Ritual in a Changing World
by Sarah Lane at ProgressiveKid
Ritual is good for all families. Researchers tell us that family rituals make people happier (S. Harrar 2003, p. 28) for one thing. And they find in family routines experienced by kids of four years of age predictors of academic achievement at age nine (Barbara Fiese 2000). But some of the rituals a lot of us grew up with don’t mesh with the values and goals of the green movement, or they seem alien or even devoid of meaning to people with an awakening sense of concern for the planet. For example, the unsustainable practice of giving or receiving oodles of Christmas gifts can make us feel heavy and unhappy. The Fourth of July emphasis on explosions feels uncomfortable in an age of climate change, forest fires, and dwindling wildlife.
So what’s a green family to do? Here are some rituals that greenies can agree on and use as the foundation for more personalized adaptations based on individual belief and culture:
1. Eat dinner together. National polls in the United States indicate that between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, compared to earlier periods, families were eating fewer meals together and spending less time hanging out, just talking (Robert Putnam 2000). But family dinner time is a highly important ritual for family health. The Importance of Family Dinners IV, a report issued in 2007 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, concluded that “Frequent family dining is associated with lower rates of teen smoking, drinking, illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse.” Joseph Califano Jr., CASA’s Chairman and President, writes, “one factor that does more to reduce teens’ substance abuse risk than almost any other is parental engagement, and one of the simplest and most effective ways for parents to be engaged in teens’ lives is by having frequent family dinners.”
And over the course of five years, researcher Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota studied more than 2500 adolescents at 31 Minnesota schools. They found that adolescent girls who frequently ate meals with their families were less likely to be using extreme measures to control their weight five years later [Project Eating Among Teens (Project EAT)].
Dinner time is the best time to gather and reflect on the day, catch up, reconnect, and plan for tomorrow. Use it to focus on the most important people in your life.
2. Honor the big moments. (And recognize the differences among family members in terms of the perception of what is big.) Acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries, graduations, accomplishments, firsts and lasts. The acknowledgment doesn’t have to involve a crystal cascading champagne fountain and 200 guests. It can be something as simple as a note, the time to take a photograph, or completing a page in a scrapbook. What it must include is awareness on the part of one individual of the significance of the event for the other.
3. Create a thankfulness ritual. The work of researchers Robert A. Emmons (University of California at Davis) and Michael E. McCullough (University of Miami) on the health benefits of gratitude underscores the importance of gratitude rituals. They found that even simple gratitude rituals were associated with increased levels of optimism, happiness, goal attainment, alertness, energy, connectedness, quality of sleep, and health.
There are many options for gratitude rituals ranging from making lists to a full-blown Thanksgiving dinner. One simple gratitude ritual is to keep a bowl and three stones by your bed. Every night before sleeping, put each stone in the bowl, thinking of one thing you’re thankful for to correspond with each stone. This is simple enough for young children to do and so makes a great family ritual.
4. Create a negativity-releasing ritual. It can’t be news to you that lowering stress levels has important health benefits. Just to confirm what we already know, a recent study of more than 2800 adults published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found lower levels of cortisol, the “stress” hormone, in people with positive affect. As you probably know, long-term high cortisol levels can increase blood pressure, lower immunity, increase abdominal fat, and impair thinking. The study found especially significant results for women in whom positive affect was associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein, which are inflammatory substances associated with risk for heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
All family members can benefit from the conscious practice of ridding one’s self of negativity and stress. But this is not to say that certain stressors shouldn’t be brought home. On the contrary, home is where many such things can be dealt with best. But there is a difference between actively working through a negative event and bathing in it. You can help your children learn to be proactive about stress, finding effective ways to talk through and work through problems and then let them go. Yoga, meditation, and exercise are great ways to do this, but these are not always ideal strategies for young children.
You might consider installing a touch stone or touch branch outside your front door. Whenever anyone comes home, they touch the stone or branch and remind themselves that they are entering a sacred space. The idea is to leave negativity outside and to bring inside the intention to work through real problems, turning to other family members for guidance and support and not to use them as receptors of negative emotions.
5. Celebrate and honor the cycles of life. There are six key annual calendar events that green families can mark with ritual.
a. Sping Equinox (March). Celebrate rebirth after winter. The perfect ritual is to plant a tree or flowers.
b. Earth Day (April 22). Honor your planet, the animals, the trees, the water, the air. Do something for your planet and spend time outside. Liberate trees from ivy. Help restore a salmon stream. Work on trail restoration. Set up rain barrels in your yard. Put up a bird feeder. Volunteer at an animal shelter.
c. Summer Solstice (June). Celebrate the sunlight. Celebrate vitality, energy, joy. A family picnic, a special late evening walk, a camping weekend, a visit to a planetarium, or a meal of seasonal food are great ways to ritualize this event.
d. Autumnal Equinox (September). This is the celebration of the harvest, a time to be thankful for what the earth has given you. A ritual visit to a farm, carving pumpkins, canning, or making apple cider help remind us of the impending winter and of the goodness of summer. We remember that all good things end and we share our hope for the future.
e. Day of the Dead (November 2). Honor the ones you have lost. In our home, we make an altar every November 2. On the altar we place images of the people and animals we miss. We include talismans, things that represent our emotions and the loved ones. We light candles and keep them burning all evening long in memory.
d. Winter Solstice (December). During the winter when life is dormant remind yourself of the key reasons to be joyful: friends and family. This should be a celebration of light, of hope in future awakening from cold and sleep. Lighting candles, gathering for a meal, singing, or doing something for others who are hungry and cold are perfect rituals for this event.
We green, free thinkers who dream of a radically transformed society sometimes feel a little like we’re blazing trails in the dark. Ongoing rituals that are full of meaning for people who care about life and the planet can sustain us during difficult times and during times of doubt and fear. Teach your children that ritual is a life tool, a way to mark the passing of time, a means to increase awareness, gratitude, and hope, and a strategy for coping effectively with hardship and loss. It may be one of the most important strategies we have for dealing with the complications of an ailing planet.
Filed under: living green, parenting, social issues Tagged: | American Journal of Epidemiology, Autumn Equinox, Barbara Fiese, Christmas gifts, cortisol levels, Day of the Dead, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, Earth Day, family dinner time, family routines, Fourth of July, frequent family dinners, gratitude, green movement, Joseph Califano Jr., Michael E. McCullough, National center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Project EAT, ritual, Robert A. Emmons, Robert Putnam, S. Harrar, Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice, thankfulness ritual, The Importance of Family Dinners, Winter Solstice