Yesterday was the funeral of my boyfriend’s grandma. He wasn’t able to be there, so instead he went to a church at the exact same time that his family would have been sitting in the crematorium, lit a candle and sat thinking about his grandma for the duration of the service. Afterwards, he wasn’t exactly sure why he had done it. Although he was brought up by a Catholic and a Buddhist, he never goes to church and his Grandma was, in fact, an atheist. He said that he just felt a need to do something, to acknowledge her death and to be present, in some way, at the moment of her cremation.
On the morning after the Paris attacks on November 13th, my boyfriend and I had felt similarly at a loss for what to do. Both our places of work were closed under the state of emergency, and we needed to get outside after spending most of the previous night watching the news unfold on France24. Without really knowing why, we felt compelled to go to Le Carillon, scene of the first shooting on rue Bichat. It’s just around the corner from us and has always been one of our favourite bars because of its cheap beer and huge terrace that catches the sun in the afternoon and early evening. I had been there the Friday before at the exact time the shootings began with a friend visiting from England, but by chance on the Friday of the attacks my boyfriend and I were both feeling tired and decided, unusually, to stay at home. We were horrified when, sitting in the living room watching a film, we started to received worried texts from friends and family saying there had been a major incident in our neighbourhood.
Watching something so gut-wrenching and so close to home on the news, somewhere that you know and have sat enjoying yourself just like the victims so many times, we felt a strange sense of disconnect from what had happened. We didn’t want to be voyeuristic or take photographs, but we felt a need to go there and see what had happened with our own eyes, to try to understand it and to pay our respects in whatever small way we could to those people that we could so easily have been amongst. So we lit candles and simply stood and mourned the lives that were lost, and the place that we had known on so many peaceful afternoons.
These small, human actions, done out of instinct rather than reason, got me thinking about the role of ritual in our lives – whether it be going to a church or temple, or simply the ritual of making tea in the morning. Donna Henes puts it quite beautifully in her article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donna-henes/rituals_b_3294412.html
“The need for ritual is a basic human instinct, as real, as urgent and as raw as our need for food, shelter and love. And it is every bit as crucial to our survival. A compelling urge to merge with the infinite, ritual reminds us of a larger, archetypal reality and invokes in us a visceral understanding of such universal paradigms as unity, continuity, connectivity, reverence and awe.”
And while reading about ritual, I was reminded of what Robert McKee says in the first chapter of Story.
“To the film audience, entertainment is the ritual of sitting in the dark, concentrating on a screen in order to experience the story’s meaning and, with that insight, the arousal of strong, at times even painful emotions, and as the meaning deepens, to be carried to the ultimate satisfaction of those emotions.”
Perhaps, then, we don’t need to understand why we perform the rituals that we do – only that the act of performing them is an act of understanding in itself.