The Importance of Rituals


I am graduating! This is an important time in my life and I notice that it comes with many complex feelings; I feel happy, excited, scared, nervous, sad, proud, etc. When asked by classmates and interested others “Will you walk the stage?” I answer without hesitation, “Yes! I wouldn’t miss it!”

Rituals and rites of passage, like walking a stage, are an important part of human experience and they traditionally mark hellos and goodbyes; birthday parties are hello reminders, weddings are hellos, funerals are goodbyes, and graduation walks are goodbyes and hellos. Of course we can engage in rituals privately, but sharing our joys and sorrows with others is an important part of applauding our experiences. In fact, rituals are framed as requiring both events and cognitive processes of the event. Through connection around an event  we solidify memories, we temporarily make the past real again, and we get courage from those who believe in us to head toward the future.

The importance of the familial and community systems viewpoints of the ritual experience have been noted as highly influential on whether a rite of passage becomes a healthy or unhealthy transformative experience (Blumenkrantz and Wasserman 1998). Thus, if one’s cultural view holds a transition in contempt (e.g., “Miss College fancy pants thinks she is better than us”), the ritual might provoke anxiety and despair, which can influence people to withdraw from sharing transitions,  hellos, and goodbyes with one another. The most positive rituals seek to celebrate achievements, note an emergent identity, and foster a sense of belonging.  When joining a ritual party, it would be wise to frame the experience with these ideals in mind.

Even when a ritual marks a particularly sad goodbye, the elements of success remain the same. It is important to the grief process for a ritual to review the good that has been lost. Not only does this help participants make meaning , it fosters solidarity and joining. It is also important to note the changing roles that goodbyes leave behind. In funeral ceremonies, this can often be seen in people bringing food for grieving spouses, offering childcare for children mourning the loss of a parent, and in friends agreeing to congregate yearly for a lost buddy. Other sad rituals, like moves, work best when goodbyes are marked and plans are made to allow for contact, illustrating the same principles at work. Even breakups, which can be particularly painful, need a ritual for healing. These are often done more privately, or even in therapy, but perhaps connecting with a trusted friend or family member to review, make meaning, and honor a new role might help smooth the transition to being single.

What motivated me to write this post is how disconnected our culture seems to have gotten from rituals; we have forgotten what is gained and have become focused on what must be spent. Sometimes I hear people say they will not attend a ritual because they dont have time, or talk about how much it costs, or even more frightening, they say there is no meaning in the ritual. Pageantry and distance aside, the meaning comes from participating with an intention to make something happen in connection with others. Perhaps if we refocused on that part of the experience, the barriers of competition, feeling obligated to spend money, and choosing to go it alone or not mark the transition at all would abate. The next time you are tempted to avoid celebration, examine what is underneath. Perhaps joining an event is exactly what is needed to help make meaning out of the absurdity that is life.

In conclusion, although I am weary, low on money, and feel pressed for time, I will participate in my graduation ceremony. I want to feel the moment, see others taking the walk, look out in the crowd for my family and friend’s faces, and explore this monumental transition period in my life to the fullest. It is time to say goodbye to the role I have had for so long and hello to my new life. In such a big moment, I choose to not go it alone, so thanks to all of those who will be joining me in my ritual. I did not get here alone, I will not get where I am going alone.

For Therapy Services: The Key Counseling of SA

  1. Lavelda Naylor said:

    Roger, thanks for the share. I felt every second of it and when I ended the evening, I felt I had truly passed through something. I am glad I was fully present.

  2. I congratulate you on your accomplishment. Graduation is a ritual that brings to a close one aspect of life while opening doors to new opportunities. I opted out of my undergraduate graduation ceremony and I regret that choice. There was no closure. I was present for my Master’s graduation ceremony as well as my Doctoral graduation. I understand the difference between not participating and participating. I always advised my students at any level to attend their graduation ceremony. I certainly applaud your decision to do so.

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