Ritual, Stress, and Surviving a Pandemic Thanksgiving

Human beings are pattern-seeking creatures. Place us in an absurd situation, we feel stress. We respond by ritual behavior, or clinging to biases, or even inventing an explanation. Does this sound like anything happening around you for the last several months?

Some of these responses serve us better than others. Biases preserve energy by saving us the time it takes to make case by case evaluations. But they also can be mistaken and rob us of original insights.

Invented explanations are how we manage the terror of acknowledging any bad thing that is out of our understanding or control. Why did Daddy hit me--again? Who is to blame for all these fires lately? How could my candidate have lost? We tell ourselves a story that makes sense of the event, relieving the pain of uncertainty, and thus gaining control over our emotions.

Ritual behavior has been found to reduce the stress of absurd situations. Rituals here can be anything, repeated actions whether checking the doors at the end of the day, knitting (for heaven's sake!), saying the rosary or other mantras, or social gatherings with predictable patterns like sports events or family dinners.

Oh dear. Here comes Thanksgiving Day, with its predictable guest list, predictable menu, predictable behaviors. Even the arguments create a sense of normality, they are so predictable. Rituals, every one. And while we might have dreaded some of these things in years past, will this year's quarantine mean we will be denied even the ritual dread?

In the United States, responsibility for managing a worldwide pandemic has been fobbed off on state governors, which seems to me to be above their pay grade, but it is what it is. So how this year's event may or may not resemble last year's will vary across state lines and local willingness to follow executive orders. In Iowa - good luck even figuring out what those orders are. In Oregon - no more than two households may gather in one room, with no more than six people. Our family's Thanksgiving includes six people, but four households. So we will be making some changes.

Under the circumstances, our strategy is to control what we can control and reenact what rituals we can reenact. So Darryl will pour drinks, at least at his house. Margaret will try a new recipe - the specific recipe is not a tradition, but that Margaret will try something new is as predictable as Thursday. Helen will make the pies. And I will pour a glass of white wine as the first step of making the giblet gravy, with a mix on hand in case of disaster, but there never has been a disaster, so Helen will question why I buy the mix, just like she does, and I do, every year.

We'll have a bit of novelty, but even that will have a ritual aspect. While I am making gravy, Helen will take a pie over to Margaret's and come home with Margaret's Brussel sprouts, because Helen always makes the pie and Margaret always makes the sprouts. If we time it right, maybe we will synchronize the sitting down to eat, with Darryl saying grace over Zoom.

I think we can manage it. And next year, God willing and the people cooperating, we will return to the original pattern, and close the day with hugs all around, having given thanks that we are all still alive to give them.

I pray you will be too.

We can do this. Happy Thanksgiving!

gifs from giphy.com

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