by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

“Why is lettuce in our prayer?” (… let us thank Him for our food) asked our then 4-year-old before digging into his favorite breakfast of “scream cheese and bagos.” When the kids were young we started daily family breakfasts because it was the one time we were all together when the house was reasonably quiet. The early struggles (getting out of bed at 7:30 on summer mornings was not fun for our preteen daughter) subsided, and then there was disappointment on the rare morning we didn’t eat together.

With summer and family reunion season approaching, we’re reminded that rituals, customs, and family traditions add a rich texture to life. They restore balance in a society pushing us toward imbalance.

In his classic book From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives author Robert Fulghum (All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Maybe, Maybe Not) says rituals “…bring structure and meaning to daily life, enriching who we are collectively and individually.” He goes on to write “Structure gives us a sense of security. And that sense of security is the ground of meaning.”

But can, and should, health promoters try to help clients build these elements into their lives? Yes, on both counts.

The high stress rates, reports of job burnout, and growing depression in our society are due in part to imbalance, disconnectedness, and disintegrating structure. Without rituals, customs, and traditions, our sense of security is shaken and life’s meaning is lessened. And until we get them back there’s little hope of successful behavior change or risk reduction.

Review Your Rituals

If you’re struggling with stress, security, or meaning, examine the traditions and customs you keep before trying to help participants with theirs. You wouldn’t be the first health promoter who has lost balance trying to save everyone else’s life.

Once you’re heading in the right direction, you can encourage others to see the importance of rituals. Some ideas:

  • Written materials. Talk about customs and traditions regularly on your website, in newsletters and brochures. Challenge readers to start 1-2 this month — ideas the whole family agrees on.
  • Presentations. Use personal examples that have helped you and others achieve the balance or behavior change you’re trying to impress on the audience. Give participants assignments to add a ritual to their schedule over the next month.
  • Nutrition programs. Food is a centerpiece for most of society’s celebrations. With each weight loss program, light cooking demonstration, or nutrition session, suggest ways to include family or friends in the activity. Build customs into class assignments, such as having children help prepare healthy meals, or family grocery shopping excursions, or trips to the farmer’s market for fresh produce.
  • Fitness activities. Even if you have the greatest onsite fitness center, encourage participants to go on regular walks at home. The practice of a half-hour walk with a spouse, neighbor, or pet each evening does wonders for fitness as well as mental health.
  • Stress management training. For each stressor the participant identifies, ask them to come up with a ritual or custom to take the edge off before the situation becomes stressful. For example, if getting to work and school is a stressful event each morning, what rituals can the family do together the night before to prevent some of the stress? Pack lunches? Review homework? Load backpacks and briefcases into the car? Lay out clothes?
  • Classes. Offer a course on customs, traditions, and rituals. Make sure to have participants share their personal experiences — which in itself is a ritual.

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