Cultural rituals draw their authority from tradition. They are deeply-rooted in the founding phase of the tradition; which is reiterated repetitively regardless of the amount of time that has gone by. The caveat–which I’m sure that many have experienced first-hand for themselves–is that not all age-old and time-tested things are necessary better. They may even hold us back from creating the future.
Time-tested traditions often run contrary to the contemporary way of being and doing. Age-old rituals run the risk of being perceived as out-of-touch and unworthy of continuation. Instead of creating a valuable sense of solidarity, these rituals can end up serving the opposite function. They can foster alienation, division and schisms. They may even keep us chained and bonded to a past that no longer exists and will never exist again.
Age-old and time-tested then equates to antiquated, stubborn, obsolete and unyielding. The function it then serves is as a memorial of the past. It cannot and does not promise its participants a bright and exuberant future that has not yet come into existence.
At the same time, we should exercise caution when we decide to scrap the rituals that have survived the tests of time and distance. Instead, we should accept that rituals, too, have to undergo the transformation that they are seeking to create. They must be seen with a fresh pair of eyes if they are to continue being relevant for the future.
Rituals have never been strong enough to secure strong and lasting bonds. While rituals are particularly important for groups where shared identity is emphasised, it cannot ensure that the group’s core values will be faithfully remembered, transmitted or passed down to the next generation of leaders and their members.
The ritual is primarily a social tool. When enacted well, it is meant to blur the boundaries that exist within oneself and the group. A ritual is only effective if it can transform an individual in a group into something far greater than the sum of their parts.
For a ritual to have the status that it deserves, we would all–as a community–have to treat it as such. When rituals lose their status, they will no longer be able to achieve the feeling that it is meant to: that we’re all in this together. This is fundamental to the process of social conditioning.
A core part of who we are as individuals is shaped–but not necessarily defined–by the various social groups to which we belong or have belonged to in the past. Our membership in these various social groups plays a fundamental role in forging our personal identity and the image we have of ourselves. The ritual is meant to trigger a sense of belonging.
A gap, however, exists between the intention, the enactment and the outcome of the ritual. This is why rituals appear puzzling, pointless and even confusing to both outsiders as well as those who participate in them. A ritual’s ability to create a special and meaningful experience can only occur if the group aligns to the outcome of the ritual.
The theatricality involved in the enactments of these rituals has the effect of taking a mundane moment and deliberately transforming it into something extraordinary. The more important the moment, the more extravagant and exuberant the ritual. After all, these moments are specifically engineered to create a sense of significance.
But for rituals to retain that sense of significance, they would have to include people who have ordinarily been excluded as well as continue to transform with the times. It is only, then, that these rituals will have meaning to those seeking a place in time where they can belong.
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