habituated ritual

The comics, with the sound of football in the background, was Sunday. Monday meant peanut butter toast, delivered to the bathroom door, as I got ready for school. October signaled prep time for our annual pumpkin carving party and the end of April meant the wallpaper sample books would come out to make May baskets for our neighbors. Road trips meant carrot sticks and bathroom stops at fancy hotels. The first Friday of the month we served at the Union Gospel Mission, my brother and I singing while I played my tambourine (yes, I’m serious).
I am mindful of these family rituals as Easter is upon us. I grew up in a home where the Christian celebration of Holy Week was replete with cherished church services, spiritual depth, and the most elaborate egg hunt I’ve ever been privy to. My brother and dad had to make maps so they could locate any unfound eggs so they wouldn’t rot.
What are the rituals by which your rhythm is set? What do you do when you first wake up? How do you ease yourself (or not) into sleep each night? How do you mark the changing seasons? In what way do you celebrate birthdays and life transitions and death? What do you do when it’s quiet?
The line between rituals and habits is a fine one. I like to think that rituals are chosen, created out of intention and planning. Habits, on the other hand, are fallen into. They are often counter to ones’ real choosing. There are healthy habits, of course, but these seem to me to be more ritual. More chosen. More work than habits ever are. It may be arbitrary, but it’s my way of thinking.
Every day provides new opportunities for habits or rituals. For automatic behavior or well made choices. Going to synagogue on Friday night, 7-11 after a workout, or having an egg hunt on Easter can be habit or ritual. So can checking out your reflection in every window you pass or getting out your cell phone (or, what I believe would be more aptly called your “pocket computer”) every time you’re bored or idle.
Last night my family was in the car together. As soon as I put the key in the ignition every one of my family members got their phones out and were interacting with them. They were sharing about what they were seeing on their screens but even still I felt stirred. We weren’t talking about ourselves or asking about the other. Our heads were down. I realized, “this is a habit.” 
When my children were little cell phones were just coming on the scene. I noticed how my car time with my kids changed as I became increasingly reliant upon that time to return calls. I realized that we weren’t discussing the landscape as much any more and we were rarely singing together. As this dawned upon me I made a conscious choice to not be on my cell phone when in the car with my children. This was not an easy vow to keep. Sometimes, when I was exhausted of interacting with them or we were frustrated with each other for one reason or another, all I wanted to do was bury myself in a conversation with someone else. At other times I wanted to make my silent promise known in order to play the martyr card (“I’m keeping myself from doing something I really want to do so that I can be available to you...you’d better praise me and honor me for that!!!!” Oh how sad I am to admit how often that temptation hit.). Sometimes I just broke my commitment and called away. I was far from wholly virtuous or perfect. Overall, however, I feel glad that we shared many discussion-filled drives and plenty of “I’m so frustrated with you I could scream” seething and silent rides as well. We learned to tell each other when we didn’t want to talk and learned to look up and about. Our ritual was that car rides were for togetherness, spotting things, and sometimes for playing games.
Rituals are important to our souls for so many reasons. They tell us what to expect and let us know we can trust ourselves to do some things that help us mark time. They can pave the way for growth and development and depth of experiences. Habits that are evolved into, on the other hand, often act to keep us in one place and bar us from intentional action.
So many of our rituals, these days, are wound around technology. We locate charging stations to plug into every night before bed. We check Facebook. We buy apps and use them until the newest version comes out. We get home from being away and walk straight to our computer. We rely on our phone to keep us from being bored in line or allow us an escape path when a conversation gets long or when we just want to be alone in a crowd. Away from technology we chose our food and our friends and our activities out of habit more than intention and can go long periods of time without ever forcing ourselves to be uncomfortable. Whole lives maybe.
What if we attended to our rituals? What if we looked up and looked boredom square in the face? The same with silence, wait time, and opportunities to delay? What would happen if we assessed our habits and sought to replace one or two with intentional choices that might connect or inspire or stretch us? What if we squirm? What if there are awkward silences? What if we stop looking in the window, or mirror, or reflective surface and attended to others instead? What if we fight the urge to take our phone out just one time a day? What if the ritual became asking ourselves, “How can my actions lead to a greater respect for myself and other?” What if?



This morning I watched longingly as a mom and her two young children sauntered past my window. They were walking slowly and looking up at the trees. I could imagine the dialogue between them. “Mom, look, there’s a nest.” “Oh...you’re right. Good eye!” “Mom, look, there’s a bird.” “Oh, gosh, you are so observant.” “Mom, look. Mom, look. Mom, look.”
Every child has their own way of asking to be watched. My own nephew’s phrase of choice goes something like, “Dadalookit.” “Mamalookit.” It isn’t four distinct words, “Daddy/Mommy look at this.” It’s more of a singular sound and it is distinctly his. Before he spoke, the sound was a movement and he would gently, but firmly, put a hand on each side of our faces and direct our gaze to whatever it was he wanted us to see. He, like every one of us, wants to be watched. 
We all do things every day to either attract or defend against the notice of others. We accomplish, we please, we shock, we comply, we dress, and we perform. In our own unique ways what we’re really saying is, “Worldlookit, here I am, notice me, validate me, tell me I matter.”
In a world where every coffee date, small group get together, and even chance meeting is blogged, photo texted, and tweeted we have more ways than ever to be seen. The new narcissism emerging from this trend is noticeable. So are the ways in which our efforts to be seen are causing commensurate feelings of loneliness, failure, and lack in those that are doing the looking. And, really, isn’t that all of us? When logging into Facebook gives us opportunity to know what parties we were excluded from, our fear of rejection is fueled. When watching the walls of “friends” serves to clarify the lack of action on our own, we feel the fool. When comparing the photos of our thinner (at least from that angle), richer (in objects, wealth, friends, or beauty), and more accomplished (at least in our own minds) friends to our own, the disparity between their “more” and our “less” takes us down.
To be fair, there are positives to the way in which our technology connects us. We are more aware of the day to day lives of a broader range of friends. We can get the word out about timely events and occurrences and have access to friends far away. We can organize ourselves to support important causes and needs and communicate with the world in important new ways. These are gifts. 
There is something strangely powerful, however, about broadcasting our lives and being seen for what we do that is not always about gifting. There is a heady sense of thrill when a post (or tweet or text) elicits a long string of responses or when a photo gets forwarded (and forwarded and forwarded and forwarded...) or when people publicly admire something we’ve done. When we say “Worldlookit” and it looks, we light up. 
The problem is, we light up...for a moment. Then someone else’s “Worldlookit” distracts the gaze of our community and we are left look-less. Or lonely. Or envious. Or hungry for the attention we were enjoying. Little of this is conscious and even less is chosen.
As water will fill our empty bellies and make us feel full, so will the look from others make us feel attended to. That’s important. Read it again. As water will fill our empty bellies and make us feel full, so will the look from others make us feel attended to. Truthfully, however, being attended to merely by being seen is yet a drop in the bucket of what we most deeply long for.
We long, I believe, to be known. To be seen “through” in some ways. While it terrifies us, we want what is real about ourselves to be met by others. The external things we do and ways we present ourselves are little more than symbolic Facebook walls which we use to either accurately or deceptively communicate about what is inside of us.
How many times have you posted a status update that reads, “Sitting at Starbucks feeling lonely and regretting the fight I picked with my friend” or posted a photo of yourself from an angle that is less than flattering? How many times have you received a tweet that says “I am insecure and could really use some genuine affirmation”? Instead of these honest reflections we tailor our disclosures hiding within them an often unconscious desire to be seen instead of known.
I am far from inexperienced here. My own flip-flopping tendencies to both desire and be uncomfortable with the attention of others leads to paralysis in the face of social media. I avoid my personal Facebook wall for two reasons: 1) the reality that telling the world what I’m up to in any particular moment doesn’t feel very different than a narcissistic entitlement to direct the spotlight to myself and 2) the possibility of how I’ll feel when others more accomplished, more celebrated, and more-in-every-way-than-me post status’ that push my “less than” buttons. Even though I know that walls provide only a small and uni-dimensional view of my “friends,” I still fall prey to the opportunity to compare and evaluate that it breeds. I know how to ask to be truly known and yet I still, at times, settle into a desire to be seen instead. It’s so much tidier and focused, you see, if I control what you see of me. 
My mind knows, however, that “Worldlookit” becomes so much more powerful and rich when it is converted to “You who I know to be safe and caring and care-full, please know me.” My mind knows but my automatic and culture shaped behaviors still get the best of me. It is hard to push past the easier need to be seen to the harder work of asking and inviting to be known.
And so, I repeat, again and again: Being seen is satisfying. Being known is meaningful. Being seen is stimulating. Being known is risky. Being seen often feels safe and within the range of my control. I can hide from, avoid, and divert being seen. Being known, however, involves an openness that is opposite of hiding, avoiding, and diversion. It feels vulnerable and terribly out of control and exposed and wonderful and deep and frightening and wonderful and fearful and free and messy and substantive and inconvenient and wonderful and wonderful and wonderful and...