I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals recently.
However civilized and developed with think we are as human beings, we are still tribal and ritualistic. Within our tribes we have rituals—both individual and collective—to which we adhere.
These rituals are, in part, functional. But beyond their basic purpose these rituals can bring some comfort in an otherwise arbitrary world. For instance, when someone dies there is a need to deal with the body as a basic matter of hygiene. But in most cultures there is also a ceremony—a ritual—that goes with the matter of hygiene. This ritual may be a simple remembrance of a life well lived, or it may be an exercise intended to send the soul/spirit to another place.
We mostly live in a culture that has become—and continues to be—decreasingly religious, but we still cling to our rituals, and indeed, we busily invent new secular rituals looking for the comfort and certainty that a ritual brings.
Modern Days Rituals
Like the rituals practised in ancient history, many modern rituals relate to hygiene and health. Rituals are still learned from “the elders” but, with the rise of new methods of communication, new rituals can be learned from our new tribes: friends, influencers, and people we find on the internet (in particular, on social media). And of course, rituals can be self-invented.
Bathing is an example of a modern ritual. People will light candles, scatter rose petals, and play soothing music as they bathe.
A ritual does not need to be performed to achieve the necessary function. So for instance a quick shower will address the basic cleanliness issue and the candles/rose petals are unnecessary. But while the results of any ritual are impossible to measure, we perform the rituals for the certainty and a solemnity.
Habit vs Ritual
Rituals are different from habits.
A habit is something we do…well…habitually. It’s often something we do without thinking.
By contrast a ritual is deliberate—we think about what we are going to do, we choose to do it, and we do it in specific manner with an expectation that it will deliver—with certainty—a specific outcome.
So when the full bathing ritual is performed—bath, rose petals, scented candles, whale music—then beyond cleanliness, a level of relaxation or tranquility may be hoped for.
Where habits also tend to be about what we do, by contrast, rituals often engage the senses (think of the smells, sounds, and feelings of a ritual bath with candles, rose petals, bubbles/oil, special soaps, music, and so on). Every element is something to bring comfort and not following the ritual leaves the feeling that something is missing.
So Why Does a Novelist Care About Rituals?
People follow secular rituals largely by choice…or at least, theoretically they do. But these secular rituals are very much part of a secular religion and form the foundations of new belief systems.
Rituals are (in part) handed down by our elders and compliance with rituals is expected by the tribe meaning that rituals become part of belonging. And once someone needs to behave in a certain way to belong, then freewill is constrained. This gets more interesting when a tension erupts between how someone wants to behave and how they are expected to behave.
Then as a tribal issue, we often identify—and denigrate—“the other” by their lack of adherence to the rituals we cling to.
All tensions and conflicts are compelling for the novelist.
What About You?
So what about you? What rituals do you follow? How did these rituals develop? What would happen if you didn’t follow these rituals?
That’s it for March. I’ll see you again in April.
All the best