Why are we so resistant to this kind of activity, which human beings have been practicing since they have been known to be human?
Part of the answer lies in two big chips we carry on our shoulders when we enter into ceremonial occasions.
On our left shoulder is the unexamined assumption that anything that is not spontaneous, arising from immediate visceral instinct, is artificial and therefore false.
This chip we inherit from the Romantic movement of the 19th century, still very much with us. The spokesman for that movement, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in many pages of argument, articulated the premise that man is naturally good and that it is society that corrupts him. The conclusion drawn by many was and is that in order to recover goodness, we must depart from the group and become entirely individual, which in practice means getting into touch with the most natural parts of ourselves: our bodies, spontaneous impulses, feelings, gut. The enemy is every fraternal, political, or religious institution, every tradition, every form of social conditioning or societal influence (except that which tells us to resist societal influence!).
With this chip on our shoulder, we experience any ceremony as a compromise of our sacred individuality, a succumbing to corrupting external pressure, a surrender.
And so we resist. The moment our elders tell us “This ritual is what we do and how we do it,” we inwardly rebel. (Who are you to tell me what to do? Nature is my guide to the good. You are society, trying to corrupt me.) The romantic enters the place of ceremony believing his best (natural) self is under attack by society in the form of artificiality.
On our right shoulder is the unexamined assumption that anything that cannot be scientifically demonstrated to our rational intellect is likely to be at best inadvertent error and at worst intentional deception.
This chip we inherit from the Enlightenment of the 18th century, still very much with us too. Here the premise is that man’s intellect is constantly growing in its mastery of reality and, given time and sufficient experimentation, will eventually comprehend all things that have in the past seemed to be mysterious. The conclusion drawn by many was and is that in order to attain to truth, we must examine everything with the eye of objective and skeptical rational observation supported by experiment. The enemy is every attempt to appeal to non-objective modes of experience: tradition, imagination, faith, revelation, obedience to authority (except the authority of science!).
With this chip on our shoulder, we experience any ceremony as a compromise of our sacred reason, a succumbing to corrupting superstition, a surrender.
And so we resist. The moment our elders tell us “This ritual is what we do and how we do it,” we inwardly rebel. (Do you really expect me to believe this is real? Reason is my instrument of truth. You are the ignorant past, trying to bamboozle me.) The rationalist enters the place of ceremony believing his true (rational) self is under attack by the past in the form of superstition.
We are all both romantics and rationalists—all of us. We can't help it. We came to consciousness being trained to be both, and reinforcement is all around us.
Except in our ceremonies.
Despite the inherited burden of those two chips, we nonetheless keep participating in ceremonies. We go to weddings and funerals; we look forward to the prom and commencement; we watch the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve or the President taking his oath of office. Why?
Because we are not only romantics and rationalists. We are also mysterious whole beings that transcend our own categories and prejudices. As it turns out, we want something besides the satisfaction of our impulses or the observation of facts. We crave it.
What is this mysterious other thing that we crave, this thing that we willingly participate in ceremonies in order to find?
The answer is meaning—which lies in the experience of being or becoming part of something bigger than we are—bigger than our impulses and our individual natures, bigger than our facts and our explanations. We crave the meaning of being taken up and absorbed into something even more real than ourselves. And we simply will not live without it.
As a result, despite the weight of those chips on our shoulders, we participate in ceremonies—because lurking within us, out of range of the romantic longing for freedom from constraint, out of range of the all-examining eye of reason, is the hope that yet once more we may be granted participation in the experience of something real.
This is why those of you who will graduate this spring will be at baccalaureate and commencement wearing your caps and gowns. You will be hoping to experience meaning.
But because this experience of meaning is mysterious, ceremony comes with a warning: There are no guarantees. There is no guarantee that even if you give yourself wholeheartedly to the experience you will be deeply moved by it. Ceremony invites meaning; it can't command it. But you can bet that if you withhold your willing participation, you will almost certainly not be moved.
How can we lose ourselves in what is bigger than we are if we are anchored to ourselves by those heavy chips? If the left chip tells us that the most important thing is our separateness, the right chip that it is our detachment, how can we let these overly precious selves go and actually join in the ceremony?
There is a way, of course, and it is the way of faith that things can happen that we are not masters of, faith in the wisdom of our forebears who established the ceremony for our benefit.
It is the way of hope in the power of something outside ourselves to reach in and change us, hope in the integrity and authenticity built into the ceremonial forms.
It is the way of love of our own good that longs to be, even for a moment, redeemed from the prison of our mere selves, love of our neighbors’ good that wills them to be moved even if we ourselves are not.
It is the way of surrendering the will to that otherwise inaccessible reality which the ceremony exists to draw into the here-and-now world of time and space.
So as you are marching to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” or stepping under the wedding canopy, or singing a hymn, or saluting the flag, know that if you let the chips govern you and keep your mental distance, the potential meaning will surely elude you, because you have closed the door and left it no way to come in.
But if you choose to participate in the ceremony with your whole self, if you open that door and invite the meaning in, it may or may not enter, but you have done your part. And if it does enter, the reward will be the fulfillment of your longing for meaning, a spirit that blows those chips off your shoulders like the dust of the earth and lifts you toward the stars.