Traditions are valuable but can be changed

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April 2008

       I have often asked readers and myself as well to examine the values that undergird our decisions about how we live. Many of us just assume that they are valid and conducive to good living. We have never examined these values  and so I often refer to them as assumptions. They are assumptive values until they come in conflict with real life situations. Part of the reason they are difficult to examine is they were handed on to us from the previous generation. They fall in the broad category of tradition.

Traditions give  our lives meaning and provide continuity and stability    and so the word tradition carries with it an authority that makes a tradition more important than perhaps it really is. For example we speak of traditional marriage as between one man and one woman. That’s the final authority. It is equivalent to saying “we have always done it that way.”

       This authority however comes from the use of the word in a religious context. In the Catholic Church there are traditions that the Church believes and teaches come from Jesus himself although they may not be biblical. Other Catholic traditions come from historical circumstances but the distinction between the two is not always clear when it comes to specific actions or rituals. For example the tradition of male only clergy in the Catholic Church has been touted by some, including Pope John Paul II, as coming from Jesus himself and cannot be changed. Others insist that this is a human tradition.

       It was a dispute over tradition that caused the Great Schism in the Christian Church in the eleventh century giving birth to the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. It was also disputes over tradition that brought about the proliferation of Christian denominations starting in the sixteenth century and continuing  to our own day.  There were theological differences also of course.

       It is the religious connotation of tradition that gives so much weight to the word. Tevye, a faithful Jew,  in Fiddler on the Roof struggled with tradition when his daughter refused to marry the man he picked out for her. She wanted to marry a man she loved. Another daughter wanted to marry a Christian. Tevye was troubled that the daughters broke the traditions.

       Traditions are also social and family related. Most everyone is acquainted with the American traditions of Memorial Day Parade, fireworks on July 4th, “trick or treat” on Halloween, and turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Families all have traditions associated with holidays, birthdays, and other occasions.

       Individuals also have traditions quite often called routines. I have a particular routine every morning. That routine helps me do everything I want to before starting the days’ activities. This is true not only of routines but all traditions.They provide continuity and stability.  Some also give meaning to life.

       Some traditions have legal authority. For example we have the tradition of driving on the right side of the road. In England they drive on the left side of the road. Both are traditions totally arbitrary yet enforced by law.

Discarding a tradition

       When a tradition no longer has meaning or purpose it is time to change it or discard it. I believe this is true at the individual , family, social, and religious level. The more ingrained the tradition however the more difficult it is to change or discard it.  That difficulty in changing or discarding the tradition does not make the tradition worth holding onto. This becomes abundantly clear when one observes and studies other cultures and ways of living

       Traditions especially individual routines can become ruts. They are followed for the sake of following them.  Instead of providing meaning,they stifle imagination and personal growth. Ruts certainly need to be changed and in some cases will result in a greater appreciation of life or what one is doing. This is also true of employment routines.

  Let’s be aware of the authority we give to the word when we use it. Let’s also respect traditions of others when they differ from ours.