COLUMBIA, S.C. — Though I’m not physically in Columbia as I write this, I am virtually, as I plan shortly to attend the medical school graduation of a young friend.
It is a wholly unsatisfying circumstance in many respects. Allison, like thousands of graduates across the country, will miss the glorious walk across a stage to receive her diploma, thereby joining generations of previous graduates in a ritual meant both to congratulate accomplishment and to launch a fresh beginning.
The “accomplishment” and “beginning” stand, with or without a procession. But forever missed will be that moment when your name is called, when all eyes are upon you, when your hand connects to the parchment — and all pause to mark a moment that transcends the ordinariness of life, which will return soon enough.
Some graduates will still savor the traditional ceremony as some states and communities choose to allow life to return to normal. But it seems fitting that a medical school would take extra care in protecting its graduates, many of whom will be dispersing to begin residencies and, in many cases, join the cadre of those fighting for the lives of covid-19 patients. Wading into the pandemic’s petri dish would be a daunting prospect for anyone, but especially for recent graduates who must immediately face worst-case scenarios that could infect or kill them.
My hat is off to these young centurions, who, in a very real sense, are true commanders of this disease-stricken century.
These lost graduations are, of course, trivial compared to the lives lost to pandemic, but even their absence reminds us of why such rituals matter. Simply put, they connect us to the past and future in a continuum of human experience that lends meaning to our existence. Rituals provide rest stops for the soul and reasons to believe that life has purpose. No small thing, that.
Religion is the most obvious construction for ritualizing meaning. Religious ritual helps us reconnect to community, to the greater good, the higher power and to the everlasting. Ritual also defuses anxiety. Thus, it has been since the first instant of consciousness. While the ancients may have feared weather and contrived mythical figures to help them cope, we face alienation in a secular, high-tech world that promises nonhuman intelligence. Ritual connects us to our primordial selves and turns madness into magic.
The greater our anxiety, the more intensely we act out our rituals, which may explain the prevalence of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We may not wash our hands with a fresh bar of soap each time, as Jack Nicholson’s character did in “As Good as It Gets,” but we certainly are washing our hands a lot. I wonder whether we’re creating a germ-obsessed society that will make us even more anxious, creating a cycle of sickness without disease, assuming we are someday able to tame the predatory coronavirus.
Funerals, we understand, bring “closure,” a word I avoid because it tends to trivialize the transcendent. But funerals do close one door while opening another, allowing us to bid farewell and to place a semicolon at the end of the departed’s life. I’ve always liked to think that requiescat in pace is but preface to a longer story.
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In my Southern culture, funerals are immediately followed by the ritual of casseroles and cocktails. Pimento cheese sandwiches and pickled shrimp miraculously turn tears of sorrow into tears of joy, probably because we’re happy to be alive but also because we find comfort in knowing that these rituals will be repeated for us someday. That is a calming thought.
Less so is that many young people will be deprived of their rite of passage into the adult world this year, though new rituals have evolved to fill the void. One of them looks like this: Allison, her parents and sister are seated in the bedroom of my son John’s house, where the TV had the proper hookups. There they watched a series of prerecorded speeches and a slide-show production of the graduates. Yes, they applauded when Allison’s name came up.
Things didn’t go quite as planned, obviously, but virtual communion and celebration are now part of the enduring human story of 2020. To all of those who marched in their hearts, here’s to you — and to better days to come. Well done.
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