By Travis Galloway (Washington)
Something really set me me off the other day. While researching for this article, I made the mistake of entering “fraternity ritual” in the Google search bar. I was expecting to find a convenient Wikipedia page with a general history of fraternity rituals, their inspiration and evolution; how naïve that turned out to be. While a few of the top results pointed to brief histories of specific fraternities’ rituals, those are not what caught my eye. Rather, I was bombarded by headlines like “College Hazing Stories,” “Horrible College Hazing Rituals,” and “Deadly Frat Rituals are Banned Thanks to Technology.” And that’s just on the first page of results.
Is this what we have done to ourselves, our fraternities? Is this the price of maintaining a secret ritual? Are we known only for what we have done to bastardize our rituals? These are just a couple of the questions that surged into my mind. I hope you are as upset as I am.
As fraternity men and sorority women, we have a tendency to think of our rituals as archaic books of secrets. Inspired by men and women who have long since passed, we bring them out of hiding only a few times each semester. And usually, we don’t do it because we want to; we do it because we feel compelled. To many of us have a tendency to dust off The Ritual for the Candidate and Initiation Ceremonies, and perhaps for chapter meetings and the occasional Affirmation of Knighthood Ceremony. But the ceremony ends, The Ritual goes right back into hiding, and we don’t think about it again until the next ceremony. Robes, candles, ribbons, badges, perhaps blindfolds, and a lot of talking by a few officers: this is what most of us remember.
If we expect to be taken seriously as an organization that seeks “to develop ethical leaders,” then we need to do a better job of acting like it. If we are going to keep complaining that Greek-letter organizations get too much bad press, we need to stop simply talking about how we encourage great development opportunities, ethical leadership training, and adherence to a core set of values; we need to start doing it. If you are as frustrated as I am by the headlines I mentioned earlier, then you need to help me reclaim our Ritual.
Toward the end of the Initiation Ceremony, our Ritual challenges each Knight to “strive to live and die in Honor…that in life and death men may truly say of him: ‘He ever bore, without abuse, the grand old name of gentleman.’” That last part is inspired by a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written while Tennyson was mourning the loss of a very close friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. To paraphrase, Hallam was an excellent man, above the “churls” and “charlatans” who claimed the “name of gentleman” but did not deserve the distinction of such a title. So, what are you doing to live up to your commitment to live and die in honor? Do you deserve to bear the “grand old name of gentleman”?
I’m not going to try to define “gentleman.” Plenty have tried, but I believe that the word has a certain “it” factor, as in “you know it when you see it.” Here is one way to help you “see it”: over the next few weeks, pay attention to your behavior and the behavior of those around you. Each time that you notice yourself or one of your brothers or candidates do something gentlemanly, take note of it. Each time you hold the door open for somebody; each time you help someone pick up something they’ve dropped; each time you help an elderly lady across the street, add a note in your phone or on a piece of paper. Make a conscious effort to be a better man, and you’ll feel good about it. Challenge your brothers to be more considerate of others, to try to make someone’s day, every day. Keep track of gentlemanly behavior, and recognize brothers who excel at your chapter meetings. During National Ritual Celebration Week, use the hashtag #NRCW to acknowledge excellent brothers who live according to our Ritual.
We are all too accustomed to calling each other out for our shortcomings, but we need to do a better job of encouraging excellent behavior rather than chastising our flaws. By making a conscious effort to acknowledge our brothers who “excel with honor,” we will encourage the development of transformational habits. These habits, in some small way, will help us rise above the tide of mediocrity, selfishness, and conceit that have diminished the credibility of our Ritual, and by proxy, our organization. Brothers, join me in rescuing the reputation of fraternity and sorority rituals everywhere by living up to the aspirations of ours so “that in life and death men may truly say of [us]:
‘[We] ever bore without abuse the grand old name of gentleman.’”