Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Call for Ritual

As far back as I could remember, I always thought rituals and ceremonies were silly, pointless things.  I'm a skeptic and pragmatist.  I failed to see any purpose which was served by rituals in general.  Maybe some people enjoyed participating in these hokey events.  But I was just bored.

Recently I've been learning about the purpose which rituals serve, primarily from reading Joseph Campbell.  Rituals anchor the vicissitudes of our chaotic lives in a sort of mythic narrative that provides meaning and structure.    For example a rite of passage allows us to experience in a virtual, but not vicarious manner, a death of our current identity and a birth into our new, transformed selves.  On a physical level, it doesn't do anything.  But psychologically, it can have a big impact.  Our brains don't work logically (even for rational types such as me).  They are capable of logic, but they are quirky, temperamental things.  Our brains are plastic, but making a change in our thinking requires more than a decision to do so.  Think back to your state of mind shortly after a breakup with an important romantic partner.  Maybe you wanted to just forget about him or her.  But you'll remember it wasn't that easy, even if you had the perspective to know you'll be fine in the end.  Getting our brains to actually change the way they work requires gradual, habitual change or intense, dramatic shock which leads to trauma and/or catharsis.  A ritual, at its best, can create this sort of dramatic shock and provide the structure and context to be cathartic.

I had genuinely failed to acknowledge the important function that ritual can serve in our psychological and spiritual lives.  But the fault wasn't entirely due to a failure of perspective.  In our culture, we don't have many rituals.  Rituals are generally rooted in religion and spirituality.  But in our pluralistic, secular society, religion has been relegated  to a predetermined time and place, away from all other aspects of our lives.  Our culture is centered on libertarian economic theory and consumerism.  And the rituals that come out of those are either not rituals at all (in the case of Black Friday shopping for example), or they have no psychological benefit (like in the case of an indulgent sweet sixteen party).

But really, this isn't the biggest problem.  And to see that, you only need to look at the rituals that remain.  Most of them seem anachronistic and out of place.  The rituals we've inherited don't belong to us; they belong to our ancestors.  If the symbols invoked by a ritual don't grab you, resonate with you, and engage your imagination, then none of it is working.

Think of all the rituals you can: weddings, funerals, graduations, baptisms, etc.  When was the last time one of these rituals was actually created or substantially updated and reimagined?  The rituals we have were not designed to speak to the lives we actually live today.

And finally, our rituals have been diluted and sapped of their potency.  Pick up a book and read about tribal rites of passage for boys in aboriginal Australia or Africa.  Every account will describe a brutal, harrowing experience for the initiate.  This is the intense psychological shock I spoke of earlier. The child aspect of the boy is symbolically destroyed, triggering him to actually experience some approximation of death before he is reborn as an adult man.

But our rituals don't have that intensity.  They're not sharp enough to do the job.  It's like giving a cancer patient a single treatment of chemo instead of the whole regime.  You spare him the suffering caused by the chemo therapy, but you haven't solved the problem.

So what we need are new rituals that speak to our lives and our sensibilities.  There is no longer a clear line between adolescence and adulthood.  First, we need a new name for that period from 18 to 25 or 30. Then we need a ritual when entering that period and another when leaving it for 'true' adulthood.  And we need rites that speak to those transitions specifically, not just a graduation or wedding, whose primary focus is elsewhere.

Also, we engage in serial monogamy in our culture.  This is a very different experience from our recent ancestors.  They didn't need rituals for entering into committed temporary relationships, nor for romantic separations, because people were expected to marry young and never divorce.  We do need rituals for those sorts of things, because that's the way that we live.

That's my thought for the day.  I know it's not as pragmatic as most of my posts.  There's not much that you or I can do to change our culture.  But change has to start somewhere, and I'm doing what I can to create an awareness of the problem.  And we can make our own little, personal rituals, which is better than nothing.

Thank you for reading.  Use the comment tool to post any thoughts or questions.  And please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.

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