Rituals

From eating breakfast to gaming, rituals are an inextricable part of life. They also tell us hidden truths about 'being' and living, some of which are hard to accept.

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“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog


On Saturday mornings we have homemade pancakes. Weary eyed and hardened from the rigours of the past week, we slather our morning treat with copious amounts of maple syrup and chocolate. There is a gleeful childish delight in embracing excess just for the sake of it. As a self-confessed coffee snob, pancakes are typically accompanied, for the grown-ups at least, by a cup of speciality coffee brew my wife and I swear by, that our 4-year old refers to as ‘brown yucky liquid‘. There is an unspoken sense of familial wholesomeness about indulging in a decadent meal together, coupled with the common realisation that the weekend has finally arrived.

I’ve always been fascinated by rituals so much so that I sneakily included it in my Honours and PhD dissertations and 6 (yes, 6) publications thereafter. The work of British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, often regarded as the godfather of contemporary ‘ritual theory’, was crucial to my scholarly and literary development.

Turner had a particular obsession with ‘rites of passage’ - a transitory point of time when one goes through a particular phase of events, to come out at the other side, profoundly changing ones relationship to reality and society. He understood these rites and rituals as fundamental and necessary to how we cope with structure in life (in a contemporary context, think the gruelling 5-day work week). Whilst Turner paid particular attention to elaborate non-secular and mythologically heavy rituals such as the ceremonial hunting rites performed by the Ndembu people in Northern Rhodesia, his concepts are widely applicable even to more mundane everyday rituals that we’ve become accustomed to.

Rituals remind us that beneath our carefully manufactured masks, in between the maddening mix of social rules and expectations, is an inherent unity of spirit. We are all living and breathing creatures with hearts that gravitate towards love, compassion, warmth, unity and solace (and for some, pancakes). It is an out-of-body acknowledgement that we share a common bond - a contract with each other that stands resolutely unbroken amidst the vicissitudes of life.

In other words, rituals give people a higher social purpose in forging and ravelling in shared connections, both implicitly and explicitly.

But perhaps most compellingly, the greatest realisation comes from examining our own rituals. Because if we look closely enough, our rituals speak to a broader set of human and community centred values, that may not necessarily decipherable upon first glance.

Take for example video game streaming on Twitch.

Each month, a hundred million visitors watch their favourite personalities play video games on Twitch, spending an average of nearly two hours a day there. This audience is large enough to make the site one of the twenty most trafficked in the U.S.

Video game content-creators open a window into their gaming lives so that other people can watch them embark on various in-game quests. This singular activity is highly ritualistic, in the sense that it is usually broadcasted on a specific schedule and it brings audiences together albeit remotely in what is a modern twist to the live TV event.

During a stream, one is teleported into a virtual gaming community that exists outside of material reality. In some cases, you would be greeted by familiar virtual aliases, all logging on at the same time to catch a glimpse of that same personality, traversing through a virtual 3d-world.

For viewers, a Twitch channel is not just mindless entertainment but also a virtual community, that invites your emotional investment. Gaming began, decades ago, as a social experience, in arcades and on living-room sofas. My first memories of gaming in the early 90s involved rackety arcade pinball machines nestled in the busyness of a large crowded gaming centre.

But as games have become more lushly immersive and intricate—often designed to reward thousands of hours of play—they have in many ways become more isolating, encouraging reflection, solitude and, for some gamers, loneliness. Twitch has in many ways filled that void by making gaming feel communal again. 

I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination but Twitch, to me, is more than a voyeuristic tour of someones gaming routine. What makes it particularly enjoyable is that it manages to take these seemingly superficial and habitual practices (i.e. playing a game) and weave of them something so rich and representative of the human impulse for creativity and storytelling. It is at once incredibly diverse and uniform in its compulsive restlessness.

Fundamentally, friends who are Twitch users have told me that the platform, much like other digital avenues, affords a sense of communal belonging that takes you away from the structured reality of life. For that fleeting hour or so, your subjectivity is reconfigured and reimagined - you are part of someone else’s adventure and tale, one that develops with a fluid sense of haphazardness and chaos unlike a scripted TV program or drama serial. Nothing is off the table.

Sometimes however rituals have a way of illuminating the hauntingly gritty side of reality.

Note: Potential Trigger Warning

On the early morning of February 19th 2017, Virginia based broadcaster Brian Vigneault stepped away from his Twitch stream, casually informing his viewers that he was taking a cigarette break. At the time, Vigneault, a thirty-five-year-old father of three, had been live for twenty-two hours of a charity stream that was planned to last a full day.

The broadcast never resumed.

Later, Vigneault’s body was found in his Virginia Beach home. There was speculation that he suffered from a heart attack due to excessive screen time but the painful truth finally emerged that he’d died of an overdose of the opioid fentanyl. What emerged was an outpouring of tributes from all reaches of the gaming community; either in the form of conventional condolence messages or through virtual memorials.

Vigneault’s harrowing fate underlines how our glimpses into the real-time ritualised reality of someone else’s life can sometimes turn out to be ‘too real’ for the kind of reality that we are seemingly used to seeing. It also raises the central paradox of loss: how in grief we can still be profoundly, transcendentally moved by an overwhelming sense of unity as opposed to loneliness. As one subscriber of Vigneault’s Twitch stream succinctly put it: “To love is to live always with the possibility of loss…that was what gaming has ultimately thought me”.

Rituals, in all their supposed mundanity, are productive, powerful and transformative. Whether it’s eating breakfast, watching a livestream or gaming, they fundamentally reveal deep eternal truths of the human condition and society. In some cases, these truths are less obvious but in others, they are immensely arresting and sobering.

Ultimately, rituals are more than just routine, patterned practices. They are, rather paradoxically, invisible signposts, that lead us to appreciating the transcendent quality of love, joy, friendship, pain and distress - as part of a broader community.

So perhaps when you begin your weekend ritual this week, whatever that may be, take a second to consider how your feelings and actions are ultimately part of a broader intricate network of meaningful connections even if they don’t seem obvious at first glance. You can thank me later.

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