On a Graduation Ritual

May 15, 2009

Days end, and we move along in our calendar. The subtle transition of Monday into Tuesday is sufficiently signified by a shift of the digital readouts on our watches. A slightly more formal ceremony is needed as we move from May into June -- we grasp the calendar page and turn it. And for the more significant shifts in the state of our world, we have more elaborate ceremonies.

It is nothing new to say that we humans mark transformations of our world and in our lives with rituals. We celebrate a birth, we perform a ritual at a death. Marriage, graduation, moving -- these transitions have their protocol as well. And the ceremonial marking of life-altering transformations is found across cultures and across periods of human history. Indeed, such rites are an indication that a group of humans is to be considered a civilization.

Someone may claim that such rituals are irrational and useless, remnants of an older and less rational time in our human development. Such a person may argue that spending resources on funeral rites, or on a graduation party, is wasteful and unneeded. It is to such a person that I make this reply, and argue that there are vital benefits of ritual.

Ritual ties individuals together into a stronger unit. Families have their small idiosyncrasies. Extended families have their gatherings and feasts. And while I may have little else to do with the person behind me in line for communion in church, such a ritual grants us a bond of unity. It is with these rituals, then, that we come to feel a part of a community. We come to see ourselves defined as a part of the whole.

We humans are, as creatures, fairly limited in our individual capabilities. By banding together -- by becoming a part of a larger whole -- we can find the strength and organization to accomplish what no individual human could. Some of the most powerful things humans have done have been collective efforts. Some of them have been atrocious, and some amazing. Michelangelo may have painted the Sistine Chapel, but he couldn't have built the entire structure on his own.

Rituals help us on a collective level. But they also help us on an individual level. Rituals help us deal with change. College Graduation is a ritual to mark the transition of a student into something else -- something which may be considered more adult-like. It is the end of one life and the rising of another. The death of man and the birth. But in a world constantly in flux, rituals help us to set milestones -- mental reminders of what has come before, that we may better know where we now stand. Rituals are the save points in our game.