“But we agreed that ceremony and ritual are so foolish,” said Yankel to his daughter Brod in Jonathan Safran’s Everything is Illuminated as she took her place as the Float Queen in their town’s annual parade.
“But we also agreed that they are foolish only to those on the outside. I’m the centre of this one,” she replied.
Brod’s answer is a perfect illustration of the enjoyment and meaning that human beings extract from rituals. Anthropologists see rituals as actions performed mainly for their ceremonial value. In other words, it is what they represent that matters and not necessarily what they physically are. In many cases, rituals satisfy our need to be included by others since partaking in community rites inspires feelings of belonging and acceptance. We flock to support national teams at the Olympics, put on masks at Halloween and get very merry on Christmas; all activities that purposefully socialise us into our particular communities, cultures and even nations.
Not all rituals need to be such regular occurrences, however. They can just as easily be one off events that are equally as powerful. Let me give you an example.
“But we agreed that ceremony and ritual are so foolish.” – Yankel to his daughter.
Imagine running a marathon: the daily training, the nervous starting, the blistered resolve to get to the end. Imagine finishing that marathon: oh the joy, the pain, the elation of such an achievement. Now imagine successfully running 27 marathons in a handful of countries in less than 20 years. This is exactly what my boyfriend Noah’s mum Ivy has done. Her feat is even more incredible because she hadn’t run a single kilometre until she reached the age of 30 and the 27 marathons she would go on to complete would be just the tip of a running iceberg; the rest is made up of too-many-to-mention half marathons, 10 kilometre, and fun runs. But it is her last, the 27th, that is particularly interesting as a window into the vital importance of rituals and ceremony in human existence and the role they play in transforming and solidifying our every day, big and small, lived experiences.
The Marathon of the Villages took place in a coastal French town of Cap Ferret, on a cold and drizzly October morning. Ivy had turned 60 just earlier in the month, placing her, for the first time, in the 60 plus age category (although to look at her you would place her in the 40 minus one). We, her support club, had seen her off across the starting line, along with the rest of the running river of serious athletes, clowns, superheroes, Jesuses and other costumed participants that usually energise such events. Not wanting to stick around in the dampness of the day, we retired to our hotel rooms. I was busy doing some work and only saw and congratulated Ivy once she had come back with Noah and her husband Toby. We went for lunch, a walk on the beach and dinner later that night to celebrate.
This turned out not to be the end of it as at breakfast the next day some other runners staying at our hotel had approached Ivy with news. It turned out that she had come third in her age group overall – third! – and she was eagerly awaited to receive her trophy on the podium right after the event. Ivy was very pleasantly surprised but understandably saddened at missing the receipt of this accolade.
After the marathon we returned to my parents’ house that Ivy and Toby were visiting, half a day’s drive away in Central South West France. Having told them what had happened, my mum Galia had a great idea to perform our own rite after dinner. Once the dessert plates were empty, and the bellies full, she brought out a short step ladder fixed with a rudimentary first place sign, inviting Ivy to step on up to this imaginary podium. She then proceeded to place a palm-sized chocolate medal affixed to a red celebratory ribbon around Ivy’s neck to ceremoniously crown our champion.
This may seem like a small silly gesture to outsiders, but it had the significant effect of lifting Ivy’s spirits and truly cementing the experience for her, which, up until that moment, had felt distant and somehow less than real. “Now I actually feel like I did it, achieved something, thank you!” she said after taking a full bow with an ear-to-ear smile that lit up the rest of our evening.
Of course, rituals are not always such “special” events. For instance, our family lives progress by constructing series of ceremonial activities at different stages of their development. These include such varied things as playing games, going to the movies and regularly eating family meals, as well seemingly dullard things like doing household chores. These are not empty but often serve many purposes and tend to have marked effects on how we turn out as individuals. One study, for example, shows that “teens who do such routine family work as washing the dishes show more concern and care for others” (Grusec, Goodnow, & Cohen, 1996).
Whether they take the form of yearly special occasions, one off ceremonial improvisations or daily habitual activities, all rituals have an underlying social purpose. Brod, for example, thought of rituals as silly before she belonged at the center of one; until Ivy stood up and took a bow on that podium and accepted her chocolate medal, no matter how ‘fake’ these things were, she had not felt the full weight of her achievement; and in the Grusec et al. study, it was the act of doing something one doesn’t like out of a sense of duty, fairness and respect for family members that nurtured the teenagers’ broader sense of human and civic responsibility. Even when they seem trivial on the outside, rituals can help us feel like we belong, solidify our experiences and shape the very people we become.
Ioulia Fenton leads the food and agriculture research stream at the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.
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