21 January 2009

The need for ceremony

I learned as I was watching the inauguration yesterday (yay, Obama!) that he would have technically been President of the United States at noon, regardless of what actually happened with the oath or the Supreme Court Justices or anything else. Similarly, students are considered graduated whether they walk during their commencement ceremonies or not. So, why all the fanfare? Why the pomp and circumstance? Especially in this belt-tightening economy.

I would argue that it isn't merely for celebration or showing off. I believe it allows us to transition, to clear out the old and welcome the new. Like a shared rite of passage or life milestone, letting us all know it's time. Like churches being built as high as possible to make people feel simultaneously dwarfed by and connected to their God, the beauty and spectacle of these life-changing events satisfy our need for the 'this is it' moment. We've been pumping with adrenaline, and these ceremonies offer us that release.

Indeed, weddings are similar. Couples could live just as happily without symbolic jewelry and official documents, but it is the declared promise and sharing the experience with loved ones that makes a wedding meaningful. (And not the 'if you love your spouse, you should buy this doily-like junk.' But I digress.)

My partner and I considered going down to DC for the inauguration (so historic, so exciting!), but we ended up just staying here in Cambridge. We watched Joe Biden and Barack Obama getting sworn in and President Obama's inaugural address (video) in a hushed dining hall with tables of mesmerized students. No one stood when they asked people to stand, but everyone clapped as if we were there. Sharing those experiences with a group of people made it more meaningful, and watching it streaming live on our computer screen at home just would not have been the same.

I hope you had a chance to share this momentous occasion with others, too, and may we all (Americans and non-Americans alike) enjoy a better future with the new leader of the United States, President Barack Obama.

P.S. My favorite moment: when President Obama, in his excitement and nervousness, took a little while to say his oath (video). It shows me he is human and, though usually immaculately eloquent, can experience that spark of childlike exhilaration, too.