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What's So Good About Rituals?

At morning coffee a few weeks ago with Joel, one of my oldest and dearest friends, our conversation covered more than a dozen topics. The topic I’m still stuck on is ritual. I’ve been thinking about ritual a lot these days. I believe that we’re living in a ritually impoverished world and that’s why so many of us feel a bit empty. We say that we don’t need rituals, don’t have time for them, don’t like them. They’re boring, contrived or too formal. They make us uncomfortable because we’re conforming to someone else’s prescription for meaning or action. We reject rituals because we don’t get to choose what we like when the formula is already fixed. Yet we participate in dozens of rituals every day—from the time we wake until we go to sleep—and some would suggest even while we sleep.

A ritual, Joel and I decided in our discussion, might be any repetitive action or activity that gives meaning and purpose to our lives. Without rituals, we’d have a hard time getting through each day. Life would assault us with so many choices it would be unmanageable: what kind of clothes to wear to work; what kind of food to eat at what time and where; how to begin the day and prepare ourselves for sleep; how to mark and experience life’s special moments—happy and sad.

We all have the right, of course, to reject rituals of other’s devising. Most are intended to create meaning and connection within a community—religious or secular. Just think of putting your hand over your heart and pledging allegiance to the flag. We don’t do it alone, we do it with others. Participating in the pledge says, “I am a member of the community of the United States of America. I commit myself publicly to its basic ideals by showing respect for the flag that stands for our nation.”

When we disgard a ritual we’ve inherited and fail to replace it, we don’t just lose the ritual. We also lose connections with its purpose and the meaning it was intended to provide. If we don’t say grace, what does the act of eating mean? If we don’t light candles or say a prayer for special occasions how do we know certain days are special and deserve our attention? More importantly, we cut one more thread between ourselves and the story of who we were and want to be.

Just a few days ago I attended the funeral of a friend’s brother. An accomplished dentist, wonderful friend, community organizer, beloved family man, adventurer and inveterate practical joker, hundreds came to mourn his passing in a traditional setting at a Jewish funeral home. Four moving eulogies attested to his integrity, intelligence, curiosity, compassion, great sense of humor and courage. I sat behind one of his closest friends at the funeral and wondered about the curious small brown paper bag he cradled in his lap. It read “Do not open until instructed.” I had never seen a funeral “party favor” before. When he was called up with his bag as an honorary pall bearer, I knew we were all in for something unusual. The honorary pall bearers took their places along both sides of the main aisle to form a farewell guard. The casket would be wheeled down the aisle and past the guard before leaving the main chapel. Each person opened his bag and pulled out a Groucho Marx set of glasses, nose and mustache or glasses with a clown nose or eyes on a spring. It instantly transformed what is usually a solemn, rather desolate experience into a collective moment of uplift. For a moment, Stephen was with us again playing a last great practical joke on the entire gathering. “Yes, we are all sad but this isn’t as serious as you think. Just another part of the trip. Smile when I pass by. Remember me with joy.” And we did. Even the rabbi who was unsure about the idea when it was first proposed saw its wisdom when it unfolded in the context of the service and the community. It was the perfect farewell gesture for this special man.

Rituals ground us in a world that is less grounding all the time. Find them, use them, infuse them with your own trademark style, but know that rituals for the good and the bad times in our lives help us to celebrate who we are.


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