Denny Crane and Alan Shore from Boston Legal

Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

If any of you remember the television show Boston Legal, each episode ended with two main characters, great lawyers Denny Crane and Alan Shore, having drinks and cigars on the balcony discussing the cases and events of their day.  They were best friends that took time to block of a private area of their lives that was open only to them; a ritual that was both exceptional and routine.  That intimate space was “theirs” and, though generous, it was a sacred time they weren’t willing to share with anyone else.

Denny Crane and Alan Shore from Boston Legal

Denny Crane and Alan Shore from Boston Legal share a sacred ritual that was only for them, as best friends.

When it comes to the relationships that matter, it is important to create and maintain those spaces and rituals in your life that are not open to the outside world; things that are held sacred and which people don’t even know exists, creating an intimacy with your spouse, family, and friends-who-are-essentially-family.  Whether it is having breakfast at an out-of-the-way roadside diner the second Tuesday of every month with your son or sneaking off to watch foreign movies at an independent theater with your college best friend, having something that you share, enjoy, and to which you look forward is a wonderful way to go through life, creating memories, and spending time with the people who give you purpose or meaning.

The purpose of creating sacred spaces and traditions is to say to a person, “You matter to me.  I’m here now, and I’m all yours.  No one else will take me away from you in this moment because this is something we share.  This, what we are doing, has meaning and I value it.”  It comes down to the wisdom, “People don’t remember if you were right or wrong, they remember how you made them feel.”

Creating Traditions, Rituals, and Sacred Spaces Image © Thinkstock

In my family, one of the things we did that was a ritualized sacred space was holiday candy making. From chocolate covered peanut butter balls to sugar cookies with homemade icing, white chocolate dipped pretzels to no bake cookies, we’d watch classics like Rudolph and Frosty. It was present through financial hardship and prosperity, the teenage years, college, and adulthood, the birth of the next generation … our lives changed, evolved, the family grew, but it was something special.  It didn’t depend on age, the economy, who was in the White House, the stock market, grades, or anything else.  It was set aside; sanctified.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have these one-on-one rituals from all sides of the family.  Coffee on the porch shortly after sunrise with grandma.  Nintendo every afternoon with mom as the other kids took a nap.  Pickup truck trips to get chocolate long john donuts with grandpa.  Christmas routines with the same decorations, handed down from year to year.  My dad waking me up during second grade, long after everyone else had gone to bed, so we could sneak off to the town carnival, riding rides and playing games without anyone finding out for another couple decades.  I knew, from my earliest memories, that I was loved; that what I did, and how I felt, mattered to the people around me.

Once You Become Old Enough, It’s Important to Take Responsibility For Creating Them

These rituals continued as I grew older.  After leaving my parents’ home and moving off to college, Aaron and I would often get up in the middle of the night, sneak into the parking lot, and get into his car to go on an adventure.  Sometimes, it meant driving three states over for donuts and coffee or to see friends at a new restaurant.  Other than a handful of people, we never discussed this with others.  The next morning, we showed back up on campus, went to class exhausted, and acted as if nothing had happened.  

[mainbodyad]We drove thousands of miles to Wisconsin to attend a music concert.  We bought tickets to a video game symphony in Chicago over a weekend.  Once, as everyone went to the dining commons, we waived ahead and said we’d be right there, only Ashly, Aaron, and I jumped in a car, drove to Philadelphia, and attended a live seminar with one of the world’s most famous televangelists just for the experience.  We drove out to old farmhouses in the middle of the night to watch planetary alignments from the darkened country side or saw a new play in Manhattan.

Today, those traditions are still a part of my life.  There are regular family dinners, brunches with friends, game nights, movie nights, vacations, and a host of other activities, each of which are reserved for specific people, at specific times.  They know I’ll be there and, when I am, there are no distractions; they are the only thing that matters. 

You Should Have Rituals and Spaces for Yourself, Too, Not Just Others

It is just as important that you have these rituals for yourself.  Your role model should be Mary Poppins, who was absolutely insistant that her day off was her business, non-negotiable, and strictly private, despite her enormous affection and love for the Banks family.  You need things like that, whether it is an afternoon walk alone or a secret cooking class you take about which nobody else knows; running off to the local food bank to prepare meals or reading to kids in a hospital.  I like having those areas of life, set aside, held in trust.  (The only exception: There should be absolutely no secrets in a marriage.  I’m from if-you-are-married-to-the-right-person-total-honesty-is-the-only-way-to-go party.  I’d never even consider hiding anything, even a surprise birthday party.)  

Tiffany and Company Holiday China

On one woman’s blog, she discusses how she created a family ritual by replacing the dishes in the house with the Tiffany & Company holiday china from the day after Thanksgiving through the day before Valentine’s Day.  If you’ve studied mental models, you’ll understand the china is just a symbol.  Only a fool would see gold-rimmed plates.  It’s much bigger.

For some people, the rituals are connected to physical items.  I read about one woman who has the family switch to the Tiffany & Company holiday china she received for her wedding fifteen years ago.  From the day after Thanksgiving through the day before Valentine’s day, it is pinecones and berries, ribbons and bows in red and gold accents.  That may seem small, but those of you who have studied mental models will understand why it matters so much and how, over a lifetime, the influence of that subtle tradition can be enormous.  For others, it is a scent or sound.  

If you are creating rituals, it is important to be aware of those details so that you can reinforce and strengthen the emotional connection.  The family of one of my dearest, oldest, and most trusted friends has a tradition of mixing Brandy Alexander’s as a Christmas celebration, carried on for years.  Observing those traditions matters.  There is value there.

The Downside of Creating Sacred Spaces, Routines, and Rituals

There are a few drawbacks to this approach to living but they are worth it.  Unquestionably, they are worth it.  The biggest potential problem is the reaction other people, who aren’t part of the rituals in your life, have upon discovering these rituals exist.  You already know that information asymmetry can cause some people to become angry, especially if they feel humiliated or rejected.

[mainbodyad]Imagine that every Monday at lunch, you sneak off to play Frisbee in a nearby park as you have sandwiches with your childhood best friend.  Five years later, your work buddies find out.  Even though you have no obligation to tell them, there are a minority of people that will irrationally feel hurt, especially if they thought they were close to you.  They will react like John in our discussion of motivations.