Rituals provide safety in uncertain world
Not long ago, I threw a birthday party for myself. I made sure there were flowers, cakes, candles, friends and everything else that is supposed to appear at a normal birthday party. I even put my palms together to make a wish before I blew out the candles. This was the first birthday party I attended for myself. Believe me, I’ve lived long enough to have many previous opportunities to do so. But not only had I largely been living a birthday-party-free life before this year, I never showed up at my graduation ceremonies and had no wedding ceremony when I got married. No, I’m not a socially awkward recluse or an anti-society freak. I just hated rituals, seeing them as often less than full-hearted and genuine. But this has completely changed this year, thanks to President Donald Trump.
In China, the importance of rituals has been ironed into people’s DNA by traditional culture over thousands of years. It’s said that in ancient times, there were 300 ritual categories and 3,000 subcategories that people were supposed to follow.
Many are no longer valid now. But when I was a kid, we were still told to put our hands behind our backs and sit straight in the classroom and bow in front of our teachers. We gathered together every Monday morning to salute to a rising national flag, and kneeled down in front of our grandparents on Chinese New Year’s Day to get the predictable red envelope with a few bucks in it.
Even today, when traditional rituals have been largely diluted by the fast pace of modern life, weddings where the brides have to lay on a bed covered by peanuts and dates (for the phonetic blessing of fertility this combination may bring), firecrackers before breaking the ground on a construction site for a new building, and a roasted baby pig wrapped in golden aluminum foil and red ribbon in front of the ancestor’s portraits during the Qingming Festival are still common.
So from early on, I was turned into a rebel by the teachers, parents and elderly neighbors who doubled as ritual cops. To me, rituals were little more than some strident but completely meaningless procedure that we were forced to follow, and, many times, without even knowing why. And their only function was to erect a target for rebels like me to throw our darts at.
When I moved to the US, I lost my target initially. It’s not that Americans don’t have rituals. Praying before dinner, exchanging rings at weddings, baby showers, you name it. But as a freshoff-the-boat migrant who had neither family nor friends in this country, I was largely exempted from most of these rituals. Nevertheless, once a rebel always a rebel, I soon found my substitute target – political correctness.
Why didn’t the airport security check focus more on people wearing turbans or with long beards, why couldn’t a job advertisement say “women only” or “no women,” why we couldn’t tell a black teenager that wearing a hoodie was dangerous, ask a Chinese American where he or she came from, and simply call a fat guy fatty? These questions were beyond the comprehension of a person who, for most of her life by then, believed candor and honesty were virtues above all other virtues.
Political correctness seemed to me a form of American ritual that affected the lives of everybody, including new immigrants like me. And just like the Chinese rituals I once resisted, it was hypocritical, unnecessary and suffocating.
So I completely understood why Trump was elected president in November, just like I understand now why the US fell into chaos so soon after he took the reins.
The Analects of Confucius of 2,000 years ago recorded an observation of Zai Yu, a student of the great philosopher. “If the superior man abstains from the observances of ritual propriety for three years, ritual proprieties will be lost,” the line goes. This is the exact reason for the rising racial tension and conflicts we see in today’s America – it started with brutal assaults against the ritual of political correctness, and then the loss of propriety came quickly.
In the book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life that he wrote together with Christine Gross-Loh, Harvard University professor in Chinese history Michael Puett explained how rituals guarded ardently by ancient Chinese philosophers are related to modern Western everyday life.
To Puett, the rituals Confucius followed strictly, such as “he would not sit until he had straightened his mat,” and “he would not teach while eating,” as documented in the Analects, are similar to today’s people saying please, thank you, and I love you, or making their children believe in Santa Claus.
These may sound insincere or even lies, but “the reason these daily moments are important is because, as we will see, they are the means through which we can become different and better human beings,” Puett explains. And this is what pushes the world to be good.
“In order to help ourselves change, we must become aware that breaking from our normal ways of being is what makes it possible to develop different sides of ourselves,” the book goes. “Rituals – in the Confucian sense – are transformative because they allow us to become a different person for a moment. They create a short-lived alternate reality that returns us to our regular life slightly altered.”
The book was written when Trump’s presidential campaign was still considered entertainment news. But all it said about rituals applies perfectly to the political correctness that Trump has been targeting with his ammunition.
When you try to avoid saying things that could hurt somebody, anybody, you remind yourself, if unconsciously, that people have different vulnerabilities, and you need to respect those. This is the frontline against hostility.
Or we can put it this way: political correctness is a road sign, which you may not be willing or be able to follow, but at least, you know it points in the right direction. Without the sign, wrong becomes right. In other words, when you get permission from the authorities to call a fat man names, how do you then stop people from beating him up for being fat?
In a peaceful environment, political correctness can go too far without reins. When that happens, I am sure my rebellious self will reawaken, and I’ll forgo my birthday party for sure. But now, it is not only necessary but also critical to follow the rituals.
The reason is simple: I would rather be mentally suffocated by political correctness than be physically suffocated by people full of hatred.