Take Comfort in Rituals

26 September 2010

Sunday


Like a great many other people, I stopped at a Starbucks close to my office for my near-daily hot chocolate and saw their new marketing slogan emblazoned on the door: “Take comfort in rituals.” When I got back to my office I Googled the slogan and found that a great many bloggers have already entered the fray on the slogan. It would be easy to dismiss this in an entirely cynical way, but I think it bears serious consideration. It may be a mere marketing slogan, but it also points to deeper things.

Many times in this forum (for example, in Joseph Campbell and Kenneth Clark: Bifurcating Naturalisms) I have quoted a line from Joseph Campbell that directly addresses the significance of ritual:

“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth. You are in one way or another putting your consciousness, even the action of your body, into play in relation to a mythological theme, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, mythological themes are projections of the order of the psyche… by participating in a ritual occasion you are in a magical field, a field that is putting you in touch with your own great depth.”

The Myths and Masks of God, disk 5, track 9

So if a ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth, as Joseph Campbell holds, and visiting your local Starbucks is a ritual, as the Starbucks marketing team holds, in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks? This is a good question, and in a sense it goes to the heart of many posts I’ve written about the role of mythology in industrialized society. You see, today we mostly lack explicit myths, though we still engage in rituals. These are rituals in search of a myth.

Another point to which Joseph Campbell returned repeatedly, citing a passage from Jung’s autobiography, was how Jung came to a point in his life when we asked himself, “By what myth am I living?” and he realized that he didn’t know. Once he had asked the question and had realized that he didn’t know by what myth he was living, he knew that he had to discover the myth by which he was living. The discovery of the myth by which he was living became a quest.

Joseph John Campbell (26 March 1904 – 30 October 1987) said that “A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.” So does that mean that we are “living mythologically” by going to Starbucks?

While many of us might not like the idea of a daily stop at Starbucks being a ritual, it certainly does have ritualistic aspects. And the marketing team at Starbucks is right: people do in fact take comfort in their rituals. So in the midst of a hectic day at work, a typical customer might stop at a familiar Starbucks and order a familiar drink and consume that drink in the midst of familiar surroundings. I can easily imagine that this ritual of coffee drinking is felt to be something of a respite in a day filled with schedules and meetings and demands.

We find rituals comforting. Why? At least one reason is their familiarity. Most of the surprises that the world has in store for us are unpleasant surprises. Watch the local news in your city and you will encounter a list of crimes, fires, and broken water mains. These are unpleasant surprises. Pleasant surprises are rare. To engage in a ritual is to settle in to a familiar algorithm of life in which each step follows the preceding step with gratifying predictability. While this may unfortunately eliminate a few pleasant surprises, it also eliminates (or minimizes) a far greater number of unpleasant surprises.

Perhaps one of the sources of our comfort with familiarity is the conditioning of our lives by settled civilization. I have observed that settled civilization begets settled forms of thought, and there is no more settled form of thought than that prescribed by a ritual. Not only can our actions follow a familiar course of predictable steps, but our thoughts too can be ritualized, falling into a comfortable rhythm of a familiar sequence of ideas in which the equilibrium of one’s mind is not disturbed. Ritualistic thought is perhaps a kind of meditation.

Rituals, then, may comfort us because they are familiar and they help to keep us calm and peaceful in the midst of a chaotic and unpredictable world. This is perhaps a place to start, but it is only a start. We have not even attempted to answer the question above in regard to, “in what myth are we participating by visiting a Starbucks?” I do not yet have even a suggestion in answer to this question, though I suspect that interesting ideas would emerge from pursuing this question more systematically. In fact, I will need to think more about this.

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I’ve considered a follow-up Starbuck’s slogan in From Rituals to Stories.

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