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Routine And Ritual: Two Pillars As We Age

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There are two support patterns that help to structure our lives--routine and ritual, and they are not the same. Routine means habits that give form to our daily lives--brushing our teeth, changing our underwear, eating at specific times, making appointments. Routine requires discipline, and it begins very early. It sustains us as we age. We organize pills according to day and quantity. We write things down on our calendars. It helps relieve the anxiety about "What do I do next?" or "What was I supposed to do today?"

There's a wonderful joke I like to share with friends who say they are having "a senior moment." An aging couple goes to their doctor, complaining that they keep forgetting things; they want advice as to how to improve their memories. The doctor advises them, "Write everything down!" They go home, and that evening, while watching a TV program, the wife says to the husband, "I'm thirsty. Would you mind getting me a soft drink from the refrigerator?" "Sure," he says, and starts to leave. "Wait! The doctor says to write everything down!" "I'm only going to the kitchen, for heaven's sake." Half an hour later, he returns with an omelet. "Where's the toast?" she asks.

Now all I have to do is say, "Where's the toast?" and my friends relax about their so-called senior moments.

Creating a routine gives us a sense of security. We are relieved from having to decide on when and how to do small, unimportant activities like where to sit at the table--which fork or spoon to use--whether to have coffee or tea. These simple, everyday activities reassure us, and unless we decide to change, we don't have to think about that change. My friends, also in their eighties or nineties, who live alone, have a routine for their week's morning activities: An egg on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; cereal on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; waffles or pancakes on Sundays. They also have regular routine activities for the rest of their days; classes, the gym, religious meetings; book clubs, coaching at public schools, whether elementary or high school. They know that involvement in community activities or active participation with other people makes them feel valued--not detached from the world.

Ritual is different. It is connected to a rite celebrating a particular occasion or initiation. Yes, it requires repetition and practice of a sort, and yes, it does require discipline, but the purpose is different. It is ceremonial; it is dramatic, and it is not commonplace or something that is practiced every day. Muslims who pray several times a day, Buddhists who meditate several times a day, Jews who recite prayers in the morning, facing East, Christians who pray before each meal and before going to bed, may create these ritualistic behaviors as part of a routine, but they are not. Rituals demand thought, often an inner meditation on an abstract concept, whereas a routine is performed without conscious thinking.

Rituals demand attention to process as well as to affect. When we participate in a ritual, like going to a place of worship on a particular day, we make a commitment to join other people in a rite of passage. Weddings, funerals, baby-naming, birthday celebrations, graduations, conferring of honorary degrees all demand certain particular behaviors and even socially acceptable clothing. A baby-naming is a ritual connected to a rite of initiation into a tribe, and is performed differently according to tribal custom. The same, of course, is true of courtship, marriage and funeral customs.

Ritual connects us to our community and to society in general. Routine reinforces our sense of control over our every-day lives. We need both routine and ritual. Without routine, we are beset with decision-making over the smallest, most mundane aspects of daily life; without ritual, we deprive ourselves of connecting with other members of our tribe or social group.

When we are young, our parents create routines for us that make their lives (and ours) easier. They insist we do our homework at a specific time every day; that we have breakfast and dinner at a specific time; that we do chores around the house or garden according to a specific schedule. As teens, we often resist their scheduling, and try to set up our own schedules, establishing our own routines. The process is important, even if it is not often successful.

We need both routine and ritual. We crave the patterns of socialization--they remind us of our connection to others. Routine helps us to organize our time, creating schedules that fit our needs. Routine helps to give form to our daily lives. Ritual expands our horizons to aspects of life beyond daily requirements. We need both pillars to sustain us, especially as we age.

Rhoda P. Curtis is the author of "Rhoda: Her First Ninety Years," a candid memoir of a first-generation American woman who was willing to change the direction of her life every 12 years, and "After Ninety: What." To buy Rhoda's books and to read her blog, visit her on Red Room.

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