reform and traditions

My wife’s grandparents are guardians of tradition. I don’t say this as a criticism, but merely by way of introduction. As many people their age, they grew up in the wake of the great depression, fresh with the memory of what it was to be in serious want – something I think few of us who grew up in the boom years of the 80’s and 90’s can really appreciate. Over the years, they have collected various objects from other people’s estates, family heirlooms, and created a few things along the way. Katie’s grandfather is a storyteller, and one of his great pleasures in life is to recount the story of each object, sharing the value and meaning of every item in their possession. From rocks to magnificent pieces of furniture and cut glass, each item’s value is based on its story, and he knows them all. In many ways, their house is a museum, full of objects that have been cataloged and displayed, all of which are priceless in some way and cannot be thrown away. When they were younger, they traveled the world, living in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), St. Kits, and various places in the United States before finally settling in the small town of Canyon, in the panhandle of West Texas.

Every time we visit them, I am challenged by the collision of reform and tradition, new and old. Several times on our most recent visit, Katie’s grandmother would mention, “We’re stuck in our deep ruts and we just keep going along!”, to which Katie’s grandfather would remind her, “Comfortable ruts.  Comfortable ruts.” For many things in their mind, the way things have always been is they way they should continue to be, and for many things that have changed, the best thing that could happen would be for things to go back to the way they were. I am exaggerating things a bit here to be sure (Katie’s grandmother knows more about Photoshop than my father, for instance), but I don’t think it’s terribly unfair to say that they are guardians of orthodoxy – trying as best they can to preserve both in memory and in practice “the way things were”, even though that struggle is becoming more and more difficult as the world sweeps around them.  Those of you who know me would probably agree that I’m someone who, at least for much of my life, has been primarily  disdainful of or subversive to traditions – particularly traditions which seem to serve little or no purpose.

I believe this conflict is particularly relevant as broader society continues to grapple with exactly what it means to be “post-modern”, and how (or if) we will return to some center of meaning. Obviously it has implications beyond the immediate conflict of culture to the constant clash between old and new, established and emerging. But in the end, the question comes down to this: how do we respond to change and tradition?

One option is to embrace and defend traditions at all costs. The problem with this view is that it’s easy to become like the village of Anatevka. As Tevye states:

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

While traditions may help us keep our balance – like a fiddler on the roof – we run the risk of becoming so disconnected from our traditions that we have no idea why we practice them or where they come from. While some traditions may serve a useful purpose, it is essential that we possess at least some measure of understanding of the traditions origins and meaning. As we become more disconnected from traditions, we lose the ability to determine whether a particular tradition makes sense in a modern context. There’s an old story about a girl whose mother was teaching her to cook a ham.  The first step was to cut three inches off the end of the ham. When asked why, her mother responded that it was how she learned it from her mother. When the girl asked her grandmother, she replied, “I cut the ham off because the pan was too short.” I think all of us can think of things that we do “because it’s the way it’s always been done” that have outlived their usefulness. The unquestioned defense of tradition does not distinguish between traditions that are good and bad – it sees all traditions as important, valuable, and necessary to continue.

The other extreme tries to jettison all traditions. It starts with the assumption that all tradition is bad, and wants to throw the whole thing out and start over. That might be nice, assuming you could actually do it, but in reality we can never fully separate ourselves from the traditions we grew up with. Even if we try to throw away all the assumptions and “start fresh”, our perspective is still colored by our former practices. Furthermore, “old” traditions are usually jettisoned only to be replaced by “new” traditions that look suspiciously similar to the old ones, with a few minor changes. When we attempt to divorce ourselves from our traditions and history, the end result looks suspiciously like those who blindly defend tradition – we are disconnected from our traditions even though we still practice them.

My belief is that one of the primary tasks of each generation is to reevaluate and reinterpret traditions in a new context – to see which traditions serve a valuable purpose, and which traditions simply don’t make sense anymore. Above all, we must remain connected to the traditions we practice, instead of blindly continuing a practice we don’t understand. In many ways, this makes the job of the older generation even more difficult, as they are responsible for not only passing on traditions, but allowing things that were of vital importance to them to fade away. Furthermore, the communication of traditions cannot simply be reduced to “That’s the way we’ve always done it”, but requires patience and understanding. Above all, however, it requires open and honest communication between young and old, and a large amount of patience on both sides.

My wife’s grandparents have seen the world change around them, and while I think they mourn the passing of some things, I think they also realize that for the most part progress has been a good thing. There are new practices and new technologies they choose not to embrace, but they also understand that they cannot stop change, and are in many ways determined to be teachers of the things that were. In many ways it makes me wonder: What things will we value and strive to pass on? What novel innovations will become our cherished traditions? What will we cling to while the world changes around us? Can we preserve any of what we’ve learned from our parents and grandparents, or will their stories and experiences die with us? Someday we too will live in a world that looks very different from the one we see now. How will we change, and how will we share our stories with those who come after?

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