Why Ritual?

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.

One thought on “Why Ritual?

  1. Leslie Jamison makes a similar point in her essay “The Empathy Exams,” which is a great exploration of the anxiety people have about being pulled between ritualistic and sincere points of view.

    “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”—this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.”


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