On Ritual

Two stories.

I knew a woman once for whom I didn’t care much. It was clear she liked me and wanted my company. Part of her desire was that my son would form a friendship with hers. But the woman, and her son, were, I’m sorry to put it so harshly, weird. There was something about her that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it told me to stay away. And my son had no interest whatsoever in hers, so I found her continued attempts to befriend me annoying.

It might come as a shock to some of you, but I’m a pretty nice person. If you know me only through an email list, your mouth no doubt fell open just then. It’s true, I have two people inside me…ironically. One person is confrontational; she won’t let anything you say that bothers her go unanswered. [Well, I was younger then. Or I cared.] She will argue until you stop, or until you’ve proven to her you are not an honorable opponent. That person only exists in writing. There’s another me. The one you meet in real life. That me is pretty nice. That me hates confrontation. You can say pretty much anything to me in person and I’ll be really nice to you about it. If given enough time to fume, I might turn the problem over to the other me and write you a letter or email about it. But when you see me again, it’ll be all smiles and sweetness. [Geez, I didn’t have to make it sound all girlie fake. I’m just nice, that’s all.]

Truthfully, I want people to like me. [I did once.] At the same time, I don’t care whether they like me one bit. I don’t find this contradictory. People are odd after all, aren’t they? I like the way Walt Whitman put it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

So, I was polite to this woman. I was never rude. [I didn’t think I was. But I understand that some people think introverts are rude because we aren’t talkative. We might sit separate from the main group at a party and talk among ourselves, or if we’re alone, watch instead of join in. If you think that’s rude, you’re weird. Get over yourself.] I just didn’t seek out her companionship and took every opportunity to vacate her premises when it could be done kindly. When she committed suicide, and it was revealed to me that she suffered from multiple personality disorder, everything fell into place. [I don’t believe multiple personality disorder is real.] And now I come to the point.

I didn’t stay away from the memorial service because I didn’t much like her. I stayed away because public mourning involves rituals that I find unhelpful, at least, and destructive, at worst. Some may say I should have gone for her family, and that may be true. But then, I imagined it hypocritical, on the one hand, to attempt to help them through their loss when I’d done nothing to help the deceased. And, on the other hand, how could I attempt to help people I didn’t even know? The only thing that would have helped is my body being among the group; the larger the group the better, I guess. [Seriously. I didn’t even know them. I don’t much care for funerals. I’ve been to a few. One, because the girl’s family totally deserved my presence. And the others because they were family and that’s just what you do.]

But I didn’t go. I helped financially. But I didn’t mourn publicly. I mourned privately, in my own way. [It was the ‘wow that was weird that she did that’ kind of mourning. Isn’t it sweet how I’m trying to make myself out to be all nice. I mean. I am nice. But I didn’t know this woman. At all. She just tried to talk to me a few times at the park. She was part of a group that I was part of. A big group. I shouldn’t have to try to explain it. Why did I even write this? What is this about? Oh, yeah. Ritual. Okay. Whatever.]

Shortly after religious zealots flew airplanes full of people into the World Trade Center towers, also full of people, I found myself and my family at a church fair. Rides, cotton candy, loud music…that sort of thing. We’d just sat down under a tent at one of the many picnic tables near the dj’s booth trying to eat fair food without damaging our ear drums too badly. As we ate, the dj said he was going to play our national anthem. But, he didn’t really. He played a pop diva’s version of said anthem. It sounded only vaguely familiar. Still, some of the people under the tent stood, placed their right hands over their hearts, and began to attempt a sing-a-long. This wasn’t enough, of course; they actively encouraged (one hand over heart, the other making get-up motions to everyone else) all the rest of us to stand. All the rest dutifully stood. All except us.

As I looked around at the crowd, all eyeing us suspiciously, I was almost to the point of conforming. But my husband remained steadfast in his eating. There was, it was true, no reason to stand. For many good reasons, not the least of which was the ridiculous version of the song, I remained seated. [I’ll give you the football games, even though it’s seriously stupid of Americans to sing the anthem before sporting events. I mean, really. Talk about debasing something sacred. And then you get all pissy when someone takes a picture of himself with Jesus!]

Public displays of mourning, and of patriotism, frighten me. There is something very disturbing to me in the idea of coming together as one. We are not one. We are diverse. A multitude of differences. Mourning rituals, more often than not, involve religious displays that alienate me. The subject at hand becomes no longer about the deceased, but about the afterlife, nothing more than a hope, a dream, for the fearful. [I was at a funeral a while back in which the guy doing it pretty much said we all better get right with God now before…you know…] But I am not afraid of an afterlife. Patriotism is worse. Once the flags start flying, you can bet we’re heading toward war. The infusion of religious dogma and patriotism serves to color the patriotic as ignorant bullies. […serves to color the…wtf?] There is nothing more disgusting than a bumper sticker that reads: God, Guns, and Glory! [Oh, come on. Nothing?]

I have to disagree that ritual brings us together for good. People say the same thing about religion. The truth is they both attempt to bring people together so they can find comfort in the group, so they can find a place for the expression of their fears, their prejudices, their need to make others conform, and their calls to war. [I’m just skeptical of people’s motives, that’s all. You see grand, unifying ritual; I see sheep being led to slaughter…to music and flag waving and smiling and tears. Maybe it comes from being burned too many times. Not that I remember being burned. It’s not like I’m holding grudges. I don’t know why it is. Does it even matter? We went to war, didn’t we? We’re still pretty much at war, aren’t we. So, you can keep your rituals, thank you very much.]

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