How we change what others think, feel, believe and do
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Transitions, Celebrations and Marking Boundaries
Why do we celebrate birthdays? Why do we need marriage ceremonies and funerals? Why do we riddle our lives with such rituals? It's because life is not linear. It is not a continuum. It goes in fits, starts and stages. And we need something to mark the edges.
When we gaze out at the world, all we really see is a mass of different optical waves, of which we can detect frequencies and amplitude over a fairly limited range. However, this is enough for us to see one another and all the many things around us. It seems instantaneous, but our brains work really hard and in real time to turn that river of hues into things we can name, recognize and react to. Without going too deeply into the neuroscience of perception, one of the most important parts of this process is in separating one thing from another, and to do this, we seek contrast, then line and outline, from which we can recognize and name all the different things.
Edges count. Without boundaries, things would merge into one another, making them difficult to distinguish. Animals use this when their mottled feathers and hair merge into the background and break up their outline so predators cannot see them so easily.
We use this principle in our lives, too. We like to separate out different periods and events so we can name them and hence give them separate meaning. We talk about our school years, friendships, jobs, weekends, festivals and more. For ideas, concepts and experiences to exist as meaningful entities, we have to name them, which means separating them, which means knowing their boundaries, which typically means recognizing when they start and end. It is for this purpose we mark our lives' boundaries with celebrations and other events.
Events can be small, such as completing a task. They can be large, such as getting married. And a way we recognize these is in the size and elaboration of our markers. We punch the air when we solve a problem. We dress up, recite sacred words and eat with friends and family when we marry. However we do it, markers help us transition to new realities. They enable us to say 'The past was good, but it is gone. I must now move on to the new future.' Facing new times can be scary when the competencies and resources that enabled us to succeed in the past may not be as useful as they once were. When jobs change and friends leave, we may fear the strangeness of the new and hark back to the safety of the past. Celebrations help us let go and move on, looking forward with more confidence rather than backwards with regret.
Psychologists talk about the way we go through stable periods punctuated by unstable transitions as stage theory, and note how difficulty in these periods of change can result in us getting stuck in a younger stage, which is sometimes called 'arrested development'. This is effect can also be seen in the Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle, a principle that has been taken up in business where changes are recognized as causing a similar staged transition, and where consultants may act to help people through these, much as psychotherapists help people unstick themselves from childhood stages. When we pay attention to marking transitions and using deliberate celebration, we may be saving ourselves from a later date on the therapist's couch!
How and when we celebrate also depends on who we are. Extraverts, for example, will enjoy a good party, while introverts might be happier to just have dinner with a few good friends. Americans often like grand statements while New Zealanders prefer understatement. A person in one company culture will appreciate a pat on the back for a job well done, while a person in another will expect a big financial bonus and public recognition. Older people, used to long periods of stability, may be accustomed to few transitions and hence big celebrations, while younger people who know little but change, celebrate each weekend, perhaps offering silent prayers of thanks that they are still here and their heads are largely above the rising financial waters.
One of the key concerns that we often have when recognized is what others might think of us. It is not uncommon for those who are not the focus of celebrations to feel rather envious, that they are equally deserving and perhaps more so. Even as they smile and applaud us, we may worry that they are secretly hating us. Such fears can drain the pleasure from being the focus of attention and reward, especially in egalitarian cultures where equality is desirable and standing out is not.
If you think somebody has done a good job and want help them celebrate, rather than throwing them a party, first stand in their shoes. Do they see their work as something significant? Do they expect a celebration? Do they expect little but would appreciate some public recognition? First, know the culture and know the person. If the culture permits celebration, know its limits, where pleasure would turn to disgust. If the person would appreciate recognition, even if they act modestly, then understand what recognition they would appreciate and feel is appropriate, and how others would see this. Only then move to the planning. Decide whether it should be a surprise or known, large or small, public or private. The bigger the recognition event, the more time and resource you will need, so make sure you have the funds before throwing a big party.
And after it all, you may want a little celebration yourself. Indeed, failing to celebrate can bring unbounded confusion to our lives. It is also good to help others mark the transitions in their lives, but this can be hard work. Yet we do it because the greatest pleasure for many of us is to see those we feel deserve recognition get it, and to help those who need to move on to do this through recognition and marking of change.