The Absurdity of Rituals

I was reminded last night of the absurdity of life. Life is so absurd. No, really, it is. Day after day, year after year, we continue to do the same things over and over and over again. These rituals are funny little things. From brushing our teeth to putting on a whole face of make up, only to wash it all off again a few hours later, to setting our alarm clock for the same time every morning and then without fail, hitting the snooze button. Why do we do the same things day in and day out? We wake up, wash, eat, go to work, go home, eat, go to sleep and repeat. Sometimes we mix it up a bit and do something totally out of the ordinary, but mostly we stick to these familiar rituals as if that was what life was all about, when in fact surely there should be more to it than eating, sleeping and defecating.

In acting class we have been touching upon Theatre of the Absurd which basically aims to highlight and comment upon the meaninglessness of everyday contemporary life. We were asked to read Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party”. For the people who have read this play, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say it is just full-on bizarre. Meg and her husband Petey go through the same ritual every single morning:

In this scene, Petey is reading his morning newspaper-

Meg: Is it good?

Petey: Not bad.

Meg: What does it say?

Petey: Nothing much.

Meg: You read me out some nice bits yesterday.

Petey: Yes, well, I haven’t finished this one yet.

Meg: Will you tell me you come to something good?

Petey: Yes.

And, well, that’s it. Over and over again. Repetitive language, revolving patterned conversations, absurdity flowing out of every uttered word. Perhaps Pinter could have had his characters using a gobbledygook language and the effect would have been exactly the same; ritualistic and frightening on so many levels. Please, if I ever reach a point in my life where my relationship with my future husband looks like this, SHOOT ME IN THE HEAD. I’m all for niceties and small talk, but if my relationship stems around ensuring my husband’s cornflakes taste the same every day, then we might have a problem. I think rereading Pinter’s play woke something up in me. I was confronted with this almost hypnotic dialogue between the characters in The Birthday Party and it made me wonder if this is the way our relationships with people are too. Does our language sound as absurd as Meg’s and Petey’s? Are we wasting our words? As I said in an earlier blog post– every word is precious, so why do we use them without thinking? Meg and Petey are caught up in a cycle and I believe Pinter wrote their conversations that way to deliberately awaken us all to the daily rituals we carry out and to make us question why we do them. Or maybe he just wants to reveal the patterns we all go through each day. Maybe my conversations over breakfast do sound as mundane as Meg and Peteys. Pinter’s plays might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they certainly strike a chord deep within us that shakes us to our very core and leaves us wondering what on earth we’re doing with our lives. In a way, it’s extremely frustrating. We watch a play or read a book or listen to music, not only to be entertained but also to undergo some form of catharsis, but with Pinter we come out feeling as crazy as the characters in the play. Nothing is neatly concluded, relationships are left hanging on the edge of the highest cliff and our brains are frazzled by what we just encountered.

In life we don’t want things to be left undone. We seek closure. We like to wrap things up before we can go home and relax. Clutter and dirt give us anxiety. We border on the cusp of obsessive compulsive disorder when we see dust floating at our feet. We’re problem solvers, analysers, counsellors. We want conclusions tied up with a big, beautiful bow. No creases, no cracks.

Yeah, but life isn’t like that. Life is absurd. Our rituals are ridiculous but essential, the quintessential contradiction that makes up the majority of our lives. Initially, Pinter made me mad at the gruelling nature of listening to a couple having such a boring conversation. Where is the sensuality? The humour? The ‘real’ insight into a relationship based on love and honesty, the depth of romance? Now though, I just have to laugh. Pinter hit the nail on the head here. By unleashing the emptiness of their so-called relationship, he makes them seem so tragic that it becomes comical. The content of their conversation is probably not where Pinter wants us to focus, it’s more likely that he wanted to emphasise the stark realities that lurk beneath every ritual- that it’s the same every time, a tradition, and maybe that makes them happy, maybe that’s what their relationship is built upon.

And these traditions, these little daily rituals soothe us in some way, don’t they? They make our lives cyclical, and us humans seem to like that, no matter the repetitive nature of it all. We complain about going to work Monday to Friday 9-5, and yet we do it anyway. We have to. To survive. But maybe also, to give our lives stability, a sameness that reminds us daily who we are and what our purpose is.

I’m not entirely sure I’ve got that last bit figured out, in fact this is getting a bit too philosophical for me, too much Pinter on the brain. I like my rituals, there, I admitted it. I feel calm when I swirl coconut oil around my mouth for 20 minutes every morning when I wake up, and I like sprinkling chia seeds over my breakfast bowl in the office while listening to music. However, there’s a difference with enjoying your routine and being too stuck in your ways, too stubborn to bask in a bit of change. There must be a balance in there somewhere. Maybe it’s OK to ask your husband how his cornflakes are every single morning, but only if you immediately discuss something a little deeper afterwards, or at least kiss him good morning. The key might be to take pleasure in these rituals, simultaneously erasing the robotic quality of them. They might seem absurd to other people but if you enjoy them, in the end, that’s all that matters.


Photo by Rodney Smith

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