Ritual: The Muscle Memory of Grief
Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.
2). We tend to dislike tradition.
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.