In his new book, The Power of Ritual, Harvard Divinity School fellow Casper ter Kuile presents compelling evidence that our lives are being made more stressful by the absence of everyday rituals.
Increasingly, we are losing traditional anchors that give us stability in the chaos that sometimes represents life. But ter Kuile argues that, in the absence of traditional ritual anchors, we can create our own – just as effective and just as necessary as those we have lost.
What Day Is It?
If you’re like me, you have days where it seems like you’re going in a hundred different directions. You don’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything at the end of the day – a day which seemed like a jumbled mess of activity. And for many, that feeling is made worse by the work-from-home environment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The office is no longer a place of set schedules and events – its own kind of ritual. It is no longer a matter of putting on a suit or dress, starting the morning commute on time, attending pre-scheduled meetings, and leaving work at a specific time.
The office might be the kitchen table. Business attire might be pajamas until a zoom meeting is called. And even those “set” meetings no longer hold the ritualistic anchor they once did, before a “meeting” was a matrix of faces on a computer screen.
Thanks to the social distancing aspect of COVID prevention, getting together with friends or co-workers for coffee or a drink after work is no longer feasible. We live our lives in increasing isolation.
But this was occurring well before the COVID pandemic. The pandemic merely accelerated the problems that were already occurring.
The Loss of Ritual
In earlier times – say, 60 years ago – ritual was very much a part of most people’s lives. We went to church every Sunday. We ate dinner together as a family every night. We might have unwound at the end of the work day with a martini sipped in the quiet of our living room.
But religious traditions which were supposed to give us comfort often failed us. Information coming to light in the past few years show that organized religion – and indeed some seemingly noble organizations in general – did not live up to their creed.
Church attendance dropped, and with it, people no longer knew what the prescribed actions were. When a parent dies, what were you supposed to do? In an earlier time, grieving was a process – a ritual. But without that connection, we may seem lost.
Or perhaps, like me, you weren’t raised with any organizational rituals in particular. I did not come from a religious family, but we celebrated popular holidays and had a mix of family rituals and traditions. But as I grew older, those too faded away.
The nuclear family – dad going to work every day, mom keeping a clean and welcoming home, and 2.3 children playing in harmony – began disappearing from American life. If, in fact, it ever truly existed. The ritual of family dinner – of being connected to those closest to us – disappeared with two working parents and fast food meals.
We are social beings. Connection with other people is at the heart of our existence. Yet we increasingly find ourselves separated from real connections.
Even before COVID, rates of social isolation were sky rocketing. More and more people report persistent feelings of loneliness, even when surrounded by other people. We can no longer connect with others the way we once did. But we still need to.
A 2006 paper in the American Sociological Review documented how the average number of people that Americans say they can talk to about important things declined from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 20041. Essentially, we’ve each lost someone to care for us in the moments when we most need it – and that number includes family members and spouses as well as friends. Our social fabric is fraying, according to ter Kuile.
For its part, social media both connects us and leaves us isolated. Many of us wake to the alarm from our phones, making the glowing screen the first thing we see each day. We check email and read the news before even getting out of bed.
On a train, at a red light, waiting in line to be seated for lunch, waiting for lunch to be served, we pull out our phones. How many times have you seen two or three people sitting at a table in a restaurant, all staring at their phones – oblivious to even the people sitting with them?
We long to share experiences with others, yet increasingly we only do that through electronic means. A 2017 study from the University of British Columbia found that people who use phones during social interactions have less enjoyment of time spent with friends and family2.
Even more important to our life stability that connection with others is the sharing of rituals with others. Coming together for a holiday, having meaningful conversation while sharing a meal, sharing a love for a sport or art – these are critical to our well-being.
What is a Ritual?
The word ritual often carries religious connotations, such as the order of a religious ceremony. However, Merriam-Webster gives a broader definition which may be summed up this way. A ritual is a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, actions, or objects, performed in a sequestered place and according to a set sequence.
While traditional rituals may have disappeared from our lives, that does not mean we cannot create our own. But many things we do every day may follow a specific pattern – we take the dog for a walk every evening at 6:30 PM – but do not qualify as rituals. They may merely be habits.
A ritual differs from a habit in three important ways:
- Intention – we mean to be focused on what we are inviting into the moment
- Attention – we need to be present in the moment
- Repetition – coming back to the practice again and again
Ter Kuile tells us that in this way, rituals make the invisible connections that make life meaningful, visible3.
Practicing a ritual, almost like meditation, helps us to achieve a stability – a calmer bearing. This carries over into the way we view the challenges of our lives.
The Example of Shabbat
The Jewish tradition of Shabbat can also provide a roadmap to greater peace in our lives. Shabbat observance entails refraining from work activities, often with great rigor, and engaging in restful activities to honor the day.
But we don’t have to practice this restraint for a full day for it to be meaningful. It is only important that we devote some time of our day to detaching ourselves from the bustle around us.
One of ter Kuile’s favorite rituals is what he calls a tech Sabbath.
Creating Our Own Rituals
Let’s look at some ideas for turning everyday actions into a renewing ritual.
Many of us enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning. But what do we do with that coffee? If we merely sip it while reading the newspaper (yes, some people still do that) or checking our email, that morning cup of coffee is merely a habit.
But what if we slowly sip the coffee and instead of glancing over the cup to our computer screen, we put ourselves in the moment of drinking coffee. What are the smells and tastes we encounter? How does the warmth of the coffee make us feel? Can we sense the effect of caffeine on our bodies? Does that feeling help calm us to start the day?
Walking the Dog
As I mentioned earlier, walking the dog every evening doesn’t normally qualify as a ritual. It satisfies the repetition component of what makes a ritual, but is missing the other two pieces. Paying attention to the dog or talking on the phone while you walk provides distractions rather than calmness.
But what if the nightly dog walk provides you with time to think about things which make you happy, to take in the evening air, to appreciate flowers growing along the walk? What if your intention in walking the dog is to use the time for these things rather than distractions – to appreciate the moment rather than doing things to take your mind off a nightly chore?
In that case, even walking the dog can become a renewing ritual.
Above All, Be Kind to Yourself
This is perhaps the most important lesson of this topic. We live in such a culture of striving. We often feel that we not good enough until we’ve done this thing, achieved that thing.
But rituals are really to remind us that we are enough. They can help us change the idea that having to work hard to be wealthy or famous or attractive is the goal. “Rituals help us to step into a reality that we are profoundly good enough – just as we are5.”
- McPherson, Miller et al. Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 2006, Vol. 71 (June:353–375) Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/000312240807300610
- Dwyer, R. (2017). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0354413
- ter Kuile, Casper. The Power of Ritual (p. 26). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
- ter Kuile, Casper. The Power of Ritual (p. 67). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
- ter Kuile, Casper. The Power of Ritual (p. 80). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.