The many powers and blessings of rituals

Teacher talk

Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003

The young man swallowed nervously, staring with such intensity at his parents that you wondered whether he was desperate for their support or just willing them not to say anything embarrassing in front of the many people gathered for his bar mitzvah. I've seen that stare before at graduations, confirmations, scouts receiving badges, students winning awards, and any other formal ritual requiring a costume that makes young people self-consciously yearn for their jeans and T-shirts. It's a straight-ahead stare that speaks of a mixture of dread and fear of humiliation, yet there's something vitally important hidden behind it - a sense of accomplishment and pride.

I used to scoff at formal rituals - just a waste of time, too sentimental and too little appreciation shown for the effort it takes the organizers to get ready. Why not just have a party or send a check? Is there anything more ridiculous than a mortarboard? I've changed my mind. Now I try to attend any that I'm invited to.

This generation has shifted toward rituals that celebrate other people distant from ourselves - Super Bowls, the Olympics - or holidays like Halloween and New Year's that provide an excuse for a party. Also, despite the intimacies seen on movie and TV screens, many families are reluctant or unable to share their appreciation, pride or love for each other. Gary Smalley, a writer on family relations, describes five elements of communicating acceptance and affirmation in his book, "The Blessing."

"A family blessing begins with meaningful touching. It continues with a spoken message of high value, a message that pictures a special future for the individual being blessed, and one that is based on an active commitment to see the blessing come to pass."

The most successful families I've observed have been the ones who include these five elements daily as their children grow, in ways as varied as the families. But, the power of formal rituals is surprising. Perhaps it's the public acknowledgement or the traditions of the event that remove the inhibitions to touch or say something meaningful to the child. In any case, the results, though not always immediate, are impressive.

Watching carefully, I can often catch the stare shifting for a moment, as the child glances down, perhaps seeing himself or herself as that highly valued person a family member just described. I saw the downward glance in the grocery store in a former student after a relative who had crossed a continent to attend her bat mitzvah hugged and teased her. I see it whenever my 23-year-old daughter reminds me to make plans for dinner out to celebrate her grades, a ritual begun in kindergarten. It is thrilling to see the dignity and self-respect in the eyes of the Native Alaskan children's dance group members as they solemnly open a school assembly, dressed in regalia lovingly and painstakingly created especially for them. And it happens at graduations, even when students have declared they don't want to endure those boring ceremonies.

I think the final clue about the blessings in rituals comes from cultures around the world that have naming ceremonies acknowledging and honoring individuals at different stages of life. The young man who stared so intently also shared a poem that spoke to the nature of ritual blessings.

Each of Us Has a Name

Each of us has a name given by God

and given by our parents

Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile

and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name given by the mountains

and given by our walls

Each of us has a name given by the stars

and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name given by our sins

and given by our longing

Each of us has a name given by our enemies

and given by our love

Each of us has a name given by our celebrations

and given by our work

Each of us has a name given by the seasons

and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name given by the sea

and given by our death

- Zelda

• Barbara Mitchell is the extended learning teacher at Gastineau Elementary.

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