Habit, Ritual, Performance

The word “ritual” is derived from the word “rite,” which refers to a religious ceremony of some kind.

Which makes sense, if you consider that a ritual is typically a somewhat dogmatic undertaking: it’s the precise, step-by-step process of making coffee in the morning, or the way we cycle through a particular workout regimen.

There’s often something quite pleasant about performing a ritual, in that it’s familiar, unchanging, and leads to a known, consistent outcome.

In a world that is often anything but predictable, reliable, and known, that simple coherence can be gratifying.

The term “habit” has a similar etymology: it’s derived from the term used for clothing worn by members of religious orders, and in its modern usage refers to a routine performed in the same, orthodox way, over and over again.

There’s value to be found in habits, too, as repetition—even mundane, boring repetition—can help us grow, learn, and flourish. It can help us master skills and understand things that are difficult to grasp. And this is true even if the tasks we repeat are decidedly unremarkable, except for that repetition.

I like to use the word “performance” alongside these two other terms, when thinking about the things I do regularly and procedurally, because of the conceptual variation it implies within the context of consistent practice and long-term goals.

To perform means to achieve a specific outcome, but it has less to say about how that outcome is achieved.

The word is actually predicated on the idea of “bringing something to form,” or “bringing some outcome into being,” which implies an accomplishment, but not a strict path one must walk to make that desired result a reality.

This may be a consequence of the word’s modern association with “performing arts,” but there’s always been a hint of improvisation in the act of performing, to me, which means being forced to think through how I get from point A to point B on a more regular basis, and thus having the opportunity to try new things and more regularly both fail and succeed in interesting, educational ways.

None of which is meant to imply that habits or rituals are less valuable than performances: on the contrary, all three are incredibly useful, healthy things to have in one’s life, especially when they’re introduced intentionally and thoughtfully.

It’s just that they’re more valuable, I would argue, as part of a diversified lifestyle structure that includes changeable, shape-shifting elements, alongside more predictable exercises and routines.

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