Never in my craziest dreams about Pines Above Snow have I imagined raving about the same book as Oprah. But Friday, Oprah hosted Liz Gilbert, author of the “life-changing phenomenon” book, Eat, Pray, Love. I love it for many of the same reasons all the women I know love it (#1: My path to true fulfillment may pass through Italy) but especially because it has reminded me about the importance of ritual in our lives.
Here’s a short selection from Gilbert’s witty, eloquent memoir:
This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.
That got me thinking—what rituals do environmentalists observe that regularly lift our spirits, solidify our bonds, carve a place for us to delight in nature without worrying about it for a moment? Hmmmm. Since the days of tree-hugging flower children, environmentalists have shied away from symbolic rituals for fear of ridicule. We want our arguments for nature preservation to be unassailably based in quantifiable science (e.g., species diversity should be protected because ecological systems need diversity to function optimally) rather than intangible, mystical beliefs (e.g., a mountain should be protected because it has spiritual power). Maybe this has won us a few points in rational arguments about land use (though I’m not convinced that most land use arguments are essentially rational), but Eat, Pray, Love made me question what we have also lost.
Gilbert again gives cause for optimism when she says this about ritual:
And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace. And that is why we need God.
If left up to me of course, “green” rituals would at least sometimes involve books. Why not begin each month with an appropriate selection from Thoreau’s journals or A Sand County Almanac? Or organize a public reading of classic environmental essays to celebrate each Earth Day? Or just make a personal vow to read a nature poem or passage every morning? Imbibing a few well-chosen words about trees, canyons, or salmon runs is a more important ceremony to me than a wake-up latte.
But as Elizabeth Gilbert’s story emphasizes, not everyone’s rituals can—or should—be the same. So like her, perhaps we could all start looking for life-changing, world-changing rituals to bring more strength and joy to the environmental movement. I notice ideas here and there as I explore the blogosphere, but one frequent source is No Impact Man. Especially poignant is his recent post on sukkot, the Jewish holiday of atonement. According to Colin, “Sukkot, as explained to me by my wonderful friend Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is a time for reconciliation or--and this is my word--atonement or at-one-ment. Sukkot means, having taken stock of our wrongs, now making them right.” It’s a joyous occasion that brings families together inside of nature as explained in a video posted below (via NIM).
Maybe, if we find and practice some of these power-generating, hope-stimulating rituals, we'll figure out how to save the earth. I bet Oprah would invite us over to talk about that.