There were many new year resolutions I could have chosen all those months ago. Back when the days were heavy with summer heat and plans were made with the audacious confidence that this year would be somewhat if not exactly like the ones that came before.
After a year devoted to constant motion, from Melbourne to Auckland, Vanuatu to finally, farewelling 2019 in Northern France, the fact I chose ‘ritual’ as a resolution to guide the next 12 months was both surprising and appropriate.
Enamoured by extremes, it made an unusual kind of sense to chase a time dedicated entirely to fleeting pleasures and transient places with one of sustained staying. To nail every part of life down to a point on a map and squares on a calendar.
And so, 2020 began, with the idea of ritual lodged firmly in mind.
It didn’t take long to learn an enthusiasm for routine and ritual was far less popular than one of spontaneous voyages and chronic impermanence. It seems ritual has fallen far from favour, for reasons that aren’t entirely rational.
Like most ancient practices, rituals came about to solve one of humanity’s perennial issues; we are both highly aspirational and devastatingly forgetful.
Meaning, despite desiring healthy lifestyles, virtuous ethics or loving actions, we tend to forget even the best of intentions within if not minutes then certainly days.
So, history’s greatest minds turned to the repetition of certain actions in an effort to bring known but unattended thoughts to the forefront of our notoriously recalcitrant minds. In other words; rituals.
Different to a habit like brushing your teeth or feeding the cat, rituals extend beyond physical outcomes (like pearly whites and a healthy feline) but reinforcing deeply meaningful psychological values.
As the sole authority and educator on how to live well throughout most of history, it’s no surprise religions were the initial instigators of ritual.
Whether it was remembering the dead, reflecting on the self, honouring a season, connecting with strangers or forgiving transgressions, religions like Catholicism appear to have a ritual for every time and place.
In our secular society it’s easy to cast our eyes back and see their rites and practices as archaic methods of restraint and manipulation. However, I do believe this is to misunderstand ritual’s central objective, which isn’t to impose unwanted ideals but help us live out the ones we deeply desire but struggle to abide by.
In short, they have always been an external, communal path to authenticity. One we have too hastily abandoned, without acknowledging the unfortunate fact that as humans, we are still just as useless at doing ‘the good’ thing, as we were centuries ago.
So, instead, the snooze button conquers exercise, hustle consumes leisure and work is attended to before the people in our lives. Best intentions fade, good habits gather dust, and our behaviours start to shape our values, instead of the other way around.
But rituals take the effort of deciding out of the equation; habituating us to act in ways we wish during the all-too-often moments we feel less than willing.
Rituals don’t just reinforce meaningful action either, but also generate a sense of control, according to Harvard Busines School professor Mike Norton, especially during times of uncertainty.
“Rituals can restore our sense of control over our lives,” writes Norton, in his paper ‘Why Rituals Work (2013)’. “It feels good to us to know we have this event happening at a regular time. It regularizes our lives. It reinserts some of the sense of control in a time when many of us feel like we don’t have control.”
In a year of theatrically aggressive elections and world-wide pandemics, rampant wildfires and national lockdowns, a feeling of mastery over our fate, no matter how seemingly fabricated or modest, is a surely welcome thing.
Delightfully (and slightly paradoxically), rituals also provide an unsuspecting kind of freedom.
In an era that idolises unfettered self-governance to an unprecedented extent, it’s difficult to comprehend the backwards logic of how dedication and discipline result in liberty.
Yet, being bound to a behaviour or action, be it daily, weekly or monthly, is a trade-off of sorts; exchanging freedom to do whatever we wish for freedom from perpetual decision-making and evaluating. Yes, rituals demand continued commitment, but only as a means to an end; a value which we can choose once, then don’t have to constantly choose again and again.
We can decide we value family, make calling our parents every Sunday a ritual, and from this, we no longer have to choose the value; it’s built into the fabric of our life. For those who value fitness, join a running club. Others who value community, host a monthly potluck or create a hobby group.
While words like ritual and discipline, commitment and dedication can elicit a reactive aversion, this socially conditioned response shouldn’t prevent us from critically considering the way rituals can, and for many millennia have, draw our values to the front of our goldfish-brains and enable us to live according to them — even when the snooze button calls.