Ritual is just “going through the motions.” Is that a bad thing?
Think about saying “I love you” to a romantic partner. It might be sincere, or it might not be; how can you prove it?
Now think about “going through the motions” in love – staying up all night to take care of someone when they’re sick even if you don’t feel like it, having dinner together night after night, gazing into each other’s eyes, making a special effort to be kind instead of grumpy over and over, every day. Compared to “going through the motions,” saying “I love you” is just lip service.
Performing the same behaviors over and over demonstrates commitment. It establishes a rhythm that’s predictable and safe, allowing for creative exploration, just like a predictable jazz rhythm allows for a creative melody.
Ritual allows people to coordinate with each other. Dance partners dance best together when they know the steps – and they can improvise from there. Ritual can be energizing, relaxing, and fun. Knowing what you’re supposed to be doing takes the pressure off. And doing things together creates strong, trusting groups. It’s better than just talking. Far from “empty ceremony,” rituals can be deeply meaningful.
All human groups have rituals. Doing rituals together is how we cooperate and get along with each other – especially in a diverse society. When words fail, “going through the motions” can be the key to comfort, trust, and creativity.