The Modern West is often described as “individualistic.” More so than others, Westerners (Americans, Europeans, Canadians, Australians, etc.) tend to be preoccupied with individual autonomy, individual rights, individual fulfillment and so forth. This stands in contrast to the more “collectivist” orientation of most Asian and African societies. It is also quite alien to our evolutionary past. By the time of Homo erectus, our ancestors were gangly, naked, odd-ball apes, bereft of powerful jaws, intimidating canines, tree-climbing ability and other impressive primate adaptations. Their fate depended upon smarts, tools, and each other. Left alone, they had no chance. The group was life; separation from the group was a death sentence.
Philosophers and scientists have searched in vain for the defining feature of personhood – some trait unique to and universal among humans, such as rationality, free will, or an ethical sense. Traditional African philosophy defines personhood, not as a biological endowment, but as a state achieved through increased incorporation into a community. From her years working with northern Sudanese tribesman, anthropologist Janice Boddy concluded that the:
northern Sudanese with whom I worked do not see themselves as unique entities, wholly distinct from others of their group … Personhood in northern Sudan is relational rather than individualistic; a person is linked corporeally and morally to kin (Boddy, 2010, p. 115).
The dependency of the individual on the group is aptly reflected in the traditional African proverb “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” One is a “person” by virtue of the roles and responsibilities one assumes in the community – those roles and responsibilities being ritualistically bestowed.
Ritual as a mechanism for defining group status is ubiquitous among traditional societies. A newborn is not recognized as a community member among the Lohorung Rai of Nepal until ritually introduced to the ancestors. A boy is not a man among the Maasai of East Africa until he completes the Emuratare ceremony, which among other things involves circumcision. A San girl is not a woman until completion of the Eland Bull Dance. Any liminal moment, whether it is adulthood, marriage, motherhood, becoming a warrior, or entering the afterlife, was ritually marked. In doing so, ambiguity was removed and status was clearly designated. You knew who you were and what was expected of you – essential pieces of information in a world where survival necessitated strong group cohesion and coordination. Archaeological evidence indicates that ritual activity penetrates deep into our past, at least 100,000 years.
Modern individualism has many benefits. But numbered among its casualties is the clarity of existential purpose our ancestors typically possessed. This may be one reason for the high rates of anxiety, depression, and anomie that often plague modern societies – maladies all but unheard of in our ancestral past. Indeed, a recent survey found that residents of more impoverished, but more religious, third world countries had a greater sense of meaning in life than residents of wealthier, more secular countries. Increased religious practice involves more ritual activity, such as baptisms, weddings, bar-mitzvahs, etc. – clear markers of status and expectations.
It’s hard to be human on our own. The lesson of our past is that the fullest measure of our humanity is found when we surrender some autonomy and let ritual define (at least some) of our identity.
Boddy, J. (2010) The work of Zar: Women and spirit possession in Northern Sudan. In S. Sax, J.Quack, & J. Weinhold (Eds.) The problem of ritual efficacy (113-130). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oishi, S, & Diener, E. (2014). Residents of Poor Nations Have a Greater Sense of Meaning in Life Than Residents of Wealthy Nations. Psychological Science. 25, 422-430