It was a day like any other.
Sunday morning. Lattes and croissants with her friend Nikeah. Slightly hung over from too much red wine last night. Each woman’s laptop lay open on the small table, bathing faces with hard-to-peg ages in backlit radiance. Each woman’s back was bent at an angle school nurses decades ago would fret about when scoliosis was a problem and not a way of life, hunched over their smartphones. Soft light filtered in through the window, softening the glow of the devices. Some old song played on the coffee shop’s soundsystem:
I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone
I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn
I threw yourself into a bag and pushed it down the stairs
I crashed my car into the bridge
The only thing that changed the calculus of Kyriah’s day was the text from her mother. “Where are you?” it read.
Kyriah muttered a curse, one so foul it made Nikeah, who had a flair for vulgarity herself, snort a laugh of disbelief. “Oh God, what now? What’s-his-face again?”
“No,” said Kyriah. She blew a strand of curly dark hair out of her face. What’s-his-face was Eliot Greenbaum, he was an attorney with the Department of Justice, and he’d started swiping on his phone after they had sex while still in bed next to Kyriah. He thought she was asleep, as though that totally excused it. “Worse. My mother.”
Nikeah still didn’t look up from her phone. “Huh. I didn’t know you had beef with her.”
“I don’t. But it’s, like, Easter or something. I was supposed to be back home now or whatever.”
“For dinner. It’s this thing we do. Some family comes up from Texas . . . really annoying.” She waved a hand. “They do it just because it’s like what my mom and her sisters used to do when they were kids, but only because their parents and aunts and uncles used to.”
“Oh. So like a tradition.”
“Exactly,” said Kyriah. “The shackles of the dead.”
“Wow, that’s dark.” Nikeah sipped her latte and placed it back on the limited real-estate of the small table with the practiced air of one who did not need to see what she was doing.
“Yeah, well, so’s Easter.”
Both women laughed before getting back to the important things on their screens.
* * *
Many say that modern Americans are in a “crisis of meaning.” This means that far too many of us feel deep down in our cores that nothing we do matters in the end. Homo economicus has reached the cul-de-sac of life and does not like what he found there.
Many will also say that American men are man-children, stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. Forty-year-olds who collect Funko Pop figurines and cry at Star Wars. That sort of thing. But these are superficial examples of a darker phenomenon whereby men, and women,are denied any rites of passage ushering them from childhood to adulthood.
I always loved the story of seven-foot-seven Sudanese NBA player Manute Bol relating to close friends how he killed a lion with a spear when he was a young man as his initiation into manhood. It’s a shame Bol later admitted he made it up.
That tale, though fabricated, sticks, because what’s the equivalent of lion-slaying now? My Spartan ancestors had to undergo rigorous training at the krypteia starting at age seven in order to become a warrior. Today, only gangs provide a glimpse of this spirit. Shoplift a candy bar from a store? Steal a car? Let senior members of the gang you seek to join beat the tar out of you without complaining? What do these things all have in common?
They’re dangerous, and they separate the strong from the weak.
Chew on that for a moment.
The closest thing to a rite of passage we have now is the graduation ceremony. I found that the panicked rush to cancel all graduations in the blighted year of 2020 to be quite sad for the kids who were denied the last remaining transition points allowed in our culture. There were no liminal spaces for high school or college graduates that year. Yes, they received their degrees and their honorifics, and went on to, as they say, bigger and better things. But did it feel the same?
Graduation ceremonies are not dangerous, nor do they separate the strong from the weak. However, they still carry a gravitas that all the complaints about the diminishing value of American education cannot completely eradicate. For the graduation ceremony is very often the only place where a young person can stand before his peers and elders of his community and literally walk into the future. It’s got the pomp and circumstance of a rite of passage with the music and the speeches and the silly hats and everything.
Somehow, a virtual graduation doesn’t hit as hard.
Religions fundamentally understand this. I am a Greek Orthodox Christian. At church, the priest cannot simply read from the Gospel. He, along with the altar boys and deacons, must carry the Holy Bible in a procession around the church, incense censor fuming and bells chiming, with chanting and singing and a great deal of reverence.
The bread and wine are not transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ with a snap of a finger. The entire second half of the Divine Liturgy is devoted to asking for the Lord’s blessing to perform this mystery. And it takes a long time.
But you know what? When you approach the holy altar with fear and awe, and the priest dips his spoon into the chalice and doles you out a portion of the Lord’s body and blood, it tastes like more than bread and wine. It feels more than just a little dab of sweetness on the tongue to sate you until your after-church breakfast. What you experience is the sense that something really important just happened, and that you were a part of it.
Don’t even get me started on the Holy Week and Easter rituals.
Rituals are a fundamental part of the human experience. When you pray, do you just say words in your head, or do you get on your knees? This matters, because the physical feeds into the spiritual, and the spiritual in turn feeds back into the spiritual.
The military understands this too. The uniforms, the marching, the fanfare . . . those who call themselves warriors must feel that what they are fighting for is worth dying against what they are fighting against. They need to feel like they are called upon with a task bigger than the mere promise of personal gain. The accoutrements of armies—shining armor, ornate blades, helmets with vibrant plumage—are not men playacting their childhood dreams. It is a way to show to all involved that what is happening is a big deal. You accomplished this. You matter. You are a part of this great fighting force that will cause the very mountains to tremble.
Rituals are a chance to participate in the story. Deny people this, and they turn to puerile imitations of third-hand imaginary glory in order to find meaning. Don’t laugh too hard at that guy who’s all bent out of shape when some comic book character dies on the big screen. For far too many, that’s all he’s got. Purchasing the ticket and sitting in the theater is the ritual.
We are a transactional generation. We are a people so used to impersonal communication, efficiency and utility, pre-digested entertainment, and everything being done right away that a text-message breakup isn’t even a social faux pas anymore.
Everything has been demystified, rituals dismissed as superstitious woo that doesn’t matter to the rational materialist. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future: demystifying things stripped them of their meaning.
So many don’t even cook their own food anymore, which is a kind of ritual magic itself. Why should they care about becoming an adult when even that status is conferred with a tap on a screen? If you can find sex on-demand, you’re all grown up, aren’t you?
* * *
“So you can totally still make it to Manassas for lunch,” said Nikeah. “You gonna go?”
This time, Kyriah actually did look up from her phone. “What about the Supreme Court?”
“What about it? There’ll be other sessions.” Nikeah met Kyriah’s eyes, and once again their laugher rippled through the coffee shop.
You’re on a different road, I’m in the milky way
You want me down on earth, but I am up in space
You’re so damn hard to please, we gotta kill this switch
You’re from the 70’s, but I’m a 90’s bitch
I don’t care, I love it
“Another session,” said Kyriah. “Last time we said that, we missed our chance to see RBG.”
“Tell your parents to FaceTime you at dinner. That way you can say hi to everyone. Like, in person.”
“And show them Kagan and Sotomayor. I think that’s more important than the Easter Bunny.”
I don’t care, I love it