How to Adapt Your Rituals in Times of Uncertainty

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How to Adapt Your Rituals in Times of Uncertainty | Wit & Delight
Photo by Melnychuk Nataliya on Unsplash

Of the 399,508 views this nine-minute video has—how to survive a fall through ice—I’m probably responsible for a good 800+ of them. The tutorial is utterly fascinating on a host of levels—perhaps not the least of which is because I grew up embracing the magic of winter Sunday afternoons at my grandparent’s southern Wisconsin farm where, in the winter months, after the small pond on their dairy farm froze over, my cousins and I would lace up pairs of hand-me-down figure skates and glide away the afternoon, often engaged in an ad hoc hockey game with hay bales as the goal nets and my uncle Bill as the referee, coach, and master organizer.

Because I’ve never loved hockey (sorry/not sorry), I’d frequently skate off to the far edges of the little pond looking for the mini swaths of thin edge ice. It brought strange satisfaction to chisel through the glassy layers of paper-thin ice with the back edge of my skate. To my eight-year-old self, it was my own little slice of living on the edge (with all two inches of water below me)! On most of those Sundays, I recall quietly creating a plan for the rescue if one of my cousins or siblings or I fell through the deeper ice. Fully chilled by the thought, each spring brought my tiny, anxious self an exhale, thankful that my childlike ice rescue plan was once again not needed.

And perhaps I come to this video again and again because we now live on a small river in the Midwest—the Fox River in DePere, WI. (Fun fact: It is one of only three in the entire US that flows north!) As I observe the icy chunks of winter setting in on the river, a too-familiar shiver makes its way into my soul, imagining the worst and dreaded moment: being witness to someone falling into the mighty Fox, the current sweeping them swiftly down and under, their hopeless figure flowing north. No plan on a swift moving river is a good plan if one goes through a foot of ice on the Fox. 

And maybe another reason why I’m intrigued by this video is because, after stumbling upon the tutorial a few years ago, it dawned on me that perhaps the video is about so much more than surviving a fall through ice. Maybe it has something to teach all of us about how to survive and thrive through life’s shocking, often unexpected ups and downs.

Like 2020.

Like the post-election haze.

Like pretty much all of 2020. (Did I already say that?)

Like the holiday season we’re currently in, with many of us mourning and angsting about the fact that our beloved traditions and rituals are sunk. The uncertainty of 2020 has once more tossed our hopes for a bit of normal celebrating overboard, like the final blow, pig-piling more suffering and loss during this uncertain time. Like, how can we possibly take any more?

Friends, we can take a little bit more—because we must. And as my wise friend and badass coach Dr. Christina Boyd-Smith reminded me and her readers last week: while no one has the for-sure answers right now about how to navigate it all, “What’s important right now is process, not answers.” 

Read. That. Again. I did (about six times) and her wisdom opened me. It shifted my perspective, even my approach to the content of this article as I struggled with what I might offer that was valuable or meaningful in a time when we’re all struggling to know what to do.

We can navigate this season rich with rituals and traditions, many being put on pause, by leaning on what we already know. When things are hard, we take one step at a time, even when it feels like we’re walking on thin ice, uncertain if we can survive even another hour of a season and year saturated with so much loss, so much tightness, so much anxiety. 

We can navigate this season rich with rituals and traditions, many being put on pause, by leaning on what we already know. When things are hard, we take one step at a time, even when it feels like we’re walking on thin ice.

You know the saying: “If you can’t change the situation, change how you think about the situation.” When it comes to our holiday rituals—the focus of my entire career as a social scientist—I do believe this year is actually the perfect time to shift our perspectives a bit.

In this time of expansive uncertainty, when the world demands of us something we don’t get to nor want to choose, perhaps we’re being given the most precious gift: time to take stock of why we continue our traditions and rituals in the first place. Of what they actually mean, of why we look forward to them, sustain them, invest in them, and thus why we mourn their loss or adaptation—this year in particular. 

Too many of us too easily slide into the typical hustle-bustle of the holiday season, doing what we “always do”—frenetically, and mostly joyfully, engaging in the traditions of our neighborhoods, families, organizations, and nation. We are good at the how of our traditions: making the eggnog, erecting the trees, and baking the secret recipe babka, cinnamon rolls, jello salads, and cookies passed down from Great-Great-Great-Aunt Judy. We’re good at enjoying (mostly) a month or more packed full of gathering and gifting and preparing and singing and decking the windows and mantels with greens and tinsel and donning ourselves in festive tartan plaids and things that glitter and sparkle. ‘Tis the season…of more, more, bigger, brighter, traveling, going, wrapping, receiving, sipping, toasting, roasting, jingle belling, and light-light-lighting things!

But how often, as we prepare for and then perform these rituals that have become part of family, cultural, and/or community lore, do we mindfully and actually discuss or reflect on the why of them? Why do we do these things, year after year, spending countless hours and dollars and days preparing, executing, hosting, gathering, and sustaining the X and the Y of our family’s, organization’s, or friendship group’s rituals and traditions? Why they are important? What are they doing for us and the groups to which we belong? What do they reveal about our values as humans in relationship to each other? Our humanity? About us in relation to our core beliefs about what is important, what is prized, and what it means to live an authentic, good life?

Perhaps we’re being given the most precious gift: time to take stock of why we continue our traditions and rituals in the first place. Of what they actually mean, of why we look forward to them, sustain them, invest in them, and thus why we mourn their loss or adaptation—this year in particular. 

I don’t have answers, but I do have some insights—based on the decades of research about ritual and tradition—which might help you consider the process of ritual and tradition, and thus help you come to your own answers about how to navigate rituals and traditions during this time of intense uncertainty. 

First, there is rarely a better time to gain clarity on what we actually value and appreciate than when that thing has gone missing. Absence makes the eyes and heart grow open, usually more clear and focused. 

The words of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton bubble up for me here again, providing timeless advice well beyond the experience of physical sound: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.” The loss of our rituals and traditions this year can, if we allow it, teach us something profound about their presence. About their why. Their absence gives us the space—in our hearts and actions—to re-engage them in future years with a more mindful, meaningful sense of appreciation. Much as grief and loss are the greatest teachers of the joy and abundance we take for granted, so can the loss of our rituals inform and enrich our eventual return to them. Light is more beautiful, ever brighter, more sacred, after time in darkness.

At the very core of what makes ritual and tradition different from habits or just things we do that have a repetitive quality is that rituals are, by definition, sacred. And by sacred I simply mean cherished, meaningful, or important well beyond the action or activity itself. 

Every ritual—whether the big holiday tradition carried on for decades in your family or the little way you and your partner have a hand signal that means “I love you”—is valuable and has meaning not in the action itself but in the attitude behind the action. Rituals, in their doing, reveal what we value—and the value is the why.

Do you and your cousins/siblings/nieces/nephews bake the cookies with Great-Great-Aunt Betty each year because you’re hungry and need to satisfy your daily caloric intake? Or do you bake the cookies with Great-Great-Aunt Betty because you care about and value intergenerational bonding, hearing the stories of others past and present, the event reminding you and your cousins/siblings/nieces/nephews that you all are part of something bigger? 

The loss of our rituals and traditions this year can, if we allow it, teach us something profound about their presence. About their why. Their absence gives us the space—in our hearts and actions—to re-engage them in future years with a more mindful, meaningful sense of appreciation.

Do you put up an evergreen tree or bush in your living room and hang baubles on it each December because you’re bored with your décor and want to add a little “color” to your room? Or do you erect a tree or bush in your home and deck it out to pay homage to your beliefs, your faith, the season of Advent, the celebration of Hanukkah?

I asked a few friends and former students what they are going to miss most about any holiday rituals they won’t be able to enjoy this year. Their stories make the point more beautifully than I could, my pal Kate’s top among them—and not only because it involves chocolate and pie: 

“Since I was a little kid, the holidays have been largely defined by the tradition of Aunt Bev’s Chocolate Chip Pie. The anticipation as it was removed from the fridge, the sound of aluminum foil being peeled away, savoring and stretching each bite as long as possible, and without question, a second helping. As we’ve grown into adulthood, and our busy lives have made this indulgence less predictable—and being with Aunt Bev less frequent—holidays have been increasingly defined by the absence of it and the secret quest to replicate it on our own! Invariably, we all have failed to do so again and again. Because what has become beautifully obvious, especially as we’ve navigated the strangeness of this pandemic and the inability to gather with friends and family alike, is that the elusive ‘secret ingredient’ of Chocolate Chip Pie is Aunt Bev herself in all her mystique, magic, and matriarchal wonder.” 

Right? It’s not the tree nor the pie nor the cookies nor the elf that sits on so many shelves. Our rituals are rarely about the object, but about the meaning we give them—and the people and relationships that have co-created them. 

Because rituals are central to, and a reflection of, our little relationship cultures: the mini villages we call our families and friendships. And those are the cultures that will have the longest and greatest impact on not only our own mental and physical health but also those of our children and grandchildren and the people who will come after us, each one wanting to be part of something bigger even though they might never be able to articulate as much.

It’s not the tree nor the pie nor the cookies nor the elf that sits on so many shelves. Our rituals are rarely about the object, but about the meaning we give them—and the people and relationships that have co-created them. 

The research is quite conclusive on the question of ritual and family strength: strong families are those that create and sustain family rituals both at the holidays and in daily life. While rituals create a sense of stability, expectation, and anticipation, they can also help us name or frame an experience, helping members of a family see something in a new way. Because we come back to them time and again, rituals often have a way of helping us—and our kids, grandkids, or nieces and nephews…anyone really—see something that has always been there but that perhaps we didn’t notice because of our life experience, our developmental stage, or simply because we hadn’t taken time to recognize it, or had just taken it for granted. 

When we work to maintain our rituals and traditions, we are creating stabilities that will carry us and the humans in our sphere into the future despite—and at times, in spite of—the many instabilities of life, circumstances, divorces, shifts, natural comings and goings of family, jobs, partners, and relationships around us. The threads of ritual are the weavings of memory and meaning; ritual only has value as we—those who create and participate—ascribe it as important. As essential. As joyful. As the something that gives us perhaps a micro-moment of expectation or comfort. Or laughter. Or just a bit of peace knowing this, again, will happen. 

Yes, a large part of the magic of ritual is the anticipation. And then, once again behind us after the holiday or its performance, it’s the magic of that something about which we get to reminisce. And therein rests the process lesson and opportunity for all of us in this year of unthinkable uncertainty: an unwelcome pause button, but a pause that we can use to take stock of what is essential. What does bring us joy. What do we choose to carry on and sustain in the years to come? Or, what might we be able to note in this pause, this temporary downshift: the rituals and traditions that have served their purpose and perhaps won’t want to be reinstated, or the traditions that are ripe for significant editing in the years to come. 

The threads of ritual are the weavings of memory and meaning; ritual only has value as we—those who create and participate—ascribe it as important. As essential. As joyful.

Again, friends, I don’t have all the answers. But as you decide how to navigate the month ahead—or any period of great change in your lifetime—perhaps there is a lesson to take from the research on how families after divorce adapt rituals from their previous families into their newly blended families. Those that do well are the ones that pay homage to both the old and new by bringing some of the old traditions into the new family while simultaneously building some unique, new rituals that honor this new family form. Is it always perfect? Nope. Is it often messy and uncomfortable? Of course. Does it always meet everyone’s hopes and expectations? Hard no. (Sounds a lot like 2020, right?) But the way these blending families do it might help you consider what you can do, just this year: figure out how to embrace or honor a little of what you usually do while also leaning into the opportunity that presents itself, the pandemic pause button.

We are incredibly creative, adaptive beings, dear ones. But, sometimes we don’t sit in our discomfort long enough, or quietly enough, to let the cold shock response dissipate so we can thoughtfully and intentionally make choices for our lives that allow us to emerge into more honest, more authentic, more joyful beings—in relation to each other and also in relation to ourselves and what we need.

Yes, indeed: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.The opportunity this year? Embrace this weird pause in our regular ritual programming to more clearly reflect on the why of the relationships and the lives we really want to be building.

BY Carol Bruess - December 11, 2020

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