As I am writing this, it is Groundhog Day. In our neighborhood, it is cold but sunny. The big rodent will most assuredly see his shadow, leaving us six more weeks of winter. Hopefully, not a day more. But, I can’t think about Groundhog Day without recalling the 1993 Bill Murray movie, where the main character lives the same day over and over again. Recurrences. Purposeful recurrences are sometimes called rituals. Groundhog Day itself is a constructed ritual.
Nietzsche talked about the doctrine of eternal recurrence or return, in which we would live the same life over and over again. Nietzsche even frames it as a thought experiment: “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’” (from The Gay Science).Perhaps there is an inference that we might want to live our life in such a way that we would be willing to live it over and over again. Not something easy to consider.
But the rituals of our lives – from the observance of Groundhog Day to the cup of coffee (decaf) after dinner – may be the very fabric of our lives. As we age, rituals may be our salvation.
A number of years ago there was an article in the NY Times about decision-making which discussed how lack of “ritual” or habit could lead to decision-fatigue. Our brains need to ration their energy. The article makes a case for the kind of “semi-rigid” structured life (like mine) which my children regularly make fun of. John Tierney cites research which points out that some people “establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”
Rituals minimize decisions. We know what time we are getting up, what’s for breakfast and lunch, and what time we are eating dinner. I know what day I am going to clean bathrooms, do laundry, go to the gym (without a friend). Very few decisions are left. Thank the good Lord. Boring (perhaps) at times (especially to others), but I don’t really mind. And such a life is seldom chaotic – unless, of course, the rituals get disrupted. And there’s the rub. More on that another time.
But my point is – here and in my story of Walden Pond attached (“Again and Again and Again”) – rituals can comfort, strengthen, inure us to the inevitable. Our attachment to ritual makes us vulnerable, but perhaps less vulnerable than we would be to chaos.