The Importance of Ritual
Marking life events in a socially distant world.
Posted May 19, 2020
Last week, I participated in my first ever virtual hooding ceremony for new PhDs in the Department of Anthropology at Washington University. It was a distinctly strange affair.
Over 100 people gathered on a Zoom call, some dressed in academic regalia, others in t-shirts and sweatpants. Some showed up with dignified virtual backgrounds behind them—fancy library bookshelves or scenes from their fieldwork in Nepal; others sat in front of messy kitchen counters or maneuvered pets or small children out of the way. Despite the weirdness and awkward moments of the virtual ceremony, it was a festive and meaningful event, albeit a far cry from the usual festivities.
This virtual graduation was not the first altered celebration I have experienced recently. When my daughter turned 15 earlier this month, a caravan of 12 cars full of cheering teenagers holding signs and balloons cruised up and down in front of our house to wish her Happy Birthday. It was both incredibly sweet and incredibly sad.
Millions of Americans are finding themselves, like the Anthropology department and my daughter's friends, scrambling to devise ways to mark important milestones in a new reality where gathering in large groups is dangerous. From Zoom parties to TikTok events, we, collectively, are digging deep to find creative strategies for punctuating the monotony of quarantine time and reminding ourselves that, although much of the world seems to have stopped in its tracks, time, in fact, moves on.
Rites of Passage
As Americans, we generally do not think of ourselves as an overly ritualistic society. Priding ourselves on our modern, science-driven, first-world status, most Americans associate "ritual" with other more "exotic" cultures like the Balinese or the Hausa.
But Americans are, in fact, profoundly ritualistic. First-day-of-school photos posted to Facebook, proms, graduations, bachelorette parties, honeymoons, retirement parties, memorial concerts, and even sporting events—all of these are ritual events or practices that mark transitions and create or celebrate social ties.
One of the most important features of rituals is that they do not only mark time; they create time. By defining beginnings and ends to developmental or social phases, rituals structure our social worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change.
Anthropologists have long studied social rituals as a way of understanding what a group of people believes and what they value. Of particular interest to anthropologists is a class of rituals called rites of passage.
A rite of passage—a term first coined by French ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep (1960) and popularized by the American anthropologist Victor Turner (1970)—is a ritual or set of rituals that moves participants from one state of social being to another: child to adult, fiancé to wife, student to graduate.
Turner described three key phases to such transitions: separation (as people are removed from their prior social role either symbolically or, more often, by being physically sequestered from the larger community in a special space), liminality (the period of being “betwixt and between” two different roles), and reintegration (when individuals are reintroduced into society in their new role state). This process of transitioning from one accepted social role to another is an awesome and monumental task, requiring the careful attention and mentorship of knowledgeable others to ensure that this potentiality is properly channeled.
This is how a rite of passage is supposed to go, in any event.
Yet, for many of us, quarantine is itself a state of prolonged liminality. Life "as normal" is distinctly over. Yet we have not yet returned to whatever our "new normal" will be. And there are profound disagreements about whom we should recognize as the "knowledgeable mentors" to guide us through to the other side.
So we wait in this in-between state, betwixt and between, neither here nor there, suspended. When our usual rites of passage are also absent, this can produce a profound sense of dislocation and alienation that is existentially, psychologically, and even physically painful and exhausting.
This is part of why so many of us are struggling with the existential vagaries of the current state of things; because time has lost much of its structure, its rhythm. What happens when high school seniors have no prom? Or no graduation? When weddings are postponed? When freshman move-in day evaporates? And on an even more prosaic level, how do we move from parent or partner to professional worker and back again without the usual markings of transition?
We are, in short, living in the midst of multiple ritual cycles that are as yet incomplete. It is understandable, then, that we feel anxious and destabilized, and long for a clear path forward.
Clinical Implications of Remaining in Flux
In my psychotherapy practice, I (like many of you, I imagine) have a number of clients who are struggling with a sense of emotional and psychological disorientation born from the current situation. They feel disconnected, unmoored, isolated, lost. Some can't sleep; others sleep too much. Some obsess while others tune out. For some, anxiety spikes or depression deepens; others report feeling numb.
It is important to remember that all of these are reasonable and responses to a highly unusual situation. We are not built to live in isolation, with life and time unmarked. We are not built to live in liminality, at least not like this.
It is true that disorientation and existential untethering are exactly the kinds of feelings and experiences that are supposed to happen during the liminal phase of a ritual—this is how such rituals are thought to work. The difference is that, during a ritual rite of passage, there is a predefined beginning, middle, and end. Liminality is uncomfortable and sometimes even scary or painful, but it moves participants toward something else, something socially recognized and valued.
That is not the case for us right now. Most of us don't feel like we're moving—we feel stuck, frozen in time and place. We don't know when this will end, or what that will look like. And with the phased reopening of the economy, there's no big "Hooray! It's over!" moment to help mark when liminality ends and the new normal begins.
Our clients, then, are in a position of struggling with the liminality we all feel, while also trying to make changes for the better (or at least not reach to unhealthy coping). This is in some ways an impossible ask. So how can we help clients feel like they are not stuck during this phase, but can, indeed, still move forward?
Creating Rituals in Suspended Time
Reaching again to the insights of anthropological studies of ritual, one way is to help clients create their own "rituals" within this liminal phase of quarantine. Here, I don't mean ritual in a religious sense, though for some clients of faith that can be helpful. I mean helping clients devise ways of marking time and progress when the world around all of us seems to be on hold.
Daily rituals might be as simple as getting dressed in work clothes even when working from home and changing out of them at the end of the workday. Weekly rituals might be planning a pizza and movie night for every Friday or Zooming with friends on Saturdays for a virtual coffee hour. These may not seem like rituals per se, but they can become ways of marking the cycles of time (days, weeks) as well as the beginnings and endings of different role statuses (being a worker during the day).
But what about the client whose grandmother died, or the one whose son is graduating from college? For these clients, it can feel demoralizing and lonely to be deprived of the social rituals of a funeral or graduation that help people integrate change and move on to new states of being and new sets of relationships.
Emphasizing to clients the importance of marking such events is critical. What they are doing is, in effect, creating a "reincorporation" opportunity in the absence of the traditional means of doing so. This might mean, as one client did, baking her grandmother's favorite cookies, decorating the table with her favorite flowers, and journaling about her grandmother while enjoying the cookies. Or the whole family dressing up in their best clothes for an at-home graduation dinner. In both cases, the ritual enabled a sense of completion, of movement, even in the midst of a social and relational world that has been radically changed.
Anthropological insights about ritual can both help make sense of some of the stress and disconnection many of us are feeling in the current situation, and can also help point us toward some strategies to help clients (and ourselves) navigate our socially distant world. In this way, we can continue to move, even as much of the world remains suspended.
Gennep, Arnold van. 1960. The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Turner, Victor W. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 1970.