Ritual

I really don’t understand “ritual”. I mean; I understand what it is intellectually and I can even imagine why some (many?) people want it (need it?), but it doesn’t “do” anything for me and I simply don’t feel an attraction to any of it. Maybe this is another function of my schizoid personality.

I would define ritual as a gathering of people to engage in a commonly understood and choreographed process of interacting with each other. It really is like a dance with certain defined steps and “rules” and roles that the participants are supposed to know and observe, very much like a ballet or opera.

There are many forms of ritual in human society. Obviously there is religious ritual, but other common forms include courtship rituals, marriage rituals, generic social rituals like attending work-organized “Holiday” parties, or going on the classic family summer-vacation – and then there are death rituals. I am reminded of this because the other day we had a sudden and high-profile death at the place where I work. There was an immediate scurry (and I mean within a couple of hours) to set up a tribute web-page and a place for “quiet communal reflection” and within about 12-hours there was a community gathering complete with local TV-news coverage and memorial address by the widow. I passed on all of it.

It is not that I had anything against this guy; he seemed quite pleasant personally and I think that he did a great job and was very good for the institution, but he was about 4 or 5 levels above me in the organizational hierarchy and other than saying hello to him twice in the last 2-years as we walked past each other, I had no contact with him.

I suppose that the reason why people like to gather together to memorialize someone who has died is because – to put it crassly – misery loves company. I guess that when you are sad and upset it makes many people feel better to know that others are feeling the same way. I really didn’t know this guy at a personal level however, so there is a limit to how “bad” I can feel about his demise, unfortunate as it may be for him and his family. I also find it hard to believe that very many of the hundreds of people (literally) who are involving themselves in these rituals knew this guy any better than I did. What compels them to participate in this? Is it supposed to make his family feel better that these hundreds of nameless strangers are willing to stand around and listen to eulogies about him? Is it that folks are afraid of being labeled a weird-o and sociopath if they don’t go-along and do the “normal thing” (something that I have no concern about for myself)? Maybe it is just that this is An Event and people like to see-and-be-seen in any crowd so that they can think of themselves as safely nestled in the bosom of The Human Herd.

I remember when my father died a dozen years ago. I loved my father very much and I still miss him today, but I was entirely lost and confused by the rituals involved with his passing. His second wife organized a memorial service for him some time after his death and insisted that I travel hundreds of miles to attend, which I did to gratify her. I was completely befuddled by the expectations that everyone seemed to have for me as the sole surviving blood-family though. I guess that I was supposed to “just know about these things”, but I was unprepared when the minister announced moments before the service was to begin that I should stand up and Say A Few Words about my father to this gathering of people who I had never met before. Had I realized this some time earlier, I might have been able to organize my thoughts into a presentable form, but being surprised by this unexpected obligation, I simply refused. As I sat there silently in the service listening to others blather I started to feel downright annoyed by what was going on. This was my father after all and I had a closer connection to him than any of these other people did. My relationship with him and my memories of him were deeply personal and I felt insulted that these strangers wanted me to expose these feelings publicly for their perusal and judgement. How dare they make such demands at a difficult time like this? It was as if they wanted me to strip naked and run around the block a few times for their puerile satisfaction.

On the other hand, ritual is just supposed to be about participating in the communal dance and going through the motions dictated by the formulaic rules, it isn’t really about actual “meaning” at all.

Savvy? …Or Is It Oblivious?

There is a cliché that youth tends to be “tech-savvy” and that they somehow have a congenital understanding of all manner of sophisticated electronics and computer gear. Well, I work in the IT-department at a college and I can assure anyone who is interested that this is simply not true based on my own direct observation.

I run the computer and wireless network on our campus and with the fledgling school semester now underway we need to respond to a typical rush of complaints about “The Network”. Some of these whines turn out to be legitimate, and others not. This is to be expected, but the thing that strikes me is how many of this Great Online Generation are completely ignorant to how any of their beloved e-gadgets actually work. It seems to me that the only real affinity that youth has to electronics is the ability to stand in line to buy the latest toy on the first day it is released, and the ability to push the buttons that some design-engineer thinks that they should push. There is, however, no real understanding of what those button-pushes are actually doing “under the covers” and for the most part they are as lost and bewildered as their grandparents might be when something isn’t right with their plaything.

I have been working in the field of computer networking for a long time and I certainly know more about this stuff than the average Wal-Mart shopper, but there is a societal impression that all members of The Borg Generation naturally “know stuff” about this stuff. I was on a call to a dorm-room on Friday to look a report that “the Internet is broken” because the student’s Playstation wasn’t behaving (horrors!), and to pass the time as I was investigating what was happening I gave a running commentary of what I was looking at and what I was doing. The student was utterly lost and confused by what I was saying, which didn’t strike me as too odd, until he let drop that he was an upper-classman and Comp-Sci major. Uh, really, dude? The stuff I was looking at here wasn’t bleeding edge high-tech either; it was just DHCP (if you know what that is) and fundamental to how almost every “connected” device anywhere operates these days. I didn’t expect this student to debug his own problem because as the network manager I have access to tools that he doesn’t, but this was like someone who claims to be a race-car driver not having any idea what a “cylinder” or “spark-plug” is. I guess that you don’t need that knowledge if you are just going to work the gas pedal and steering wheel, but this belies the “tech expert” reputation of the whole generation and it makes me wonder what our Comp-Sci department is really teaching out there. I suppose that the professors assume, like so many others, that Youth picks up the boring basics by osmosis and so they start off the “101” computer class with sexy advanced theory for next-gen products not yet even designed. After all, us hands-on Morlocks are out there to fix those pesky gaming-consoles for them when they act up.

I think that there may have been a time in the past when simply using an electronic gadget like a personal-computer meant that you needed to know a lot about how it operated, because it so frequently didn’t. These days however, being a mere user of high-tech gear generally doesn’t require that you actually know anything at all beyond the assumptions of the GUI – and if the device stops working? Meh – there is probably a new version out there by now anyway and so it is a good excuse to just throw the thing away and be super-cool with the latest-and-greatest. After all, you want your friends and family to think that you are sophisticated and hip and tuned-in to the newest tech – even if you don’t really have a clue.

The Secret to Happiness

I am very, very happy with my life.

As I was luxuriating on our porch Sunday morning with our cat (luxuriating is something that this cat is an expert on and I was looking to her for some pointers) I was thinking that life really and truly is “perfect” for me right now. I need nothing, I have all the money and resources necessary to get anything that I want (if I really want it), our house is beautiful, our property is beautiful, my wife and I are still happy together after 30-years of marriage, I could probably afford to retire now at the age of 60 if I wanted to and even my job – although it sometimes annoys me to have to go in to it rather than spend 100% of my time lying around the house luxuriating like a cat – is as perfect a job as I could possibly wish for. In fact, it did occur to me that one of the reasons why I am so happy with my situation is that I do have to go to work, and so I value what we have at home all the more because I am not there all the time and it is all the more precious to me when I am.

Yes, my life right now truly is “Perfect”.

Ironically, this perfection in life also makes me a little nervous however, because as I mentioned to my wife a week or two ago, there is nowhere to go but “Down” from here. This will happen one-of-these-days too. Someday one of us will develop a serious medical issue because that is what getting old does; or there will be a sudden and unforeseen accident that will change things; or I will someday retire and our net-worth will then inevitably begin to decline bringing with it all the cark of an uncertain future. Still – you need to appreciate and enjoy what you have when you have it and not waste time fretting over nebulous “What-Ifs” that may never come to pass.

I heard a feature on NPR radio over the weekend that was talking about what it takes to “Achieve Happiness”. They started off by observing that many people, even some who seem to “Have It All” are still very dissatisfied and unhappy with life. One of the commentators – a Buddhist monk I think – said that while many people assume that folks who are happy are grateful, it is in fact the gratefulness that comes first and is actually causing the happiness. I’m not fond of the word “grateful” in this context because this implies offering thanks toward a sentience (like a friend) who has willfully done something nice for you. Of course, Christians, Muslims and Jews would all say that this is absolutely correct, but I prefer to think of this in more abstract and impersonal terms. Be this good fortune that I am now enjoying a product of God’s grace, a product of my own cleverness and hard-work, random and arbitrary chance or a mysterious alchemy of all three, I would rather use the word “appreciation” to define how I feel about it. Invariably, the happiest periods of my life were those (like now) when I recognized and appreciated the good things that I had at the time, regardless of the objective circumstances or any “challenges” that may also have coexisted at that point. The unhappy times in my life (well, maybe “less happy” is a better expression) were those when I was grudgingly and stoically accepting my situation and “persevering”, but when I didn’t actually “embrace” my status regardless of how much money, stuff or other environmental factors there were in my favor.

The point that the Buddhist monk was making in this NPR program, and with which I completely agree, is that this “embracing of circumstances” and “appreciating of what you have” and “gratefulness” is; A) unrelated to the actual objective conditions you are in; B) entirely conscious and deliberate – i.e. in your head. This is why some people who may seem to be in truly desperate condition can at the same time be truly and deeply happy with life in spite of their state of affairs.

So – if you want to be happy, don’t “accept” and “persevere” – those are Bad Things – rather, “Embrace” and “Appreciate”. Happiness really is just as simple as that.