For many years in the late 60’s and through the 70’s a group of twenty five friends and co-workers would camp for a weekend, on an island in the middle of Long Lake, in the Adirondack mountains. At the time these were the people who were closest to me, even more so than my family. The island we camped on in the middle of this magnificent lake was as beautiful and tranquil as you might imagine it to be. You could only reach it by boat and the isolation added to the feeling of peace that settled over us when we were there. An old mansion had once stood on a rise looking out at the Lake. All that remained of it was a huge fireplace and chimney. We would cook large dinners as twilight descended. As we ate our meals more wood was piled on the cooking fire until it was a large blazing bonfire and we would get high, talk, gaze into the fire’s ever changing shapes and play/sing music as night descended, sharing the communion and the warmth of our interrelationship.
As I recall those long weekends four decades past, I recognize that we were taking part in a ritual as old as the beginnings of human society. The sharing of a communal meal, the comfort of close companionship, primitive music and a roaring fire keeping away the terrors of the night. These earliest of human rituals developed the beginnings of that which we call society. Ritual as I define it is a combination of repetitive actions, rites and procedures performed by two or more individuals that provides comforting feeling and a sense of shared togetherness. The behaviors tap into the most universal of human archetypes and thus are easily recognized as reassuring by participants and by groups. I’m using my own definition here because if you Google “ritual defined” you will get a multiplicity of definitions, all with some precision, that in the end make the explanation of ritual more complex than it should be, hence my own hubris in creating my own definition.
As millennia passed the communal campfire developed into a complex mixture of ritual that bonded people together and like the earliest ones, provide the comfort of safety in a fear ridden world. My generation of hipsters abjured the rituals we inherited, even as we created rituals of our own. It is a fact of humanity’s existence within societies, that communal rituals are needed to bond people together. The breakdown of some of the binding rituals of American society, have separated us and have made our lives more chaotic and less personally meaningful.
Ritual has long been recognized as the glue of religion, a means bringing people together in common faith and binding them in common cause. At base though, no matter how you define it, religion’s great attraction is the diminishing of fear and uncertainty. Our lives are innately fearful and uncertain. In Church, Synagogue, Mosque and Ashram the singing of hymns, chanting of prayers, the movements of people, are meant to hypnotically bathe the participants in a comforting feeling of being one with the creator and their fellow worshipers. In the end all we humans seek is nepenthe from the cares of a confusing, dangerous and uncertain existence. Through religious ritual it is possible to achieve that comfort, but while ritual is closely connoted with religion, there exist other rituals that play an equally important role in human interconnection and reducing the fears of an uncertain existence. There are rituals that develop in families, there are rituals that develop among friends, rituals in the workplace and of course rituals that bind a nation together. The failure of people to create, or to take part in rituals that provide comfort for themselves, isolates them from society and can be destructive of the commonality of our humanity. The various levels of ritual I’m going to discuss are idealized cliches of rituals and do not speak for individual situations. My purpose is to use these cliches as a means of achieving common ground of understanding with you and from which you can then use your own creativity of thought in pondering them.
The cliche of the Family ritual is sitting down to dinner and sharing their experiences of the day. It is a time of bonding, instruction and showing affection for one another. It hearkens back to human pre-history. We know though from our own experiences that for many, and perhaps for ourselves, this cliche is not widely achieved. There are so many distractions in a home to take family members away to their own personal world’s and to make the togetherness at a shared dinner meal seem unimportant. In my family when I was a child for instance, my father worked until 9:00 pm and was home by !0:00 pm on weekdays. Until I was ten, my bedtime was 9:00 pm and so I never saw him until the weekend, since I’d gone to school before he’d woken up. My much older brother either worked, or was out with his friends most weeknights. I never ate school lunches, so my dinner was served after school and my mother who weighed about 95 pounds rarely ate. In short my family never shared meals except for the weekends and that on rare Saturday nights. Saturday night, because on Sunday we would have Chinese take-out, which my parents would eat in their bedroom watching their TV shows and I would eat in the Den watching my TV shows. From what I know of people, this type of arrangement was far from unusual. When social pundits, politicians and clergy talk of the breakdown of family structure, they often are thinking about the vanishing family communal meal. While as a parent I personally believe in the need for the family dinner as ritual, too often in raising my own family my wife and I unable to participate due to the pressure and hours of each of our work careers. Nevertheless, either one or the other of us would be there for the dinner meal with our children.
The rituals of friendship are quite familiar to us all in our social relationships. A great male metaphor for this can be seen in beer commercials where all the guys are hanging out on Friday night drinking beer and doing “male” things, while pretty females lurk prominently in the background casting longing glances at the coveted “manly” men. I’ve had male relationships in my life, where the only topics discussed were sports, cars and putative details of successes with seduction. I’m sure for women it is the same in some relationships, albeit with different prime topics. These standardized subjects of conversation represent human bonding rituals.
In the workplace, in any field, there is the myth of teamwork with everyone pulling together for the benefit of the organization. Organizations develop rituals meant to reinforce this notion of “teamwork”, when in reality it is usually every person for themselves, or for their alliances forged or broken as situations change. The teamwork notion is reinforced by rituals like Christmas Parties, Company Picnics, birthday parties, retirement parties, social gatherings of employees and deference to those above you in the hierarchy. I’ve worked in some places where the “Bosses” would want to be addressed as Mr., Mrs. Or Ms., while addressing the worker by their first name. In other situations the ritual was that everyone addressed each other by their first name, no matter how high the person was in the hierarchy. Rituals in the workplace are necessary to maintain cohesion and are to be observed at the risk of job loss, or failure to be promoted.
Finally though, we need to look at the rituals of our Nation, which in many ways have deteriorated through the years. This deterioration has helped to divide the tentative homogeneity of us as a people. Given our history of the last seven decades, this decline is easily understood. As a boy, the fact that I came from large, close knit families (my parents each had eight siblings), meant that gathering for holiday meals was a ritual played out time and again to reinforce the bonds of the entire family unit. As a Jew there was Passover Seders, Succoth Dinners outdoors, “breaking fast’ on Yom Kippur, etc. Because my parents closest friends were Italian, there were also Christmas Eve dinners, New Years Day dinners and Easter Sunday dinners. There were also two other celebratory rituals that took precedence beyond religious, familial and or social rituals. The most important to me was Thanksgiving. I remember Thanksgiving dinners as wonderful times, with a mixture of relatives and friends gathered around a large table sharing traditional Thanksgiving fare. After dinner rather than retiring to football on TV, there would be discussions around the dinner table that went on for hours. In one way or another all present were either immigrants, children of immigrants and grandchildren of immigrants. That we were now in America, having escaped poverty in Europe, made Thanksgiving a truly memorable occasion. All of my Grandparents for instance, had been born impoverished in either Hungary, or Poland and suffered from hatred of Jews which had limited their opportunities. The fact that my Grandfather’s became successful, reinforced the belief that for us America was a sanctuary and indeed a land of opportunity. Therefore of course, the Fourth of July was also a cause for celebration. Having established some readily identifiable parameters let me get to the point of this.
Since the end of World War II, in the light of America’s great victory, the rituals that have bound this country together have begun to unravel. The Cold War, with its emphasis on “loyalty vs. disloyalty” began to divide us in terms of our political sympathies. To liberals who were being accused of being “pink” or “red,” the Jingoism expressed on the Fourth of July was an unseemly demonstration of acceptance of the aura of nuclear destruction that hung over this country, the hypocrisy of “Jim Crow’s” tacit acceptance and the inequality of wealth. To patriotic Conservatives, it was the belief that there was a “Third column” in the U.S., that was trying to undermine its Capitalist economy and turn us all into “communist slaves”. They took what they saw as the liberals lack of patriotism and began to “double down” on their patriotic displays, further alienating those who loved America, but disagreed with its’ policies both internal and external.
The 50’s ended and JFK’s election provided hope for the liberals that they were again in the ascendancy. His murder though and the Viet Nam escalation, turned them away again from feeling one with the policies of the country. My generation, maturing in the 60’s, began to reject the rigidity of the mores of the 50’s, in dress, sexuality and just plain having fun. We became disdainful of the common American rituals and began to create those of our own, as anyone who spent an evening smoking “pot” back then would understand. We rejected the music and we rejected the dress codes. My generation’s rejection bred blow-back from the “straights” who saw us as unseemly rebels, trying to undermine everything that made the country great, which in turn increased my generation’s cynicism about the country. Thus the common “American” rituals which were created to bind us together became sources of discord.
What has really torn down the ritual structure of America though, has been the marketing of products that have been tied to some of our country’s common rituals. It has led us away from our love of country by turning our National Holidays and even religious celebrations, into marketing opportunities, thus cheapening them and leeching the meaning from them. Some here who know my opinions may be shocked to learn is that I love this country. I am an American and I would wish to live nowhere else in this world. Therefore, “Left Wing” cynic that I am, it distresses me to see those rituals that bind us become merely marketing opportunities. This is so easy anyone to see that I’ll merely list the instances and let you fill in the knowledge:
Thanksgiving Day = two football games, alcohol, Macy’s Parade
Fourth of July = Fireworks, barbeque and alcohol
Christmas = presents (most Americans are Christian), alcohol & football
Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday = President’s Day and auto sales
There are of course more, but you can supply them as well as I can. The most prominent of all of these is the Super Bowl, which has become the greatest of American rituals. It is a mixture of patriotism, religiosity and most importantly commerce. The six hour pre-game show is intertwined with analysis of the players, teams, but most importantly marketing of products. The Air Force is roped into this extravaganza by an over flight after the National Anthem and the Army Drill team presents the Flag in the lead up to the Anthem. The analysis of the various extravagantly produced TV commercials rivals that of the actual game play. At least one third of all Americans watch this spectacle, which has in the end become our most binding ritual. While I always watch it along with so many others, it is with misgivings about what exactly is being presented here and what is its real message? I believe that it “binds” us in ways that are actually counter-productive to the Nation and its message is one of rampant commercialism, rather than national unity.
My point, probably not well-made, is that ritual is endemic to the social fabric and a natural outgrowth of human activity. It can be simply bonding around a campfire, or as complex as religious services planned to engulf the participant and keep them susceptible to a particular belief. It also is displayed in patriotic demonstrations and was brought to high art by the NAZI’s in their Nuremberg rallies. No matter how perceptive we might be, we are all susceptible to ritualistic behavior. My fellow hippies and I of course abjured the societal rituals we grew up with, but then developed our own, which at times subsumed us into our own particular doctrinaire behavior. The concept of ritual itself is neither positive, nor negative and despite protestations, we all engage in one form or another. I ended with the National rituals because the control of them by commercial interests has made them devoid of meaning. As such we now have people who strongly believe that Government per se is the enemy and that freedom means the ability to make choices in the marketplace.
I am not pleading here for a return to common, positive ritual, because I don’t believe at this point in our history that that is even possible. I’m noting though this decline as yet another sign of the deep chasm between the citizenry of this nation and remarking upon a little considered source for this. I wish I knew how to heal this rift and I wish I knew how we could diminish the over commercialization of this country, that is really destroying the fabric of our society, by trivializing our common mythology in the name of profit. I’ll leave you with this thought:: Visualize a man dressed up as Abe Lincoln, hawking Toyota’s at fantastic savings on President’s Day “week”. What is wrong with this picture on so many levels?