Rituals for the pandemic

The 2019-nCoV virus is here and it’s likely to be an ongoing presence in our lives for a year, perhaps two. There’s even a small chance it will be a permanent feature in the long term if it turns out that antibodies for this virus don’t last in the bloodstream.

This is not a change we were prepared for, and we weren’t prepared for how much of our world and daily lives it would affect. We certainly weren’t prepared for the speed at which all this change would hit us.

We don’t know where this is going go lead… what the fate of the economy is, who we might lose to this disease, and what hopes may have to be abandoned. We don’t have a clear narrative of our lives any more. We realized that the narratives we thought were solid and stable were paper thin wrapping around a vast ocean of chaos. We are torn between turning towards society and mutual solidarity, and doing everything we can to keep our jobs.

We’re isolated, and afraid, and stressed out. We feel regretful for the things we should have done, and desperate for things to do back to the way they were. Sometimes we don’t even know if our feelings are valid or justified. It’s overwhelming.

This is a moment of great meaning.

And we are asked to make sense of all this ourselves… to find ways to cope… to redesign the airplane while it’s flying and on fire.

Of course we are overwhelmed. But we are not powerless.

In the video above, Italians dealing with an intense outbreak send “messages from the future” as a way to feel useful to other people in the world. It is a purposeful, symbolic, and healing act.

They have performed a ritual.

Rituals are an effective solution for this moment because they allow you to hold space for processing emotions. They are a nameable container: they give you a way to point at a situation clearly and give you permission to express how you feel about it. They allow you to go through that process with others and provide a clear structure for everyone who participates. They help you to invoke stories and ideas that are meaningful to you, and construct new stories that help you move through life. (Here’s more about how rituals work.)

Rituals are technologies of being — you use them to craft a new you and a new us. Rituals are a machine for time travel — they let you step out of the moment, look at it from afar, and then come back in to the stream. By engaging in ritual, you assert your agency. Rituals make heroes of us all.

At the Ritual Design Toolkit project, we think you too can build a coping strategy can using 4 kinds of rituals, each to help with different points in time. Doubtless these aren’t the only kinds of rituals you may feel called to create during the pandemic, but we’re offering them as a useful starting point.

4 pandemic rituals: accepting a new reality, adjusting to isolation, preparing for another viral season, celebrating the end

Accepting the new reality

If you are struggling with understanding what all of this means, or you have people in your life who are in denial, then what you need is a way to come to terms with the current reality.

You’ll likely want to mourn lost possibilities and abandoned plans. You’ll want to look for things to aim for, and things to sustain you. Perhaps all you need is to let go of the past, and shore up your will to create a new future.

You need a ritual you can do to go through this process of acceptance. As we learn new things about this pandemic and how long it might last and what it will affect, you may have to go through this ritual again and again. Every time we go into a lockdown you may need recourse to this ritual.

Adjusting to isolation

You’ve accepted that this your reality now and you’ve mourned what you’ve lost. You’re now in isolation or other measures needed for maintaining public health, and you’ve lost your usual sources of emotional satisfaction.

You’ll need to cultivate new behaviors, and you’ll need some scaffolding to build them on.

You need a habitual ritual you can do everyday (or even more often).

Preparing for another viral season

In a terrible future where a vaccine is found but is only effective for a limited period of time, this coronavirus is going to be like the flu, only much more impactful. Once or twice a year we will need to collectively gird our loins for a COVID season, revive lapsed behaviors and reinforce a sense of solidarity.

You’ll need a seasonal ritual, perhaps one each to mark the beginning and end of the season.

Celebrating the pandemic’s end

Hopefully, we do find a vaccine and perhaps even a cure for this. Hopefully we contain the spread of this disease and new infections stop. It will have been a long haul. It will have been very difficult for us to go without the things we took for granted for most of our lives — hanging out with friends and family, travel for fun, physical touch, concerts…

It will be the longest collective holding of breath we have seen in generations.

We will want a way to let go of that breath. We will need closure.

We will need a ritual, symbolic act to mark that moment, and if we are wise we will prepare one beforehand.

“How can I design these rituals?”

We’re glad you asked. Head on over to the toolkit website. There, you will find an overview of the toolkit (free to download and use) and a suggested design process to follow. If you’re interested, there’s some background reading.

If you do end up designing a ritual or few, we’d love to hear from you. If you’d like some support in designing a ritual, please reach out. It would be wonderful to create with you.

Thank you for your attention, and may you survive and thrive in these strange times.

The ritual design toolkit project is run by Adam Menter and Arvind Venkataramani.

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