[The wedding is the weekend after this one. The first out of towner, one of my brothers, is arriving in just two days. Between running around getting dress fittings, working out the drinks plan and whatnot, and panicking whenever I read someone else's wedding blog, I've started composing a million blog posts in my head, but not finding the time/headspace to write them out. In the ramp up to the wedding, this is the post that managed to come out of my head nearly fully furnished.]
I’m really fascinated by the idea of ritual. I have a world view that’s heavy on skepticism, which precludes a belief in the supernatural. So rituals, to me, are essentially meaningless. But what is a wedding, if not a series of rituals to perform?
(Drunk groomsman says: “It’s a party, that’s what!).
Ok, I get what rituals are for. They are for marking transitions in life, for acknowledging them, for performing them by making something physical that is actually abstract – they are for making meaning. There is some kid of psychological need in humans to do this. Ritual and ceremony are universal, they’re in every single human culture. Even the Neanderthals did it.
If you believe in God, or magic, or take the word ‘auspicious’ seriously, the distance for you between the symbolism of ritual, and the thing it symbolises, might be pretty short. The Catholic church teaches that the communion wafer does not symbolise the body of Christ, but that it is literally the body of Christ. And even if a ceremony involves nothing more than spoken words, you might still believe that on a supernatural plane, something eminently real is going on.
But I don’t believe that stuff. In eleven days, M and I are going to go through the motions of a wedding. Afterwards, nothing magical will have happened. Our souls will not have become cosmically bound together by a higher power. No supernatural changes will have occurred. We’re still be just two people, standing side by side, making the decision again and again to live our lives together. The only difference is now this decision about how we want to live our lives will be bolstered by law, which itself is only a set of rules people made up, and also has no transcendental reality to it.
But our minds run on symbolism. Look at language. It is sound. It is a series of vibrations traveling through the air, reaching your ear drum, vibrating it. The sounds don’t inherently mean anything, but within a given language everyone agrees on what they mean.
Walking down the aisle in a white dress, on the arm of my dad, to stand in front of family and friends, and then exchange rings, doesn’t inherently mean anything, which is why not all marrying people do that way. But my mind nevertheless considers it a symbol of something greater, even though symbols are arbitrary. Like with a native language, I can’t very easily separate symbolic things in my own culture from the things they represent.
Yes, life is essentially purposeless. We are biological coincidences and nothing more. But one of the quirks of our biology is that we like to invest meaning into things by performing rituals. When there’s no greater point to life, life doesn’t become empty or unenjoyable (ok, maybe during your teenage existential crisis it does). Instead, it makes the best parts of life all the more precious – things that induce a sense of awe; art; science; joy; love; flow; the connectedness to others you can feel when partaking in a ceremony among a group of people who all agree on what that ceremony means; and a sense of wonder that our brains are sophisticated enough to experience something as amazing as loving another person so much that you promise to share your whole life with them.