The Last Psychiatrist has a post up about narcissists at funerals, which resonated with my “religious but not spiritual” instincts. The gist is: “On the one hand they don’t know how to be real, on the other hand they they think protocol and formality is dishonest and insensitive. They can’t say, “my condolences” because it sounds fake. So they improvise, catastrophically.”
I found this to be something of a challenge to my call for improvisational awkwardness as a response to the breakdown of the social bond at the end of Awkwardness. I wonder, though, if returning to the old rituals may be the most awkward thing of all — if at this late date, they might be more useful precisely because they are recognized to be purely social constructs, because they so obviously don’t “fit” the situation in any intuitive way. The narcissists in TLP’s posts are looking for some kind of discharge of the awkwardness of dealing with strong emotions, some kind of “solution” to the problem of mourning, and they try to force others to conform to their expectations. Perhaps simply saying, “My condolances,” in its obvious inadequacy and unoriginality, is actually the best way to “live into” our awkwardness. We aren’t saying it because it’s the objectively right thing to say, we’re saying it as a way of expressing the fact that we don’t know what to say, that there is nothing to say.
The same thing seems to be true of wedding vows. I’ve always hated it when people write their own vows because of the forced sentimentality — a wedding day is already inherently stressful enough without worrying that you’re “performing” your love adequately. While there are obviously problems with the patriarchal bias of the traditional vows, I still think that some kind of generic formulaic vows are preferable. Generic vows express the fact that there precisely isn’t a formula that fits your unique snowflake of a relationship — in a way, starting your publicly-recognized relationship with a formula that fits awkwardly may serve to set the expectations at the right level. Certainly it’d be preferable to the soul-mate/lover-and-best-friend/can’t-believe-I-met-you crap that makes the relationship out to be some kind of unique world-historical event.
In short, I’d suggest that we need more empty ritualism — and an emptier ritualism, a ritualism that openly admits its own inadequacy and hopefully thereby cuts off the useless quest for authentic self-expression.