Rituals of Hope
Our therapeutic response to COVID-19.
Posted May 13, 2020
If you listen carefully this evening, perhaps you may hear them. Parents, children and dogs howling from backyard patios in Colorado at exactly 8 p.m. occasionally layered with car horns, cowbells and fireworks. Pots and pans banging through open windows in New York at 7 sharp. Cheering at sunset in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Singing from balconies of Assisi, Italy throughout the evening. Performances of street dancing and song in Mallorca, Spain each evening at dusk.
Community rituals mean different things to each participant. One woman explains that for her it is public mourning. She is expressing loss, pain, isolation and frustration. A man near Skid Row in Los Angeles explains that he participates to send a message to the homeless that they are not alone. Not forgotten. New York comes alive each evening to encourage their healthcare heroes. Many say theirs is a ritual of defiant hope, a nightly declaration: We WILL prevail.
Anthropologists and sociologists have long spoken of the surprising power of community rituals and ceremonies. French anthropologist Emilé Durkheim researched the emotional strength of groups. He concluded the higher the level of group rituals, the stronger the group. When a community of any size (two people or thousands) repeatedly enacts symbolic rituals or little homemade ceremonies, the individuals in the group experience a higher level of emotional strength, hope, and resilience.
Recent Recovery Research
More recent research on how rituals help people recover comes from Francesca Gino and Michael Norton at Harvard Business School. They conducted research with people who were grieving losses large and small in their journal article, Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries. Their conclusion: Enacting rituals helped people recover more quickly from all types of loss. Enacting simple rituals helped people regain their sense of control and that brought hope. Surprisingly, enacting rituals helped everyone recover, including the people who did them reluctantly.
How to Craft Your Therapeutic Ritual
Keep in mind three things as you put together your recovery ritual.
- Be precise. All ritual research has found power in precise repetition. There is no such thing as a random ritual. Perform your therapeutic ritual at a certain time in a certain order and certain way.
- Take action. Recovery rituals need action. In one study, the Harvard team instructed grieving people to perform rituals of reflection. Imagine something like sitting in a certain chair at a certain time and reflecting on your loss or watching virus reporting on cable news. That kind of passive, in your head/between your ears behavior didn’t speed recovery. Gathering your family in the backyard at 8:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time to howl back and forth with your neighbor? Believe it or not, that works.
- Be you. The most therapeutic rituals, for groups or individuals, are the unique ones. Do your own thing, with your own flair, at your preferred volume, for your own reason. It doesn’t need to make sense or have meaning to anybody but you.
This virus has stolen many of the great rituals and ceremonies that give our lives meaning: Commencements. Weddings. Funerals. Holidays. Vacations. It’s time to fight back. Take back some control. Here’s what I’m doing: On Easter I was inspired by Andrea Bocelli live from Duomo di Milano. While listening, I thought of what Celine Dion says: “If God has a singing voice, he sounds like Andrea Bocelli.” He closed his Easter concert singing “Amazing Grace.” For me, that was a powerful declaration of hope. So regularly, I go into my backyard, gather up wood, build a blazing fire, and crank up my ugly, green, 20-year-old Bose outdoor speakers to near full volume. I play just one song for the neighborhood: Andrea Bocelli’s “Amazing Grace.”
Take that, COVID-19.
Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2014). Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(1), 266–272. doi: 10.1037/a0031772