a more personal note, Oquendo’s hypotheses also help to explain why my mere thoughts of vague, large-scale disasters offered me some respite from myself when I was young (and still sometimes today). I think I always knew that I was looking for something larger than myself to escape into. I just didn't know yet that that something could be both lost and found in the broken, modern-day thing surrounding me.
I did still feel a need to prove my worth and my courage, though, to my peers as well as to myself. The latter is a big part of what later sent me traveling thousands of miles through the world. There are a few different ways to look at it, though. On the one hand, I was running away from my life in that American suburb. First to Chicago and then to London and then bouncing around for years before eventually coming to a rest 9,000 miles away. On the other hand, I was journeying into the unknown, creating and making my way through my own rites of passage, venturing into what Henry Rollins—channeling Mark Twain—often calls “the Territory.” It was never about being brave. It was always just about feeling a need to prove to myself that I could be.
My desire for community and solidarity did eventually come. It just wasn't until I'd wandered into a life in Thailand for the second time. That’s when, as an English language teacher, I started to feel like a useful part of a community. It’s also when I started to notice my separation from any meaningful sense of a community in the US. And now that I’ve left teaching and been working from home for the past two years, assaulting myself daily with the firehose of bad news and opinions coming out of America, I think I fully understand both the individual and the societal costs of being community-less.
It truly is a lose-lose situation.
The Decline of Western Risk-Taking
A new book by professor of psychology Jean M. Twenge was published earlier this week. The book is called Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America's Future. I've so far only skimmed it, looking mostly at the chapter on Gen Z (those born between about 1995 and 2012). The points below are among the trends captured. According to the data Twenge presents, US members of Gen Z are:
trying alcohol later
getting driver's licenses later
going on dates and having sex later
getting married and having kids later (and placing less importance on both)
having less sex
decreasingly likely to take risks and do dangerous things
increasingly focused on emotional and physical safety
increasingly in favor of restricting speech
decreasingly going out with friends
increasingly dissatisfied and distressed
increasingly unhappy and depressed (this is particularly true among liberal boys and girls, but especially girls)
increasingly sleeping less
less likely to be physically healthy
more likely to be pessimistic
more likely to have negative beliefs about the US
more likely to perceive discrimination
more likely to have an external locus of control
There’s much more worth noting. But like I said, I’ve only skimmed the chapter so far, and I don’t want to write too much about it before I’ve given it a close read.
There are obvious benefits to some of these trends, particularly among the first five or six (although even those are definitely not purely positive), and especially when it comes to declines in more dangerous and idiotic risks. But what about declines in positive risk-taking? How might those stunt an individual's growth? Might the answer look something like the list above?
And what about young peoples’ desire to prove themselves to their community and peers? What happens to that when safety trumps risk, communities move online, and peers avoid risk, too? Where does all of that young energy go? Might the answer look something like the list above?
Imagining these trends continuing, I can’t help but wonder what lessons will go unlearned, what challenges will go unmet, and what suffering will go squandered and unused.
I was born in 1980, which places me on the cusp of Gen X and Millennials (and into a “micro-generation” that some call xennials, which is a fitting place to be for people like me who don’t feel like they fit in with either group, or any other group for that matter). I didn’t exactly grow up in hard times. But they were hard in my head, and things like “emotional safety” weren’t anywhere in the culture or on the menu. And I have nothing but eternal reverence and gratitude for that. My suffering is my greatest asset. It has made me braver and stronger and kinder and more tolerant than I sometimes think I can handle. But then I do handle it. Because I am good at suffering.
To fully close this circle, Gen Z, Gen Alpha, and beyond, my message to you is this: Get good at suffering. Take risks. Don’t be too dumb or dangerous. Don’t die or kill yourselves. Grow up. Grow old. Grow until the clock runs out. And then, after having been long cut long clean from the restrictive jaws of safety, do what you are supposed to do, unencumbered by all the things that you did not do, and by all the rewarding risks that you did not take. And who knows? Maybe one day you will return to this life as an oak tree that knows how to make cognac, or as a human who remembers how to live.
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On this point, Twenge writes:
Believing that the cards are stacked against you is an example of what psychologists call external locus of control. If you have an internal locus of control, you believe you are in control of your life. An external locus of control is the opposite: the belief that nothing matters, because it’s all up to luck and powerful other people to determine what happens.