There Should Be More Rituals!
The small acts that keep a society together.
By David Brooks the New York Times
Recently I’ve been playing a game in my head called “There should be a ritual for…” For example, there should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership.
There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families, when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.
I could go on and on. Dozens of rituals pop into mind once you start playing this game. Religious societies are dense with rituals — Jewish men lay on tefillin, Catholics pray the rosary — but we live in a secular society where rituals are thin on the ground.
So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.
Between these lavish exceptions, daily life goes unstructured, a passing flow of moments. This means we don’t do transitions well. Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.
As Jim Clarke notes in his book “Creating Rituals,” ceremony honors what has taken place. But ritual is a sequence of actions that symbolically walk you through the inner change the new stage of life will require.
A lot of rituals involve burying something (confronting the loss of the old) or burning something (sacrifice), passing something around (creating a new community), anointing something (purification), putting something on (embracing a new life and a new role).
Rituals provide comfort because they remind us we’re not alone. Billions of people have done this before as part of the timeless passages of life. Rituals also comfort because they concretize spiritual experiences.
The philosopher Abraham Kaplan calculated that over 60 percent of Judaism’s 613 commandments involve physical ritual: lighting candles, ritual baths, etc. These deeds are a kind of language, a way of expressing things that are too deep for words.
Rituals also force a pause. Many wise people self-consciously divide their life into chapters, and they focus on the big question of what this chapter is for. Rituals encourage you to be more intentional about life. People can understand their lives’ meaning only if they step out of their immediate moment and see what came before them and what they will leave behind when they are gone.
There should be a ritual for returning soldiers, in which the community assumes responsibility for the things the soldier had to do to defend the nation.
There should be a ritual for that moment, often around age 27 or 28, when the young adult leaves the wandering post-school phase and begins to get a sense for the shape and direction of his or her life. That ritual could embody the elements that the psychologists Daniel Levinson and Murray Stein say are often involved in life transitions: naming your limitations, befriending your inner life, realigning your central focus. For example, young adults might create a life map of where they’ve been and hope to go, and present it to their peers (on Instagram, obviously).
So far, I’ve been talking about personal rituals. But maybe the greatest need is for collective rituals.
In 1620, early European colonists formed the Mayflower Compact, in which they publicly vowed to “combine ourselves into a civil body politic.” Maybe neighborhoods and towns could come together to make town compacts. They would vow to be a community together and lay out the specific projects they are going to do together to address a challenge they face.
A public civic compact, publicly sworn to, involving all, would allow towns to do a lot of things. It would be an occasion to redraw the boundary of the community and thereby include those who have been marginalized. It could be done on a spot that would become sacred, becoming the beating heart of the community. It could be an occasion to tell a new version of the town story; a community is a group of people who share a common story.
Most of all, it would be an occasion for people to make promises toward one another — specific ways they are going to use their gifts to solve the common challenge. Towns are built when people make promises to one another, hold one another accountable and sacrifice together through repeated interaction toward a common end.
We’ve become pretty casual over the years. We’ve become reasonably present-oriented. As a result, we’ve shed old rituals without coming up with new ones. We’ve unwittingly robbed ourselves of a social architecture that marks and defines life’s phases. We’ve robbed ourselves of opportunities to celebrate. Why do we willingly throw away chances to throw fun parties about important things?