The Value of Tradition

The rapid way we live makes immediacy essential: we need e-mail right away, we subscribe to “on-demand” cable services so we won’t have to wait for television shows, we eat frozen meals to eliminate cooking time and drink “instant” coffee, and we’re very concerned with the speed of our internet browsers. And lest we miss a beat while on the move, our mobile phones are portable secretaries which keep us informed of every call, message, tweet, e-mail, and appointment. If we’re bored waiting the quarter-second it takes our phones to display e-mail, they also play music for us.

While materially productive, our speedy days are harmful in their insistence on “now.” A pre-occupation with squeezing the most out of every minute of the present may detract from reflection on the past and, our grandparents say, we can’t know where we’re headed without knowing where we started. Where we started is our past, and we keep it relevant by participating in the ceremonies which connect us to it: that is, our traditions.


Traditions provide us with identity, continuity, and familiarity… qualities too often sacrificed for efficiency, modernity, and utilitarianism. Things like our National Anthem and common holiday celebrations – fireworks on the Fourth of July, turkey on Thanksgiving, etc. – provide us with an identity as Americans. We all share in a tradition of celebrating these things in particular ways and that sharing makes us similar; through our traditions we develop an identity as Americans and we know our neighbors, observing the same traditions, are also Americans. We now share an identity with them. Our traditions have given us a sense of commonality and fraternity and in sharing these things we become more connected to each other.

Our traditions are also guideposts in unfamiliar waters. We can act in new situations as tradition would dictate: though we may not have experienced death in our own families, tradition informs us that the appropriate thing when others do is to wear a dark suit, attend a wake or funeral, send flowers, and bring food. Our traditions provide a type of Standard Operating Procedure and at times of distress this can be comforting. For example: the loss of a leader is easier with the public catharsis of a traditional state funeral. Seeing the tradition observed for a modern President just as it was for the Founders comforts observers by insisting that “this too shall pass” and “the nation goes on.” Conversely, a Presidential swearing-in ceremony demonstrates continuity through tradition: the Presidency is as solid and strong as it was when the same ceremony was performed a century ago, and it will be equally so 100 years from now, when it is performed again. The tradition of the ceremony establishes continuity and faith in the institution behind it.

Our own identities and values are wrapped up in our traditions more than our modern, feverish world would like to allow. For instance, families identify themselves by doing things in particular, repetitious ways: “We always watch that movie on Christmas Eve, it’s a family tradition!” In this case, watching whatever movie it may be is a central way of participating in the family life and identifying with other family members. So too is it with neighborhoods, friendships, and countries, and while keeping to tradition may seem inefficient, outdated, and unnecessary in our mile-a-minute days, our past is a more sure guide to our future than any mobile phone, no matter how well it handles our e-mail.


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