How seemingly senseless acts make life worth living

The value of rituals in life… and in commerce.

Carrie walked into her mother’s home to find her sitting on the floor, surrounded by relatives and friends. She was wailing after having just buried her son. Nobody seemed to be able to offer any consolation—in fact, any attempt had her cry harder.

“Why don’t you make us tea, mom?” It took an instant. All of a sudden, her mother stood up, composed herself, and went into the kitchen. Several minutes later in she walked with a tray filled with a hot teapot steeping, lovely china cups and biscuits.

Hot tea and biscuits to handle grief?

I borrowed the title of this post from the subtitle of Dimitris Xygalatas’ book Ritual. Xygalatas is an anthropologist and cognitive scientist who studies some of the things that make us human.

There are likely practices that you remember adults putting you through as a child that didn’t seem to serve an obvious purpose. Parades, compulsory church attendance, inaugurations, birthday parties, rain dances (just checking), etc. may feel like inherited habits without immediate tangible results. Well, except for the gifts at birthday parties.

“We tend to think about ourselves as very rational beings, and yet so much of what we consider meaningful sits in actions that are compulsively repeated and yet have no obvious outcome,” says Xygalatas. Through they have no causal effect in the world, rituals play very important functions in human societies. 

As it was the case with Carrie’s mother, rituals help individuals through their anxieties and connect to one another.

Image by Anke Sundermeier from Pixabay

Rituals help people find meaning in their lives.

“One of the things that I’ve learnedone of the most fascinating things that I’ve learned through my research is that even rituals that seem to be painful, stressful or outright dangerousthey seem to have tangible and in fact measurable utility and functions for the people who perform them. 

Xygalatas studied fire walking, where people literally walk barefoot across hot coals. In the context of a fire walking ritual in Spain, they found that during this ritual, people’s heart rates synchronized. Those of the people watching, and those of the people walking on the coals.

Showing that “these rituals play a role in bringing the emotional reactions of the members of that community in alignment. And by aligning our appearances, aligning our motions, aligning our emotions, those rituals can actually lead to social alignment.”

Remember the singing from the balconies in Italy during the lockdowns? Those were ritualistic gestures to align emotions in a very social culture. In other countries people banged pots and pans to show solidarity with one another. Which is a good reason why our social institutions are permeated by ritual.

“By providing a sense of order and control over the frequently disorderly and uncontrollable situations we face in our daily life, [rituals] help us cope with anxiety.”

Rituals are embedded in our cultural systems. Once you attune to the practices, you can spot them everywhere. On the pleasurable side, it’s the mind-morning coffee break or the late afternoon aperitivo complete with savory snacks In Italy. On the deprivation side, the fast during Ramadan, which amplifies self-regulatory discipline.

Some cultures retained rite of passage from young person to adult. The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania have retained several rites of passage. Boys between the ages of 10-20 perform a series of rituals to be initiated as the new “warrior class” of the tribe.

Na’ii’ees or the puberty ceremony is for Apache girls coming of age. It’s a 4-day affair. In Malaysia, at 11 Muslim girls can celebrate Khatam Al Koran, a prestigious ritual that demonstrates their growing maturity at their local mosque.

Within a very structured container—the ceremony or challenge—creates a mini-journey to help participants make the shift in identity. Via similar backgrounds, values, and experiences, they also create and/or strengthen a sense of connection with the entire community.

What about commerce?

“Machine” has been a prevalent metaphor for business since the Industrial Revolution. And it seems that automated systems of machine learning have become the current direction in search of ever higher efficiency and optimization.

But, increasingly, the consequences of this trajectory have had an adverse impact on people. Disengagement on both sides of the business transaction is the most salient and pervasive.

People are cultural beings, not resources to be harvested. How can we put the value back into things and experiences to enrich culture and ourselves?

“When you have a ritual, you’re assigning value to this thing.”

Rituals have value in our society. They help us to agree on things that matter and to come together. They’re about defining spaces and what we do in those spaces. Rather than functional differences—for example a sink with water—it’s about knowing that there are times and spaces to certain things—e.g., wash dishes in the kitchen, not in the bathroom.

Children used to play with marbles. They’d draw a circle in the ground and then knock the marbles around in specific ways. There were rules for things that could happen inside the circle that were different to the outside.

A well-designed ritual creates a circle of a different experience. It’s a special place because things can happen in there that cannot happen elsewhere to define who we are. And we get ‘rights of passage’.

When we walk into a store, we get a rite of passage. Because a store is a place of fantasy. You pick up a garments, go into the changing room, and wonder—could I become ‘this’ when I wear it? You imagine the events you could go to, how you’d act.

A store is not just a functional place where you exchange money for goods. But it’s a ritual transformation in the objects and in ourselves. You could come out and go into society as a new person. The sacrifice of coin happens at the cash register. Money symbolizes the work, creativity, and sometimes even physical pain you put into earning it.

We’re constantly playing with costumes. Apparel, but also the objects we carry with us. They help us make statements of identity. Young people unerstand the connection. And they’ve began to play with the idea that we’re not just one person, but have many identities.

Ritual design is the overlooked territory within our own commercial culture. As symbolic markers of a passage between one part of life and another, rituals require a shift in identity to match the scale of the transition.

Through an immersive threshold experience in which participants become temporarily liberated from the restrictions that otherwise define their lives, rituals enable the transformation of psychological and social identities, bridging the world of the concrete and the abstract.

Ritual design in business—and society

Many organizations have a poor understanding of ritual design. When it comes to identity—and walking inside circles—many companies do unhelpful things. For example, Elon Musk at Tesla. He wants workers to ‘come in and live there, and sleep there and just sacrifice the rest of their identity to work, work, work.’

We know well that people don’t function well under those conditions. People are not machines. You can’t just turn the crank and it workes better and better. Humans do their best work with many different stimulations.

We do better when we can go out in green space. When we take vacations, which the Brits call holidays, suggesting there’s something sacred about them. And it is. It’s another one of those circles, a space where you get to do things that replenish you, where you vacate all the other stuff that your work tries to put onto you.

“Rich associations come from a complete life.”

Facebook is another company that forces people to have ‘one true identity.’ You can see it also in Twitter and other social networks—trying to have a verified identity. Which is why people open multiple accounts.

We try to do that also in our professional lives. A job and also a side hustle, for example. Companies look down on it. But that’s the direction our economy is going—much more fluid.

And companies that put people into narrow roles, limit their potential. Why can’t companies put people into a series of ritual transformations? Help people attain new roles, new power, new abilities. Rather than limit their scope with literal tasks.

People have much more value than the imitations of machines into which the economy has pushed them. Conversely, machines are a pale imitation of what a human being can do. Human beings can get into the depth of ideas.

It’s disorienting when our stories don’t match reality. Disorientation is part of the ritual process. But when you have it—like we did during the pademic—without any kind of shared purpose, you lose some of the social engines of togetherness.

The more the stories we tell ourselves happen in different chambers, the more radically different what we end up believing. It happens in companies. At Goole you had workers protesting the company, ‘don’t do evil.’ While management sort of thought, ‘well, who can say what is evil?’

Different people have different stories. But as a society, we need to have a way for those stories to talk to each other, so that we still have connections. Rituals help us discover moments of profound human significance in a complex society that many have discounted as hopelessly mundane and disenchanted.

One of my questions goes to the difference between structures that create efficiencies—like the ‘cattle shoot’ pathways at airports—vs. structures that unleash imagination—ritual space design.

Jonathan explained that efficiency is one of those things that we want because we think that it will help us get to where we want to go. But when we get there, in a stright line, we don’t understand anything we didn’t know already.

Which is why the question mark is a favorite punctuation mark. It takes us to places we had not anticipated. Nobody knowns where the punctuation marks came from. Historians might not be able to tell you.

But if you look at their shapes, they tell you different stories. The question mark doesn’t go straight to a destination like the explamation mark. A question is a ritual in language, a place of vulnerability—admitting you don’t know, but you want to know.

Big, open questions can get you many places. They’re also very inefficient, giving you a lot of stuff you may not want. However, they open up new possibilities. Efficiency closes down possibilities for new things.

How can we curate and organize more experiences with question marks than periods? Because we don’t even know what we miss when we sacrifice creativity and human ingenuity is favor of total efficiency.

“In predictability there’s no opportunity.”
“We can’t survive unless we have new ways of living as human beings.”

My conversation with independent qualitative researcher Jonathan Cook explores the origins of rituals and commonalities with and applications to business. We touch upon profound concepts—like fear of failure and death, the artificial notion of success in business, and what it means not to have a system that supports people going through difficult times.

Value in Rituals with Jonathan Cook.

0:00 Value in rituals 5:08 Defining spaces 9:43 Limiting identities 16:47 The human value 20:59 A loss of social connection 27:29 The importance of asking questions 31:57 Weakness is not a flaw 40:58 What is valuable for customers.