For Small Creatures Such as We | Sasha Sagan

Summary of: For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World
By: Sasha Sagan


In the book ‘For Small Creatures Such as We’, Sasha Sagan unravels how rituals and traditions shape our lives and give a sense of meaning to our brief existence on Earth. Delving into the diverse rituals that accompany birth, marriage, death, and everything in between, Sagan demonstrates that despite our cultural, religious, or scientific differences, ultimately, we are all connected through our shared humanity. Unveiling the power and significance of rituals in a secular context, the book encapsulates the ways in which we can create our own meaningful rituals and traditions to celebrate life’s milestones.

Embracing Life’s Unique Miracles

The birth of a newborn child is nothing short of a miracle, considering the incredible odds and coincidences that have occurred throughout human history and the universe’s vast timeline. Our very existence on Earth echoes the significance of every individual’s impact against the cosmic backdrop. Acknowledging this, countless traditions and rituals honor the unique significance of each new life and create connections to those who came before us and those yet to be born. In an ever-changing world, there is boundless potential for us to establish personalized rituals that cherish the unmatched and miraculous journey that life offers.

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget the true magnitude of our existence. Every human life begins as a small bundle, living an ephemeral moment compared to the universe’s 13.8-billion-year existence. The intricate path that led to our very presence here has navigated through millions of specific encounters, moments, and decisions involving our ancestors that stretch across an estimated 7,500 generations.

Even more astonishing, our existence is shaped by a complex interplay of chance and circumstance. Sasha Sagan, the author, provides the example of her own grandparents, whose serendipitous meeting on the E train in New York City influenced the lives of generations to come. The gravity of these moments exemplifies the unique magic encompassed in every individual.

Understandably, civilizations have established rituals to welcome new lives and showcase their significance to the world. Practices such as baptisms, naming days, or the Chinese custom of hosting a feast for a 100-day-old baby exist to celebrate the defiance of early death and the entrance of a unique soul into our lives. Communities across the globe, including Jamaica and the Balkans, embrace the miracle of life with tree planting ceremonies, establishing roots that connect both past and future generations.

In this dynamic world, there’s ample room to create our own rituals, be it intimate, like reading a poem to our children, or elaborate, like hosting grand celebrations. By partaking in these acts, we not only honor the extraordinary story of our existence but also cultivate a legacy of love and continuity for the next generations of miraculous lives.

Uncovering Life’s Rituals

Even without religious practices, rituals are present in our lives, providing comfort and a sense of community. Daily and weekly routines, like enjoying a cup of coffee or connecting with loved ones, bring structure and reassurance. Expanding our rituals to friends and communities can create stronger bonds, fostering support and connection with those around us.

Many individuals who don’t participate in religious practices might believe that their lives lack rituals. However, upon closer examination, one might find that they participate in activities that bring community and comfort. For example, meeting for drinks with colleagues, attending recurring gym classes, or engaging in regular volunteering efforts all serve as rituals that allow a deeper connection to those around us.

These regular rituals give our lives a sense of routine and comfort, helping us navigate through the uncertainties of life. Simple daily rituals can provide a sense of grounding and wonder, such as reflecting on the journey of a cup of coffee from its origins to being served by a loved one. This practice creates an emotional connection between the individual and their surroundings, enhancing their relationship with others.

Weekly rituals also play a significant role in reinforcing bonds, striking a balance between frequency and importance. Whether religious or not, creating a personalized ritual can bring stability and joy. For example, after receiving advice from a taxi driver about the importance of playfulness in a relationship, one couple sings the alphabet song each weekend, reflecting on their love and commitment.

Rituals need not be limited to families; they can extend to friends and the larger community. Seeking to foster the sense of belonging and support found in religious congregations, one woman established a monthly Ladies Dining Society in New York City. This event grew to include friends of friends and expanded to other cities, demonstrating the power of rituals in creating strong, interconnected communities.

Seasons Shape Our Celebrations

Earth’s 23.4-degree tilted axis provides us with our distinct seasons, which in turn, have influenced the origin and evolution of various religious and cultural celebrations around the world. Ranging from celebrations of rebirth and fertility in spring, rituals for the dead in fall, to festivities of hope and the return of warmth in winter, our planet’s orbital journey has profoundly impacted human customs and traditions across cultures and faiths.

An angle as small as 23.4 degrees might not seem like much, but this is the tilt of Earth’s axis that gifts us our annual seasons. The shifting distance between the Sun and each hemisphere during Earth’s orbit creates the familiar temperature changes we experience. This planetary journey has woven a profound influence on human customs and traditions, molding many religious and cultural festivities.

Spring, the season known for resurrecting life after the cold grip of winter, hosts celebrations like Easter, Passover, and Kanamara Matsuri – Japan’s Festival of the Steel Phallus. Examining these festivals reveals their shared theme of rebirth and fertility. Although these celebrations stem from different origins and stories, they all share a link with the renewal brought by the season of spring.

Conversely, the arrival of fall comes with diminishing days and a harbinger of the impending winter. It’s during this time that numerous cultures honor the dead with rituals and ceremonies. The notion can be traced back to the Iron Age Celts who established Samhain, a feast to commemorate their deceased, by observing the movement of a star cluster. Today, this tradition lives on in various forms, such as Catholic All Souls’ Day, Mexican Día de los Muertos, or the global phenomenon of Halloween. Through these customs, people confront and even trivialize their fear of death.

Long after the last leaves have fallen, winter solstice marks the darkest and longest night of the year. Following this, the days begin to lengthen once again, leading to spring. This is when people illuminate their homes with Christmas lights, light their Jewish menorah candles, and set Punjah bonfires ablaze. These festivities, embracing diverse faiths and cultures, celebrate the end of winter as an expression of hope – hope that doesn’t rely on any divine figure but rather on the natural patterns inherent in the orbit of our very own planet.

The Power of Apologies

All humans inevitably make mistakes and feel guilt, which serves an evolutionary purpose. Throughout history and various cultures, rituals for atoning for sins have emerged, illustrating the importance of taking responsibility for our mistakes, unburdening ourselves, and growing as individuals. Contemporary methods such as therapy and addiction recovery programs showcase the power of confession and making amends. Embracing the courage to apologize repairs relationships and eases the burden of guilt.

We all make mistakes, regardless of our belief systems, and these mistakes often lead to guilt. Though guilt might be viewed as a moral concept, it serves an essential evolutionary function. Without guilt, we wouldn’t address our misunderstandings with others, whose support is crucial for our survival.

Numerous atonement rituals exist across different cultures and belief systems, highlighting the need to take responsibility for our mistakes to unburden ourselves and grow as people. Catholics confess their sins, Jews apologize during Yom Kippur, and Hindus perform penance during Prāyaścitta. Even many indigenous tribes of the Americas believe that physical ailments can stem from transgressions against societal norms, and recovering health comes through confessing misdeeds to a medicine man.

While confession might not cure illness, it showcases the importance of facing our mistakes head-on. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous use confession and apology as integral steps in their 12-step recovery process, helping members to seek amends and personal growth. Therapy, another modern version of confession, provides an avenue for individuals to express their feelings and actions while working through their guilt and emotional baggage.

Even seemingly small mistakes can strain relationships, but acknowledging our shortcomings and apologizing can foster healing and reconnection. Apologizing, while difficult, helps to ease the burden of guilt and repair broken connections.

Ultimately, we must find the courage to apologize for our wrongdoings and take responsibility for our actions. In doing so, we lighten our emotional burdens and strengthen bonds with others, leading to a more harmonious and supportive existence.

Time, Anniversaries, and Traditions

The passing of a year is significant for humans, as it connects us to the cyclical patterns that our brains are naturally drawn to, such as Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Anniversaries serve as a reminder of our connection to something greater than ourselves, even commemorating the death of loved ones by lighting a yahrzeit candle, a tradition that provides comfort. Another example of using candles as a marker for time is placing them on a birthday cake, a practice rooted in ancient Greece, related to the goddess Artemis. By celebrating birthdays and anniversaries of various kinds, we acknowledge our continued existence and the generations who came before us in shaping our lives.

Anxiety begins to bubble within us as each year rolls around, bringing us once more to the spot we found ourselves 365 days before. The Earth’s orbit connects us to this astronomical cycle, and it is fascinating because our brains are naturally drawn towards finding patterns. Astrology, for example, captivates thousands due to its connection to cosmic events and how they impact our lives.

Anniversaries encompass both joy and sorrow. When we lose a loved one, we’re left with a bittersweet sensation. The Yiddish tradition of lighting a yahrzeit candle provides comfort by continuing that person’s legacy through a small flame. A lingering light so similar to the glow of stars that we can still see even after they perish.

Our journey around the Sun also inspires joyous commemorations, such as birthdays and the age-old ritual of placing candles atop a cake. This tradition traces back to ancient Greece, when small torches were arranged in tribute to the goddess Artemis, who was believed to facilitate birth and ease suffering. Today, cakes adorned with candles serve as reminders of our beginnings and the lifelines we share across generations.

The ebb and flow of time, with each passing year, prompts us to appreciate our ongoing experiences on this Earth. Through it all, our existence is a precious gift, woven together by the lives of ancestors long gone. As we face the fluctuating seasons, let us take delight in the opportunities and challenges of crafting lasting memories, honoring those who came before us.

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