I just rewatched Man of La Mancha with Peter O'Toole. It's low budget, more suited to the stage than film, and overly theatrical, and I absolutely adore it. The glorious music is going to be running through my head for days. Peter O'Toole has the most beautiful eyes and voice. And I still cry when Don Quixote dies at the end, no matter how many times I've seen it. It shows the impact one man's dream can have on everyone around him. How we have to strive for life the way it should be, the way it's meant to be, and not settle for what is. How a simple act of kindness can change someone forever. It got me thinking about the importance of quests.
In cultures around the world, adolescents are given rites of passage into adulthood. Some are given quests or missions to accomplish before they are considered adults. Some undergo rituals or formal ceremonies when a certain milestone in life is met. Others are given a "man's job to do," such as taking part in helping to support the family. All of these mark the adolescent as having "arrived" at a certain readiness to become part of the adult group, and they are pronounced adults in a formal way.
In western culture, however, we tend to scramble to find meaningful events by which to mark a child's passage into adulthood, mostly contrived or arbitrary milestones, such as the first job, obtaining a driver's licence, graduation from high school, the first time leaving home, or the arrival at legal drinking age. These contrived rites of passage may have little or nothing to do with the child's actual level of maturity or readiness to take on adult responsibilities. Some leave home because it's expected when they are not yet ready and experience failure or disappointment and return home. How many stories have we heard of kids going off to school, spending the first semester in an alcoholic stupor, and subsequently flunking out? Obviously they were not yet at the required maturity level.
Youth in western culture have reacted to this arbitrariness by establishing their own indications of adulthood: loss of virginity, inclusion in certain gangs or peer groups, the use of alcohol or drugs, the performance of some expected act of violence required by the group. Passage into adulthood is seen as a time, not of self affirmation, but of rebellion against authority or social strictures. Western youth are typically not given true quests or missions or challenges by which to prove themselves adults. We are not holding up any standard by which adolescents can measure themselves and their maturity. How do they know when they've arrived? They decide for themselves, and inform the parents and society at large that they are no longer to be treated as children. This declaration may come in many forms, not all of them verbal: the first ignored curfew, the first skipped class, the first body piercing, the first arrest.
And as their parents, we look at each other edgily and wonder if we, ourselves, are quite ready for this thing called adulthood. We remember that we ourselves have never quite found that golden fleece.
So quests serve an important purpose. Attaining something worthwhile gives us not only meaning, but a milestone by which to measure ourselves. Someone has said that the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. We need to determine for ourselves what quest we will pursue, what cause we will take up. What value and meaning our lives will have. No one will pronounce it for us. It is up to us to decide how we will change ourselves and our world.