Many people are suspicious of rituals. They seem so at odds with cultural mores that emphasize authenticity, sincerity, and the true self. The following example shows how ritual can have a very powerful effect on human nature and human relationships.

In early China, people saw human beings as a mass of conflicting emotions, turbulent energies, and chaotic spirits that they worked to refine during their lives. But at the moment of death, a person’s most dangerous energies—his anger and resentment at passing away while his loved ones go on living—would be released and haunt the living. People believed that the world was filled with the spirits of the deceased, who looked jealously upon their survivors. Death would bring out the worst in the living as well: sadness, confusion, inexplicable anger.

To combat all of these negative, uncontrolled energies, people developed ritual acts, the most important of which was ancestral worship. The meat of a beast, most often a pig, would be placed in bronze ritual vessels and cooked over an open fire in front of the family at a temple. The family would call down the ghosts to feed on the rich smoke that rose up from the meat. By feeding the ghosts these offerings, the living hoped to bring them back into the family and persuade them to inhabit the role of benevolent ancestors hovering above.

After the ritual had ended, the ancestors eventually reverted to angry, haunting ghosts, and the rite would have to be repeated.

In the Analects, Confucius is asked about ancestor worship. He says that the ritual is absolutely necessary but that it makes no difference whether the spirits are participating or not: “We sacrifice to them,” he said, “as if they are there.” What matters is participating in the ritual fully.

But if ghosts aren’t even necessarily there, why do the ritual as if they are?

In life, the relationship between the deceased and the living might have been imperfect and fraught. A father was stern, unloving, and temperamental; his offspring were hostile and rebellious. If performed well, the ritual moves us from this troubled world of human relationships and creates a space in which ideal relationships can be forged. Within this space, it is as if the haunting ghosts are proper, beneficent ancestors to the living. The living now behave as if they were proper descendants of the ancestors. The angers, jealousies, and resentments that had existed between the living and the dead are being transformed into a vastly better relationship.

For Confucius, the ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it. To ask whether these ritual acts actually affected the deceased or not missed the point entirely. Family members needed to make the sacrifices because acting as if the ancestors were there brought about change within themselves.

The ritual also changed the feelings of the living toward one another. A death always engenders changes in relationships among those left behind. A long-dormant childhood rivalry between two siblings flares up again; a wayward son suddenly becomes the nominal head of the household, stirring unrest among the others. Within the ritual, however, all play their new familial roles as if there were no discord.

Of course, the ritual always ends. Family members walk out of the ritual space, and the moment they do, they are in the messy world again. Siblings squabble, cousins rebel, the father and son are still at odds with each other.

This is why families returned to the ritual repeatedly. Gradually, by doing the rituals again and again and re-creating these healthier connections, the improved relationships among the family members would begin to manifest more in daily life.

The ritual does not tell anyone how to behave in the real world. The perfectly ordered world inside the ritual could never replace the flawed world of real-life relationships. It works because each participant plays a role other than the one he inhabits normally. That “break” with reality is the key for allowing the participants to begin to work on their relationships.

Sacrificing beasts and placating spirits may seem distant from our twenty-first-century lives, but the value of the rituals remains. We too are haunted by ghosts: the irritating relative we never get along with; the grudge we can’t seem to shake off; the past we can’t forget.

We tend to fall into patterned, habitual responses. They may be social conventions and customs we follow unthinkingly, like our greetings or the way we hold a door open for someone. They may be routines that we don’t even notice, such as the whine we slip into when we’re talking to a sibling on the phone, or a tendency to become quiet when distressed instead of expressing our needs clearly. But we do these things all the time. Some patterns are good, and some are less so. If we were always “true” to ourselves and behaved accordingly, we would be stuck in old behaviors, never forgiving, and limiting our potential to transform.