The Modern Survival Guide #69
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I am fascinated by rituals, because they hold this enormous, intangible power in human societies. Understanding rituals is a key component of understanding not just modern survival, but survival within any society in any time period. So yeah, let’s talk about that.
Ok, so I say that rituals have power — what do I mean by that, you might well ask? We normally think of power as a specific kind of force or resource that is held by individuals or institutions.¹ Thinking of an intangible concept like a ritual holding power on its own is kind of odd. But it’s true anyway, because rituals hold the power of becoming.
The Issue of “Becoming”
Let me break this down a little bit: human beings have a lot of trouble with the concept of one thing becoming another. And that’s a problem.
When does a fetus become a person? When do you become an adult? When do you become old? When does life become death? When do your relationships become serious? When do you become a professional? If you look past the superficial answer in each of these cases, you may notice that the actual point where one thing becomes another is very murky.
Let’s say I work for you on an informal basis for years. Some months I work for you almost full time; some months I’m barely around. At what point do I become or stop being your employee? Am I ever your employee? Am I always your employee?
Or let’s say that I’m dating a girl for a while — at what point do we become a couple? Do we stop being a couple if I see someone else? Do we stop being a couple if she sees someone else? Are we still a couple if we don’t see each other for two weeks, or a month, or a year?
Or, for that matter, we could fall back on the old riddle of my grandfather’s ax: My grandfather has an ax that he used all his life, and when he died it passed to my father. One day my father broke the handle, so he had it replaced. Then my father passed the ax on to me, but I broke the head and had it replaced. Is it still my grandfather’s ax, or has it become something else?
These are all questions of identity and labeling, and as such they all represent problems because as human beings we live our lives by assigning labels to things and then acting in accordance with the label. An employer-employee relationship means something. A boyfriend-girlfriend relationship means something. My grandfather’s ax is a family heirloom; my ax is just a tool.
So you see what I’m getting at here — a lot of our actions and choices in life depend on one thing becoming another, and unless there are some rules about how that happens we’re left in a bit of a pickle. We need to know whether something is one thing or the other thing in order to classify it, and by doing so we determine future courses of action and expectations regarding that thing. We need definitions and certainty in order to deal with many, many things in life.
Enter the ritual.
The Certainty of Rituals
The whole point of almost any ritual you care to name is to generate certainty, marking a clear transition point from one phase of life or existence to another. Initiation rituals mark the point of acceptance into a group. Marriage rituals mark the point of formal social acceptance of a mated couple. Funeral rituals signal the formal transition from life to death. And this gets super small-scale too; the dinner prayer signals that it’s time to start eating, and every office meeting starts with a version of “we are gathered here today to do…”
Every ritual sets terms and conditions, and identifies participants and expectations. In this way rituals create certainty by defining who does what, when, and whether that’s ok. That certainty creates a new reality, in the sense that reality is just consensus of opinion. Rituals allow us to clearly, consistently assign different labels and different meanings to events in our lives in a way that changes how the world looks.
For example, a married couple is not the same as a boyfriend and girlfriend; even though they’re the same people, even if they’ve lived together for years, even if they already have children, being married is a different state. They treat themselves differently, society treats them differently, and the state definitely treats them differently.²
Similarly, rituals control how we view the “normal” way the world works by enforcing common standards and definitions for transition points. Manhood rites for example, which are still a thing in much of the world, require specific, defined preconditions before the ritual can proceed. The boy must get a tattoo, or kill a wild animal, or have his Bar Mitzvah, or get a driver’s license, or do his first line of coke — whatever the ritual is, it is understood that requirements have been met, and therefore the participant in some way becomes worthy of being something else. And then it becomes a social norm that boys must do the rite before they “become” men.
This common standard of normal, this common definition of worthiness, are what create the other kind of certainty that the ritual imparts — a common understanding of what the transition point actually is. This is incredibly useful, from the social point of view; it ensures that the ritual isn’t practiced willy-nilly, and gives a society a clear marker point for when something becomes something else. And that, too, influences how society treats that thing and the importance in which the ritual is held.
Now for the fun part: rituals create a feedback loop. The more a ritual is performed, the more it becomes accepted, and the more it becomes “normal.” The more “normal” it is, the more it gains power and becomes an integral part of the way the world works. Eventually people stop recognizing it as a ritual at all and just assume it’s part of the way things are.
Tapping the Power of Rituals
Rituals mark becomings. Rituals mark changes. Rituals mark ascensions. Therefore whoever is running the ritual gains some of the right to determine what becomes, controls some of the tempo of the change, and has a hand in determining who gets to ascend. And whoever uses a ritual gains a piece of the accumulated legitimacy of the ritual for whatever activity they are involved in.
So — if you want to be taken seriously, if you want to be treated as worthy, and if you want to have a hand in the turning of the world, it is worthwhile to identify and make use of rituals.
Let’s take a couple of common small-scale examples.
In example #1, let’s say you’ve just been put in charge of a project at work. There is a ritual to go along with this and it is the Ritual of Introduction. This is where you meet your new team for the first time as their leader, and it has two acceptable patterns: either your boss takes your around and introduces you to everyone, or you set a meeting with your new team members and introduce yourself.
If you don’t do the Ritual of Introduction, you will not be immediately seen as a legitimate leader. It’s that simple. People just react better if there is a formal, ostentatious introduction of their new leader. Otherwise you may eventually be seen as a leader, but it takes longer than if you do the ritual, and at least initially people won’t know what to make of you.
In example #2, let’s say you have invited new friends over for dinner. There is a ritual to go along with this, and it is the Ritual of Welcome. This is when you have people over to your place for the first time, and you go through the steps of welcoming them to your home, showing them around the space in which you want them to roam, and offering them refreshment.
If you don’t do the Ritual of Welcome, your guests will feel weird. They won’t know where they are allowed in the house, they won’t feel like they belong in the space, and they may feel as though asking for refreshment is an imposition. They probably will not have a great time, at least not until they figure out all these variables through other means. The Ritual of Welcome is super important to making someone feel good about visiting you, which is why almost all of us do it without thinking about it.³
The Ritual of Introduction marks a change in personnel; it certifies your becoming a part of the new team. The Ritual of Welcome marks a change in status from “outsider” to “guest;” it certifies your guests becoming welcome in your home. Getting either of them wrong, deliberately or otherwise, has consequences. Not earth-shattering consequences, but consequences nonetheless for your quality of life.
These are just a couple of very, very common examples, and I find it useful to observe the world and see other rituals in action.
Pay Attention to Rituals!
To sum up, rituals are important, they mark key transitions, and they’re all around us. Keeping track of them is important, manipulating them can give you a degree of power, and understanding them can make your life a lot easier.
Remember: the one thing that almost all of us desire above all else is certainty. Rituals provide that. You ignore common rituals at your own peril, because people don’t like it when uncertainty gets introduced to their worlds.
Correspondingly, it is worth it to spend a bit of time figuring out the rituals around you, understanding their point and purpose, and then deciding which ones you need to follow and which ones you can skip. You may also want to change a ritual or two, and that’s also a path worth pursuing — just remember you’ll have to do some explaining along the way! Changing the way the world works isn’t easy, and rituals are a big part of that.
So pay attention to rituals. They’re all around you, every day, and you perform many of them without even noticing it. They have a huge role in defining our social lives and explaining what we think of as reality — make sure you know what’s being defined, and what people around you think is real! And your ability to survive and thrive in the world will be better.
¹I’m actually planning a whole series of separate articles on power, because it’s a fascinating topic all on its own and it really is super important to understand how power works if you want to survive and thrive in life.
²Married people who elope: this is why some of your relatives were weird about it. You changed reality without following the ritual, and now they aren’t sure what’s real because the ritual didn’t happen.
³I fancy myself a good host, and I know for a fact that I have made friendships and salvaged family relationships based on a correct application of the Ritual of Welcome. It smooths over so many rough edges, it’s practically magic.