Rituals

It’s October. The best month of the year! In some places, fall colors are painting the hills with one last hoorah before winter comes. Many places are experiencing a welcome relief from summer’s sultry heat and humidity. And on top of all that, baseball playoffs are in full swing. Not only do we get to see first-rate play practically every day, but we also witness a vast array of rituals from players and fans alike. Ah, baseball, tailor-made for rituals. It’s been said that rituals provide meaning and structure for people, along with an understanding of life and our role in it. Baseball could not have survived for over a century as America’s favorite pastime without rituals. 

Rituals help alleviate our grief, reduce our anxiety before stressful tasks, and increase our confidence in facing difficult situations. Wade Boggs, the former third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, had some interesting rituals. He got up every day at exactly the same time. He ate chicken before every game. He did his batting practice at 5:15, took 117 ground balls, and then ran sprints at exactly 7:17 before each evening home game. It’s reported that he would write the Hebrew word for “living” in the dirt before stepping up to the plate. He was not Jewish. Did this work? For him, apparently. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005. He had over 3,000 hits in his career, with a .328 batting average. His . 415 on-base percentage meant that in over 2,400 games, he reached base successfully in 80% of them. In 1985, he had the highest batting average the Red Sox had seen since Ted Williams, nearly thirty years earlier. His 240 hits were the most in over fifty years. He may have been born to hit baseballs like some kids were born to play piano, as his mother reportedly said, but his rituals focused him on his task, calmed his nerves, provided the structure he needed, and gave him the confidence to do what he needed to do. 

There are many rituals that are not so unique as Mr. Boggs’s rituals. Nevertheless, rituals help us overcome anxiety before a difficult task, calm our nerves in the midst of a stressful situation, orient our focus in the face of competing claims, and otherwise give us a sense of control in life. This is evident in religious observances around birth, death, and marriage, for example. Likewise, family rituals around holidays are replete with rituals (why do we eat that only now?). Without ritual, we simply bounce from one thing to another in life. Even a morning shower helps orient ourselves, our thoughts, and our feelings to another new day. Rituals are mindless, in the sense of being so natural that we do not consciously think about them. That’s part of their power and importance – and why we continue them. 

October’s baseball playoffs are like the finale seen at most fireworks displays. We have glorious spectacles over the course of some amount of time. Then, near the end (and we all know it’s coming), a prodigious burst of blasts, color, and spectacle fill the sky and lift our spirits. Cheering usually follows. People are filled with wonder, awe, joy. Uplifted for a few moments. Another (state fair, 4 th of July, holiday event) complete – for another year. Missing such a time can disrupt our sense of timing; our circadian rhythms momentarily short-circuited. October is the month that I soak up as much baseball as possible, knowing that the game will go fallow soon in my neck of the woods. The fields and parks silent until spring. It’s exciting, like the final moments of a fireworks display, and I know the end is near. I’ll be uplifted and momentarily transported to an ecstatic state of being. Then, it’ll be over. I will have marked another year. My circadian rhythm of life checked and ordered. I will be sad, at first, when the baseball app on my phone goes silent. Shortly, however, there will be winter festivals – and talk of making another Spring Training trip! By the middle of February, pitchers and catchers will report to camp. Daffodils will sprout along our front walk. Not long ‘till Opening Day! It’s a beautiful thing…

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