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David Bouchier: Rituals And Repetitions

Courtesy of Pixabay

Everybody knows what to expect on the Fourth of July. There will be flags, barbecues, picnics, concerts, parades, fireworks, political grandstanding – and the Post Office will be closed. In a world that is so full of uncertainties it's good to be sure of something. Every nation has some such annual festival – Polish National Day, May 3, is marked with folk dances, traditional costumes and lots of food. On Saint Patrick’s Day the Irish like to wear green, go to church, and watch rugby matches, and the National Day of England, April 23, is treated with complete indifference, which is a statement about national character in itself.

We are a ritualistic species. We love big national events like the Fourth of July, and even international ones like the Olympics Games or the World Economic Forum in Davos, the distinguishing feature of which is that they are always the same. At the Olympics people run around tracks and jump over things, and at Davos very wealthy political and economic leaders gather to discuss how they can become even richer. These are not events designed to achieve anything more than themselves. They are symbolic moments, rituals designed to make us feel secure about the predictability of things.

We never escape from the gentle embrace of ritual. Except for a brief period between the onset of adolescence and the arrival of common sense, when anarchy reigns, most people’s lives, including mine, are repetitive to a degree we don’t often think about. The soothing routines of work and suburban life, from commuting to lawn care to cat feeding, get us through the day, the week and the year without the need to make many complicated choices. They symbolize normality. Sports and games are entirely ritualistic, as are graduations, weddings, elections, pop concerts, riots, wars, and medical checkups. If everyone plays their part, there are rarely any surprises. Rituals keep us on the rails, and the training starts early. 

Rituals make traditions come alive. The Fourth of July without the parades and speeches would be nothing but a date on the calendar. Thanksgiving would be nothing without the turkey. Democracy would be nothing without voting and the formal process of legislation. The law is nothing but a whole series of rituals. We need to take care of these things. They may be old-fashioned, and slow things down, and cut into profits, but they have a steadying effect on society. When traditions and rituals are abandoned, chaos is never far behind.

Some rituals are purely for fun, like Halloween. Others have been made obsolete quite recently, like the civilized conventions of diplomacy. We discard old ones and invent new ones all the time. Why do we do this? Because ritual feels good. It connects us to other people who are doing and thinking the same things at the same time. For once, if only for a day or a moment, when we perform a ritual, we are all in it together.

Have a very Happy Fourth!

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.