The surprising effect of rituals

Maria Isabel Garcia
Humans have brains that crave for some assurance, even momentarily, in the face of uncertainty – and ritual provide that for us

Decades ago, when one of my stepdaughters called us to tell us that she and her boyfriend had gotten married in Las Vegas, we asked them “why there?”.  She promptly replied: “Because the chapel near our street was free on Tuesdays and they even give you a free souvenir T-shirt.”.  I was so amused as I have never heard of that before as a reason to get hitched but I also thought that made so much sense given what I knew about them. They have been together so lovingly for over 5 years, they were both mature, they were already there, their closest friends were there with them, they knew we wouldn’t mind, and of course, it was free. In fact, that made a lot of sense. So much so that it was bizarre.

“Bizarre” because people are usually not very rational when it comes to personal relationships. That is why weddings have become such a big thing in modern times – it has become a public form of consolation to the couple, their families, friends and even to strangers at large, that even though we all know that life never promises anything, you really think that having a ritual like a wedding, elaborate or not, will help you fare better at this very risky adventure called marriage.

Most people take on the common wedding rituals – a “significant” (to the couple) venue, some costumes for the bride and groom and their entourage, a combination of fanciful ceremonies sometimes involving coins, doves, cords or whatever other items that have taken on meaning across generations, and of course, celebratory food. A very interesting piece on the natural history of the wedding dress revealed so much about how many have come to adore those majestic bridal gowns and would always expect the bride to be no less than stunningly beautiful if only during the wedding ceremony. Other couples have even personalized their wedding ceremonies with their own vows, accessories and music. We know (and we really all do know) that they do not bring total guarantees of wedded bliss but we still do them.  Why?

Because humans have brains that crave for some assurance, even momentarily, in the face of uncertainty. Rituals provide that for us. Rites of passage – weddings, baptisms, baby showers, birthdays, debuts, graduations, wedding anniversaries and even death ceremonies – give our brains some sort of reprieve from all the uncertainties that life dishes out. That reprieve is not at all useless but somehow psychologically equips us with a uniquely poised momentum to give life our best shot. This is why rituals are usually accompanied by exalting speeches, inspiring words, delightful set-ups. Even in rituals that all make us cry serve a bonding purpose. So that when we cry with others, we really do feel better. And with most rituals, we do it with others. Rituals indeed solidify our bonds with each other.

In an article in Scientific American, it mentioned that research has shown that doing some ritual before a task that involves high pressure really does raise your confidence level. The same applies to mourning rituals – they seem to ease your grief. These rituals do not even have a direct effect on the outcome BUT it is your belief that they will, that brings you to a “better” place. And when these rituals are carried out in groups, you feel an invisible thread running, stitching your souls into some kind of emotional quilt that feels like a inner shelter from your common fears and grief.  In this sense, rituals serve as some kind of placebo, and indeed research bears out that placebos could be powerful healers even when you know that they are placebos.

When two of my best friends and I were traveling in our places years ago, I would always catch the two of them hijack some fortune teller.  That was their ritual. They would not tell me because they know I found those things really silly. On hindsight, I should have joined them then not because I think I could have predicted what was yet to be, but because I could have shared that fun experience with my two best friends and sealed a great memory.

Even in sports, research has shown that rituals before a game boosts the performance of athletes, whether in basketball or golf.  I am sure sports fans know about the rituals of their favorite athletes and sort of ride on that too as part of the over-all sports experience. I think that is what makes sports a human enterprise – we have physics, anatomy, chemistry and belief all rolled into one extravaganza of an experience.

Compared to my family and friends, I am ritual-impoverished. This is compounded by the fact that I am not given to subscribe to any religion – an enterprise known to for the richness and diversity of rituals. And because my mind is slanted a certain way, it is natural for me to ask for a logical reason behind practices, which of course, is almost always, missing. For example, I was once asked not to start working in a new building until after 11AM. When I asked why, the ritual master said something like “because the earth cannot move before 11”, to which of course I replied “but the earth is always moving.” This just made everyone shake their heads at me and just let me go because I would be less trouble that way.

I think I am a lot less interesting than most because I am relatively “ritual-free.” To make up for this deficiency, I have a natural cure: anthropologist friends. I have a close friend who is a cultural anthropologist who always has a way of hooking me into how all kinds of societies in the world cope with this big wonderful uncertain mess we are all endowed with called life. I like anthropologists because they are always at the junction of belief and reason which I think is like the “event horizon” (that “spot” in blackhole between “existing” and being sucked forever into oblivion).  That takes a lot of emotional and intellectual stamina to be in and stay in.

Ironically, I have a lot more respect for rituals after I have understood what they are for. They are not mere cosmetics to lifestyle and behavior. They truly meld with reality in ways we still don’t fully understand. That makes them mysteries worth chasing. –