01
Jan
10

Breaking tradition, mending souls

My family decided to postpone celebrating Christmas this year. See, my brother’s in the National Guard currently serving in Iraq, and he doesn’t get home on leave until the middle of January. So we thought, it’d be better to just wait a few weeks, then we can all celebrate together.

This made the actual day of Christmas and the week leading up to it strangely empty. Because I knew our “real” Christmas would come later, the atmosphere of anticipation passed me by, and Christmas day felt flat. My wife and I did join on her family’s celebration,  but for me there was no zest, no family warmth or misty sentiment. I had spiritually drained the life out of the day.

This struck me as a mild example of how breaking with tradition can disrupt your whole being, to say nothing of those around you. traditions are a means of forming identity, and it’s no light thing to reinvent “who you are,” especially if the rest of your culture still adheres to the path you’ve left behind.

Feeling slightly bummed about a late Christmas is, as I said, a pretty mild example, and I don’t doubt for a second that it was the right choice for my family this year. But this happens to us all the time in more serious ways as well. In the era of personal reinvention  I’d even posit that it’s happening at an exponentially increasing rate.

For instance, when I set out in college to examine my beliefs and discover my own personal values, I ended up rejecting the religion and politics of my parents, and finding my own. I don’t regret it one bit. Figuring out who I am, and continuing to evolve that understanding, has shaped nearly 15 years of experience. But it’s caused no end of grief in my family. I had bitter, tear-filled arguments with my parents, which were left unresolved when my dad unexpectedly died a few years ago. The strain of breaking free of established beliefs and practices hangs over us to this day.

And even then this isn’t the most extreme example possible. I didn’t even reject Christianity, I just revised my understanding and practice of it. If my life change had been to come out as homosexual, or profess to be Wiccan, would the strain be too much? Or if I lived in a more closed and isolated society, where to turn my back on a belief is to be shunned from a community? I shudder to think.

Story games like Dogs in the Vineyard examine this issue: bucking a tradition disrupts a community and causes pain. It’s not even about whether a tradition is right or wrong, just or unjust…just the mere fact of disrupting the social fabric causes pain, and it becomes not a question of whether it’s right to do so, but whether it’s worth it.

Traditions are tricky beasts. They often seem arbitrary (especially when they aren’t your own!), but nothing in human culture happens without a reason. Traditions, customs and rituals are ways that we organize our lives so we can cope and function in the world around us. They give us (hopefully!) healthy patterns of thinking and acting that enable us to live. They tell us a story about our existence so we can make sense of it.

So if you outgrow a tradition, what then? How will you cast off what those around you bear without thinking? What will you replace it with? And how will you handle the strain on your relationship to the world around you?

In this episode of Radiolab on the topic of “Choice”, the hosts talk with psychologist Barry Schwartz about coping with a world where “there are no defaults” and “every imaginable lifestyle is available” and examine Baba Shiv’s studies in how overwhelming information interferes with our ability to make healthy choices.

But most telling to me in the second segment (about 20 minutes in) was the story of a man “Elliot,” who following the removal of a brain tumor, became neurologically disengaged from his emotional center. Without the emotional component of decision-making, Elliot became analytically paralyzed by the most trivial of choices. It is not reason alone, but the interpretive lens of “illogical,” “arbitrary” emotion that enables us to function and navigate our world. In other words, tradition.

But in a world of infinite choice, how do we choose traditions that enrich our lives? And how do we evaluate whether it’s worth the disruption in our lives, our family’s lives, our society’s lives?

I have no easy answers. I suspect it starts with conviction—know what you value in life, and how far you’re willing to push to get it. But while simple, putting that into practice is anything but easy. I wish you strength in your journey.

Peace,

—Joel

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5 Responses to “Breaking tradition, mending souls”


  1. 1 Willem
    January 5, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    I have a WAYK angle on this (I know, shocking!). Because an instrumental piece of language revitalization involves community organizing (in certain sense, community revitalization itself), we’ve had a lot of experiences with this issue of traditions that occur on a regular rhythm.

    I’ve come to believe that nothing matters more than a “same conversation” – a regularly occurring space, thoroughly “obvious” and expected, in which whatever needs to happen can happen. If around spirituality and christianity, then at least the conversation needs to continue to involve spirituality, whether or not the christianity remains, and it needs to continue.

    When conversations like this end, become erratic, become unseated from their usual place or usual traditions around them, bad stuff goes down. People stop coming. People stop talking. People stop learning.

    So for me, the most important part of tradition involves creating an expected, regularly occurring familiar space; if aspects of that space need to change, making even more sure that everything else stays the same, and that the conversation continues to occur regularly at that time, in that place.

    Of course other important parts of tradition provide other benefits, but the seat, the nest of tradition itself, needs people fiercely guarding it, otherwise everything falls apart, and we have little left.

  2. 2 Joel
    January 5, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    That’s cool, Willem! One of the things I love about WAYK (Where Are Your Keys, the Language Fluency game, for those not in the know) is that it seems such a simple, innocuous thing at first, like all the thousand “learn a language quick!” marketing deals, but it’s continually revealing layers of meaning and depth for ongoing issue of living as humans.

    I think it’s super-key that you say a conversation needs to take place. When tradition ceases to be a conversation, that in my experience is when people start chafing, rebelling, and just plain ditching the tradition. The space is still there, and something resembling a ghost of the conversation is taking place, but it’s not feeding a large number of people. The more the tradition looks like a conversation (“We’re emergent!” “We’re open-minded!” “We’re seeker-sensitive!”), the more egregious the rift is…the folks who are satisfied with the non-conversation can’t understand what the dissidents are so het up about, and people actually seeking conversation can get in deep before they realize it’s NOT, and only authorized feelings, authorized questions, and authorized ANSWERS are allowed.

    So I guess the trick is to preserve the tradition, AND make sure we’re preserving it as a safe place and not an abusive one. A tricky line to walk–far more often, I’ve seen it preserved in abusive form, or abandoned mostly/entirely.

  3. 3 Willem
    January 6, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Yes. Conversation, conversation, conversation. Anytime I experience a break-down in joy with my fellow humans, we have lost the conversation. I can set my watch by it.

  4. 4 Zac in Virginia
    January 7, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Wow, thanks for sharing WAYK with me, you guys! I recently decided I was going to learn German, and this is pretty cool.
    On the subject at hand, I was thinking: I’ve seen the tradition-conversation you’re describing, Joel, and for a long time I didn’t know what I was looking at. For instance, my mother is a reasonably progressive Catholic (and raised me Catholic) but I used to think she was pretty hidebound whenever I brought up my adherence to Zen Buddhism.
    Eventually, I realized that she got so stricken with concern and even fear around the subject because I wasn’t talking about being a leftist radical *within Catholicism*; I was talking about joining up with another tradition altogether *in order to* be a radical.
    This was something she didn’t understand, and yet she deserves a great deal of credit for her tenacity and, in a way, flexibility around Catholicism. She’s a feminist, and she’s done a great deal in her life to make Catholicism her own, to devise her own habits and ideas and, yeah, traditions, in order to stay connected to her faith tradition but without sacrificing her personal values.
    When she sees me jettisoning Christianity altogether, she worries – what’s so bad about Catholicism that I couldn’t just make it my own and do what I want to do with it? That’s not a rhetorical question – and it took me years to devise an answer. After reading about Sur American nuns standing up to drug lords, reading a little GK Chesterton (“the problem with capitalism is not [that it creates] too many capitalists, but too few”), reading various papal missives about the importance of a compassion-centered economic system, and so on, I finally decided that my only really unresolvable beef with Catholicism, and Christianity in general, is that I’m an atheist, or a sort of deist. The social-justice stuff some Christians do is amazing; the Catholic clergy can be phenomenally communitarian (both within their Orders and in the politics they advocate), and yet, I don’t believe in God, or at least not a personal God, so I have pulled apart from Christianity.
    My mom seems to think that my intense interest in religion and spirituality must indicate a belief in God, as such. As to the divinity of Jesus, I suppose that’s a whole different kettle of fish. For me to leave the tradition over something so basic, and yet so important AND incidental to the *practice* of the tradition, seems to be very upsetting and difficult for her, and I wish I could un-rend the divide.

  5. 5 Joel
    January 10, 2010 at 10:59 am

    That’s a powerful story, Zac. I’d say it’s highlights the source of a lot of this counter-cultural pain that results from divergent life-paths: “What’s so wrong with what you were raised in? What’s so wrong with what WE taught you? And by extension, what’s so wrong with US?”

    In one of my bitter arguments with my Dad–in fact, the last argument I remember before he died–he welled up with tears and confessed that he regretted his mistakes when raising my brothers and me. At first I thought we might be able to finally talk about the emotional pain I remembered growing up with. But when I questioned him further he became confused. Emotional pain? No, he meant that he failed to raise us right because we had rejected the traditions of our upbringing and embraced different paths.

    It was then that I realized we probably had no common ground for actually coming to understanding and acceptance of each other. There was an unbridgable religious gulf, compounded by the fact that my parents were NOT “progressive” or ‘radical” or socially concerned in the way that I am and one of my brothers is. in that sense I envy you.

    So yeah. These are perfect examples–the paths we’ve chosen may be right for us, may be healthy and rewarding and everything…and yet they will cause pain for people we love. And there may be no getting around that.


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