by Jay Johansen | Jun 5, 2004
Many incidents in human life are accompanied by rituals, some big and profound, some small and simple. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, and many other events are surrounded by ritual. We often think of ritual in terms of religion, but it doesn't have to be. Graduations and military promotions are two events that immediately come to mind that are filled with non-religious ritual.
Perhaps I should define "ritual" before I proceed. I tried looking up some dictionary definitions to quote, but they weren't very useful. According to my Webster's New World: "Ritual: a system or form of rite". Okay, so what's a "rite"? "Rite: a ceremonial or solemn act". Well what's "ceremonial"? "Ceremonial: a rite". And we're stuck in a circle.
So let me give my definition: A ritual is a set of words we say and/or actions we perform which are deliberately formal, serious, and stylized or symbolic.
A simple example: It is common in America that when two people meet, they shake hands. Why? This surely serves absolutely no practical purpose. I've heard various stories attempting to explain how the custom originated from some useful action, but which of these stories is true, if any, doesn't matter. Today the custom serves no useful purpose: It is a purely symbolic act.
Of course some rituals are far more involved. A wedding is perhaps one of the most elaborate in our culture, with a whole set of actions the parties involved will go through, from wearing special clothes to walking down an aisle to reciting certain words etc etc. And there are rituals before, surrounding engagement and bachelor parties and rehearsal dinners, and rituals after, the reception and honeymoon and so on.
Personally, I've never been a person who was overly impressed with ritual. I'm a software engineer by profession, which maybe makes me a more pragmatic kind of person. I work for the military, where I often find myself ... shall we say tolerantly amused by some of the little military rituals. I obviously don't find them as profound and moving as the uniformed people apparently do.
But apparently even such a pragmatic person as I is not totally immune from an appreciation of ritual. This struck me when I considered two little incidents that happened to come close together.
When my wife was in grad school she joined an "honor society". The organization had no meetings and no activities other than inducting new members. The group did have a very impressive-sounding name. It was an open secret that the only purpose of the organization was to look good on the members' resumes.
They had a complex ritual for inducting new members. It involved a number of people reading little speeches from the organization's guidebook that were filled with elaborate language. Various "stations" were set up around the room, and the new members were supposed to walk from station to station to act out the various parts of the ritual. It was all supposed to be very deep, moving, and profound.
And no one could take it seriously. People giggled through their speeches and made snide remarks throughout the proceedings. When it was over, one of the professors noted this and commented, "Americans just don't appreciate ritual".
I thought, No, the problem isn't that I don't appreciate ritual. It's that this little club just isn't anywhere near important enough to justify this profound ritual, and so it comes across as silly and pretentious.
I attended the wedding of a friend. The minister peppered the sermon with stand-up-comic-style jokes, and interrupted her [yes, her] own recitations of the formula statements with side comments. The vows were seriously watered-down from the traditional ones, so that the two were pretty much just promising to be nice to each other until they didn't feel like staying together anymore.
I thought, This is totally inappropriate. And I could see from the reactions of those around me that many others felt the same way. This is supposed to be two people making one of the most important decisions of their lives, a life-long commitment, and you're treating it like a decision about what to have for lunch.
Comparing those two events, I got to thinking: The solemnity of a ritual must be proportionate to the importance of the event we are acknowledging.
Think about it. A big, serious ritual for a resume-filler club just comes across as pompous. People feel decidedly awkward trying to go through such a ritual when they know it is too big for the event, and so they end up deflating it by giggling and making snide remarks. But at the other extreme, a casual treatment of a wedding also leaves people feeling uncomfortable. A wedding is too big to be taken casually: it calls for respectful treatment.
Think of the events that we have somber, elaborate rituals for. Some are happy events, like weddings and graduations. Others are tragic, like declarations of war and sentencing criminal defendants. But all are vitally important, life-changing events. Under normal circumstances we don't have great rituals for changing a tire or brushing our teeth because these events are trivial and commonplace. There's no formula I can give for deciding how big a ritual any particular event calls for. Much less could I prove scientifically that this level of ritual is "right". But most of us know intuitively which events call for more and which for less.
It seems that ritual is something human beings do to recognize the seriousness of an event. Surely any practical needs regarding the disposal of dead bodies could be taken care of by simply stuffing the body in a cardboard box, burying it, and announcing to the world, "Bob's dead, don't expect him to show up for work on Monday". No public health or economic purposes are advanced by carefully dressing the body in the former occupant's best clothes, putting it in an elaborate casket, having people gather around and give speeches about the person's life, and so on. Quite the contrary, by any practical measure, these things are a waste of time and money. And yet ... I'd bet that many readers, when they came to my comment about stuffing the body in a cardboard box, felt a sense of revulsion. "How could you even say such a thing?!" We feel a need to do something more than just toss grandpa's body in the trash compactor and rush back to the TV before the commercials are over. There is a very basic human need to go through some motions to express our recognition that something very important has happened.
Sometimes I think that my own lack of appreciation for ritual is a loss for me. If my military associates derive some pleasure or comfort of satisfaction from salutes and anthems and very shiny boots, am I better off because I am "above" such little rituals? Or am I simply missing out on a source of pleasure, comfort, and satisfaction? When I sit bored through a religious ritual, am I better off then those who feel a particular closeness to God at that moment?
© 2004 by Jay Johansen