How ritual will help get us through this

Dr Badami leading a discussion

by Kiama local Dr Monty Badami

We are delighted Dr Badami will be offering a five part series in coming editions to encourage you to benefit from rituals during this time. He will give some handy tips on how to meaningfully reflect on the current situation, so you create your own rituals and routines to help you deal with change and remember what is important in your life. There will also be some fun activities you can do with your friends and family to maintain a sense of connection in this very challenging time.

OK, so full disclosure, I am an anthropologist. I see symbolic processes and practices everywhere. I just can’t help myself. It is both a blessing and curse… ask my wife!

As an anthropologist, a celebrant and a coach, I make a living out of understanding, crafting and advocating for rituals that help us to find a sense of meaning and purpose in the world.

The truth is that we are surrounded by meaningful symbols, structures and practices. But symbols only have power because of the power that we invest in them.

Right now, we have invested toilet paper with a certain symbolic value. It now means something completely different to what it meant before this madness descended upon us. But that is the thing, the only constant in life is change.

Symbols, and the value we place in things, are always changing and so too are the cultures within which those symbols exist. To demonstrate this, let me give you a little example.

So yesterday I came home from Woolies with a ten pack of toilet paper! I know right. You hate me already, don’t you? Bear with me for a moment though, I had no idea this treasured item was going to be there. It was a moment of serendipity, I promise!

As I entered the centre, I shared knowing looks with friends and acquaintances as they scampered to their cars, with their TP clutched tightly under their arms. They were clearly excited, but they were trying not to look too excited (if you know what I mean).

On entering Woolies, I asked the person at the gate if there was any left. She wasn’t sure but said that there was someone at the end of the aisle who had a whole pallet in the morning.

I saw the sales person holding the last packet and I desperately gave her an overtly pleading nod. I wanted her to know that one was mine!

But what would I have done if I had been intercepted by somebody else? What if I saw an older person who needed it, would I have given it to them? I like to think I would have been really generous and cool, but I’ll never know… it didn’t happen.

I hate those selfish hoarders, but gee I wish I had done it when I had the chance!

I present the illusion of charity, social service and maturity, but come at my toilet paper and I don’t know what I would do to you!

It is a sign of what sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’. Toilet paper represents the emergence of a new commodity that speaks to a number of deep social values.

As mentioned, I didn’t plan to buy them, but as I returned with the spoils of my victorious adventure, I told the story as if I was ‘man the hunter’, bringing home riches for my family.

My wife was resplendent with joy, my kids whinnied and danced as if I had brought them something so valuable that our relative status within the community had just stepped up a level.

It was a symbol of wealth, privilege, status and comfort.

But at the same time, my pride was met with shame. The whole experience made me realise that we demonise the horders whilst simultaneously coveting them… I would say it was batshit crazy, but I fear that would be in bad taste in the current climate.

There is no doubt that right now, we are experiencing lots of change. So in this crazy messed up moment of history, there is a deep human need to find and create meaning out of this massive social disruption.

This is where ritual comes in. Ritual is a really important way of dealing with the anxiety caused during times of uncertainty. Across cultures, and throughout history, people tend to perform more rituals during stressful events such as warfare, environmental threat, and material insecurity.

To understand this better, we need to take a look at our brains.

Humans are naturally meaning making creatures, and we are creatures of habit. We are wired to make sense of the world by drawing on past experience, in order to make the present and the future seem more predictable.

But during times of rapid change and uncertainty, we can’t help but feel anxiety. By turning our attention to rituals, we get to engage in a highly structured activity that has a repetitive quality and that can really help to relieve anxiety.

So even if the rituals we choose have no direct influence over the physical world, they provide a sense of control by imposing a sense of order on the chaos of everyday life.

In fact the anxiety reducing effects of ritual are amplified when we do them with others (even maintaining physical distancing or doing them virtually). We know that communal ritual brings about a reduction in cortisol (the hormone we produce when we’re stressed) and an increase of oxytocin (the hormone we produce when we feel all loved up and connected).

It is not surprising, then, that people around the world are responding to our current crisis by creating new rituals.

Even though there is a lot of doom and gloom on the social feeds, there are also wonderful stories of people going to their balconies at the same time every day to applaud health care workers, making communal music, doing group exercise, going out on their driveway for a street dance, or getting on line to sing together in the form of a virtual choir.

What we are seeing is that ritual provides a bit of structure, helps to reclaim a sense of control, and maintains a broader feeling of human connection.

It is no wonder, then, that ritual has been such an essential part of our evolutionary history. And whilst it may look different in different places or different times, it remains an incredibly powerful tool for promoting resilience and solidarity.

By turning our attention to rituals, we have an incredible opportunity reframe the narrative around a shared crisis like this. Challenge and disruption creates the impetus for change.

For example, in our home we have had to change the way we do things. We are much more mindful about how we prepare our food and the way we manage waste, we are more intentional about how we interact with each other, we practice gratitude and have honest open conversations regularly.

We have welcomed rituals of virtual connection with friends and family, we have ritualised our daily routine and even the way we wash our hands. I’m not suggesting we are perfect, but we are using ritual to help us cope… and sometimes it feels like coping is all we can do.

Right now, we get to reassess what we really value. We have a chance to create new stories, rituals and practices, and invest new objects with symbolic power. We can appreciate the little things that usually go unnoticed and let go of the things we thought we cared about, but that really don’t matter right now.

We get to decide who we want to be and how we want to live our lives. We get to decide how we want to adapt to these new conditions of life. We can use the things we learn from this experience to remember what we had to go through, what resources drew on, how we came through this, and what really matters so that when it happens again, we are a little more prepared.

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