When I told Andrew, my college roommate, that I was going to skip graduation because I didn’t think it would be fun he seemed puzzled. “It probably won’t be fun. Funerals aren’t fun, but I still go to those.”
For whatever reason this stuck with me. I mulled it over for weeks, like some sort of koan dispensed by zen master. I had always assumed that people participated in social rituals because of a vague autopilot; it hadn’t occurred to me yet that there might be value in a graduation ceremony. I had never examined how I felt about birthdays or Christmas or Mother’s Day, and what I was getting out of them. Or why some worked for me and others didn’t.
Let’s put aside for a second that a lot of holidays are fun. Everyone likes cake or pie or getting presents. But why have holidays at all? Why do we have cake some days and not others? Why not have cake every day?
A ritual, be it an event or a holiday, is a break in the norm, a day that is different from the others around it. And by being different it can act as a sort of mental milestone. A holiday gives you something to look forward to, a bit of concentrated joy in your future; there’s something to be gained in the anticipation of joy, which you don’t get if every day is the same. And when a holiday has passed it can help serve as a marker in your memory, a way of dividing time into a before and after; when people try and pinpoint a memory in time you’ll often hear events placed based on their relation to nearby holidays. By adding some unique texture or associations to a day you can make it stand out from the days around it, and I think that’s fun and valuable in and of itself.
Equally important, though, is that many of our societies rituals try to direct your attention. Thanksgiving asks you to focus on family and being thankful. Christmas has you think about other people and their wants. A graduation or a funeral directs your attention to the past. Setting aside time to focus on love or family or triumph or loss helps your process and savor those emotions. If you’re the kind of person who consistently makes time to sit down and do that on your own you are fully excused from all social rituals. If you aren’t, try and use them! Lean in to that aspect of them. Wallow in whatever feeling they’re drawing your attention to. I know some of you might say “I don’t really care about doing that,” and you guys are absolutely missing out. Reflection will make you happier, and if you don’t believe me maybe science can convince you.
So did I go to graduation? Of course not. Graduations are boring.
A few hours after that conversation with Andrew, I sat down on the sidewalk outside my dorm and tried to hold my entire college experience inside me. I remembered how Andrew would sing in the shower, and how Mike Ball had a pair of animatronic wall mounted boobs. I relived rescuing ducklings from the tunnels under campus, the time I came back to my dorm room to see Mike German getting dressed in my clothes, the night I free climbed the four story drain pipe on the side of the dorm. I tried to capture everything. Ellen’s goofy grin and the way Meaghan danced and the dorm’s old scratchy carpet. The feeling of living with a group of people I loved. The way the campus smelled in the fall. Weirdly little about class. I took all of these memories and and focused on them as much as I could as I scratched “this is over” into the sidewalk with a rock. Then I got in my car and drove away. That was my graduation; that’s all it needed to be for me.
I think people who don’t like rituals more often than not have a problem with the ritual, not the idea of setting aside some time for reflection or creating an emotional milestone. Not everyone likes turkey, but that doesn’t mean Thanksgiving is worthless. It just means you don’t like the trappings. As far as I can tell no one likes sitting around while hundreds of people get their diplomas, but I think graduations are worth having.
The night before my friends Sean and Julia got married, I had an overwhelming urge to extract them from the whirl of last minute preparations. They were stressed, and while I think that’s an important part of the wedding experience, they obviously needed a break. So a few of us decided we were going to throw them a ‘dark wedding’, a silly little ceremony before the big one. We didn’t tell them what was going to happen, just took them out to the woods and started having them do crazy stuff, and it was perfect. When we got back to the hotel we were all breathless and happy, and no one even asked why the bride and groom’s foreheads were smeared with blood. There have been two more dark weddings since and we’ve extended the idea: one of my friends had a Dark Defense, where he had to describe his Master’s thesis in a candlelit ring while defending himself from an audience armed with swords.
I think everyone reading this should make up at least one ritual. It could be daily or weekly or yearly, but it should help you focus on something important to you. You could decide to watch a sunset at the end of every week and think about what you did. You could make up your own silly holiday for your kid.
It turns out you can make up your own rituals, and I think you should. It’s way better! You can pick the focus, the trappings, and the participants. Go ahead and throw out holidays you don’t like! Why bother with Valentine’s Day if you or your partner views it as an obligation? If you hate Turkey don’t eat it on thanksgiving. Ignore Mother’s day or your birthday or even funerals or weddings. But fill those gaps with rituals you own. Figure out what you want to celebrate and try and come up with ceremonies that focus on what’s important to you! I seem to like my rituals weird and spooky, but yours can be anything. Make them silly! Or serious! Find inspiration in history, or make them up with your kids! If you want a holiday where you focus on how much you love your sibling, do it! That sounds awesome! Share your ritual with me because I’d love to celebrate that. We all could use more focused introspection in our lives, and this is a fun way to do it. And mo matter what you come up with, the ritual will be all the more meaningful for the fact that it’s yours.