Quick Summary: For Small Creatures Such as We is a book about how we can take stock of our lives and create a spiritual connection with the vastness of the universe is something that can be done with just a few minutes of quiet reflection each day.
Comfort can be found in rituals. Having a set of rituals that we go through can be comforting and give us support in a time of change, whether that change is joyful or heartbreaking, and whether we use them to celebrate, commemorate, or ease the burden of grief.
Yet many modern cultural traditions, such as Christmas and Halloween, have religious origins despite their secularization. Moreover, we may not feel comfortable or motivated to participate in such rituals if we do not hold the same beliefs or perspectives as those who created them.
This can lead us to crave non-religious ways to celebrate the important moments in our lives. After all, regardless of our faith or cultural background, we all have a need for human connection that can be fostered through shared celebration rituals.
You don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t have time. This summary will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Lesson 1: Social rituals bring you closer to your loved ones and create a sense of community
It’s easy to assume that if you aren’t religious, you don’t participate in any fixed rituals. After all, you don’t participate in religious rituals, including Shabbat, Shabbat dinners, or religious services.
If you view rituals as a way to strengthen your bonds with others, you may find that you already regularly participate in several rituals, such as a weekly happy hour with colleagues, a regular gym session, or a monthly volunteer effort.
Comfort can be found in the predictable patterns that rituals establish in our lives. Most importantly, the simplest of our daily rituals can strengthen our ability to cope with the uncertainty that shapes our lives. Rituals like Sagan’s husband Jon’s, who brings her a coffee first thing in the morning at bedtime, help ease her anxiety.
Sagan thanks Jon for his care, but also thinks of the many hands involved in making the coffee in her cup, from planting the beans to harvesting, roasting, grinding, and finishing the drink in the kitchen. This thought process fills Sagan with awe and deepens her bond with her husband.
Weekly services are common in many religions because they help community members grow closer to one another. A weekly ritual is ideal because it’s frequent enough to feel special, but not so frequent that we lose sight of it.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can benefit from developing a ritual that helps you bring more order and confidence into your life. You decide how serious or playful you want to be about it. After the author and her husband met a cab driver who believed that humor and silliness were essential to a happy marriage, they began making weekly trips to their cab dates.
The driver recommended that they sing the alphabet song together on the weekends, and so they do it every week now. They use this time to reflect on their love for each other, no matter how they feel.
Rituals don’t have to be performed only by members of their own family, however. Sagan started a monthly Ladies Dining Society in New York City in the fall of 2010 because she longed for the kind of community that often develops organically within a religious congregation.
She realized that it would be beneficial for her friends to get to know each other, since she usually saw them as separate. The weekly gathering of a small group of her friends and their friends has become a tradition that spans three cities as people have moved. Those who attend regularly benefit from the social interaction.
Lesson 2: It is important to acknowledge the cyclical nature of life by celebrating the change of seasons
It probably doesn’t take a math genius to realize that an angle of 23.4 degrees isn’t that big. But even this small angle has far-reaching consequences: If the Earth’s axis weren’t tilted by exactly this amount, there would be no seasons.
Due to the slight tilt of the Earth’s axis, seasonal temperature variations occur as our planet orbits the sun and the distance between the sun and each hemisphere varies.
Many religious festivals have their roots in the passage of time and the changing of the seasons. Look at the religious calendars of the Northern Hemisphere and you’ll see a pattern. Easter, Passover, and the Japanese Feast of the Steel Phallus all take place in spring, that wonderful season that reminds us that we’ve survived the long, cold winter.
Aside from the fact that they all take place at the same time of year, there seems to be no connection between the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and the casting out of demons from vaginas. Yet, each of these feasts is a unique celebration of new life and, by extension, fertility. What better time to enjoy Mother Nature than spring?
However, not all holidays are celebrated with jubilation. As the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to change color, we’re reminded that winter is just around the corner. Although many cultures celebrate the harvest in the fall, there are also rituals honoring the dead at this time of year.
The Celtic peoples of the Iron Age are credited with this practice, as they tracked the movement of a star cluster to determine the winter solstice as the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the shortest day of the year. In the middle of the year, they celebrated the Samhain festival in honor of their ancestors.
Hundreds of years later, this time of year is still sacred in many cultures. All Souls’ Day is celebrated by Catholics, Da de los Muertos by Mexicans, and Pchum Ben by Cambodians to honor their forefathers and mothers. Some people celebrate Halloween by dressing up as witches or skeletons. These cultural and religious practices allow us to examine and sometimes overcome our fear of death.
The longest night of the year occurs on the winter solstice. This is when the days begin to lengthen again and spring begins. Many people rejoice in the return of warm weather at this time of year, marked by the lighting of Christmas trees, Jewish menorah candles and punjah bonfires.
Throughout history, people of all faiths and cultures have celebrated the end of winter as an act of hope brought to us not by a deity or prophet, but by the Earth’s orbit.
Lesson 3: It is not only a religious experience but also a mechanism to grow and connect with others
Regardless of our religious beliefs, we share a common humanity. Whether unintentionally or intentionally, we all inflict pain on others at some point in our lives and suffer guilt as a result.
Guilt serves an evolutionary purpose, even though the concept of transgression is usually associated with morality. Without guilt, we would never bother to resolve our differences with the people who make up our community.
People have developed many different rites to facilitate the forgiveness of sins. People of the Catholic faith, for example, regularly participate in the sacrament of confession. On Yom Kippur, Jews beat their chests and apologize to their fellow Jews.
At the time of Pryacitta, Hindus perform acts of penance. In numerous Native American communities, breaking taboos is directly related to physical illness. When patients confess their transgressions to their medicine man, they often recover.
Although many claim that confession does not help, it does show the importance of admitting your mistakes, letting them go, and moving on with your life. This is the method that Alcoholics Anonymous uses to help alcoholics overcome their addiction.
The fifth step of their 12-step program is for them to read their list of sins aloud to a credible third person. In the ninth step, they take responsibility for their actions and apologize to those they have wronged.
A more modern and secularized version of confession is therapy. A therapist, like a priest, takes a vow of silence before learning intimate details of their clients’ lives. Of course, those who break the law must confess their offenses to a court, which then imposes an appropriate punishment.
There are times when the wrongs we commit are insignificant. A small hurt, however, can drive a wedge between us and a loved one. Sagan recalls how, shortly after the birth of her daughter, she became upset with her husband, Jon, for folding an important document.
Realizing she had over-controlled herself, she decided to apologize to him for it. He, too, regretted that he had allowed the paper to curl. When the two finally kissed, it was like a small reconciliation ceremony.
While it’s true that everyone makes mistakes occasionally, it’s never easy to own up to your own mistakes. A sincere apology, on the other hand, can lift the burden of guilt and restore broken relationships.
Lesson 4: Birthdays and other annual celebrations connect us with those we love and with the universe as a whole
There is no more tangible way to measure the passage of time than by counting years. As the earth orbits the sun, we always return to the same point in the sky on our anniversaries. And it goes without saying that a lot can change in a year, both for us and for the people we care about.
We humans are predisposed to look for patterns, so the repetition of astronomical events like the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is very interesting to us. For this reason, many people are interested in astrology. We are connected through anniversaries to the orbits of the planets and thus to a power greater than ourselves.
However, a sad anniversary is still an anniversary. It is never easy to commemorate the death of someone we liked very much or looked up to. There is no compact word in English for the day someone passed away, but in Yiddish there is yahrzeit.
Despite her atheism, Sagan has found comfort in the Jewish ritual of lighting a yahrzeit candle to remember her deceased ancestors. Sagan’s mother taught her this custom when she was a young child. She finds this custom comforting because the flame of the candle reminds her that a small part of her deceased loved one still remains on earth, like the light of a star that may have already gone out.
Lighting candles, however, is not always done in memory of a deceased person. Birthdays are a time when many of us like to light candles on cakes and pastries to celebrate. Artemis, a Greek goddess, is credited with starting this tradition.
Artemis was worshipped because she was not only associated with the moon and hunting, but was also believed to facilitate the birth of children. Members of the Artemis cult may have been the first to place small torches in patties to honor Artemis as the bringer of light and to allude to her connection to the moon.
And because of her role in the birth of children, this custom may have eventually led to many birthday celebrations including a cake with candles.
However we do it, birthdays are an opportunity to celebrate the continuation of a life shaped by generations of ancestors before us. We have survived another year to share in the wonders and dangers that make life on earth so rewarding.
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