“In my village we spend most of our time preparing for rituals, participating in rituals, and recovering from rituals.” Malidoma Some’
Many years ago I saw a twenty year old who was suffering with anxiety. As part of my evaluation of her I was taking a detailed history of her childhood, looking for biological/genetic markers, developmental markers and traumatic events that might be contributing to her anxiety. I remember clearly her description of her parents’ marriage as one in which they rarely if ever truly celebrated their wedding anniversary or each other’s birthdays, and also did not give each other anything meaningful for Christmas. She looked sad about this and I asked her about her emotions. She teared up and said she didn’t understand why they didn’t create any rituals (her word) to make their marriage special. Her parents are now divorced.
Rituals are symbolic acts designed to open our senses, our hearts, and our imaginations. Like good poetry, a good ritual suspends time for a moment and puts our hearts front and center while our egos and thinking selves take a back seat. A good ritual should give us something to ponder because it asks and offers answers to some of the “why” questions in life. Why do we celebrate our anniversary? Because a marriage needs to be honored. Because I want to know how my spouse is feeling about me and about the marriage. Because I want to be known. Because there is something at work in a marriage bigger than the two of us and we might just open up to that bigness and see what happens. There are many reasons for the void in the marriage my client described, but the absence of ritual, I believe, is one of them.
I am writing this blog as I am preparing for an annual trip to Hilton Head for my 36th wedding anniversary. My husband and I started visiting The Jazz Corner, an exceptional restaurant and jazz center more than twenty years ago, and because he usually has a business conference on the island the weekend closest to our anniversary, we began celebrating our anniversary every year at this exceptional establishment. Now the whole weekend has become a ritual for us.
During our time together we make it a point to talk about our hopes and dreams for the next year together. We might talk about trips we’d like to take, people we miss and want to invite over. We talk about what is working and what is not working. We talk about our daughter, and how we might support her in her life. And at some point we put all that talking aside and go and eat an extravagant meal together and listen to amazing music. We open our hearts and just enjoy each other. We toast and touch and let down into the beauty of the moment and the goodness in our lives. It is almost always transcendent.
A good ritual connects us to ourselves, to others, and to something bigger than we are. Because a ritual is a symbolic act, it should engage our imaginations and our creativity.
Historically, rituals were commodities of religious establishments. Baptisms, brisses, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and weekly worship. These rituals are meant to be so much more than perfunctory. They are meant to change us. A good ritual connects us to ourselves, to others, and to something bigger than we are. Because a ritual is a symbolic act, it should engage our imaginations and our creativity. A good ritual opens our senses, opens our hearts, and leaves room for our imaginations. We are reminded of the bigger things in life, what is important, what lasts, what matters. And when life is messy, which is always is, a good ritual can surround us and embrace us and give us something to lean into.
If the rituals in your life have lost their meaning, you have a couple of choices. You can dig deeper into the ones you are familiar with and find symbolism that speaks to you. Or, you can find new ones. If you have no rituals in your life, consider creating some. The lack of ritual can actually be dangerous. They are so important to our existence that children will create them if they don’t have meaningful ones being offered. Gang initiations are one dark example of the yearning for ritual, for participating in something symbolic and bigger.
So embrace, create and participate in rituals, because life is messy, and life is marvelous.