• Matthew Emerson

What Are Your Rituals?

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

"I lit you a candle in every Cathedral across Europe." ("Cigarettes and Saints" by The Wonder Years)


My alarm (don't judge me) booms into my ears on a Saturday morning. I groggily grab my phone and shut it off. I stare at the ceiling. I've been thrust back into existence again. I stumble out to the kitchen and make myself a cup of coffee, then slump back into my bed. I nurse the hot bean juice as I mutter through my morning prayers. After that, I put on a podcast (probably about theology or serial killers) and return to the kitchen to start breakfast.

Described above is my average morning routine. I complete it almost robotically with no thought involved. That's just what I do. I have a dear friend of mine who once commented to me that she gets lost in doing her makeup. She sits down to do it and next thing she knows she's all done. It's almost a hypnotizing act. Ritual has that effect on us, and an important one at that. Our rituals provide a foundation on which our entire day can be built. Let's unpack that some more.

Ritual is our surest defense against chaos. Why is that important? Because nothing can be done in the midst of chaos. Our routines provide us some semblance of order that we can structure our life around. These rituals aren't always things we impose on ourselves, but sometimes are simply birthed out of the impulse of the heart.

"Raining in Kyoto. My breath turns into steam I bought you a candle, not even sure what it means..." ("Raining in Kyoto" by The Wonder Years)

Dan "Soupy" Campbell of the band The Wonder Years is a perfect example of this. While raised Roman Catholic he now identifies as an atheist, but on two separate occasions in his songs he mentions lighting a candle for someone that is passed away. In one of the songs, he even writes that he isn't sure why he does it. Seems rather weird for someone who lives in a non-transcendent world where death simply means non-existence? And yet, from the depths of his heart he just feels that practice to be right. I would agree with him. It's a noble desire to want to commemorate ones lost. It's a cross-cultural idea that comes from the beginning of human civilization. There is even some archaeological evidence that Neanderthals made burial sites.

Now yes, the psychoanalyst could come at this and say "well, since he was raised Catholic that is a tradition that was impressed on him so he does it yada yada yada." I'm not here to make some theistic argument out of the simple act of lighting candles, nor am I here to point out inconsistencies in behavior, but I am here to talk about the ritual of it and it's importance that he is willing to do it.

As noted in the song, sometimes our rituals may not have an explicit meaning to us. We may not know the rhyme or reason as to why we do it, but we do it anyways. While that has been problematic at times in the past, it is not always a negative tendency. In the masterpiece of a movie, Your Name, a grandmother is teaching her two granddaughters about the rituals of the temple they are guardians of. Due to a past catastrophe, the logic behind the rituals was lost, yet the practice of them remained. It was important enough in the past, and so it should be preserved now.

So you need to ask yourself, what are your rituals?

It is not a question that can remained unanswered. If you do have them, reflect on them. Just because they may exist without explicit meaning, it does not mean there is not meaning within them to be found. Why do you always cook eggs for breakfast, or what about the makeup routine is so hypnotizing to you. And if you don't have any rituals, find them. Human beings do not function well in complete and total chaos. Yet, obnoxious levels of order to not serve us well either, it is a balance that must be struck.

If we live in eternal chaos, we have no firm foundation to plant our feet. We build our lives on sand. On the contrary, if we have totalitarian levels of order, no life can grow, there is no challenge or need to adapt. OCD is a prime example of desire for order taken to its most extreme. It is when we find that balance, the tightrope between order and chaos that real life can begin. So build your life on simple rituals that you can implement in your life. Order is like the exoskeleton that protects chaos. As paradoxical as it is, it is experientially true.

These rituals do not have to be long, drawn out liturgies of life, but as simple as waking up at the same time every day and making your bed. That simple act has so much psychological significance. You are proving to yourself that you have control, at least over your own life. You can make yourself wake up when you desire. Not only that, but in making your bed you are showing to yourself that you can bring order to chaos. Take that sentiment and apply it to other areas of your life, and the sky's the limit.

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