Questioning Forward: How Tradition Can Help

Don’t be too hard on older folks. They’ve seen and been through a lot. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone throw the older generation under the bus for their unwillingness to adapt or change. I try to remind myself how many things an older person may have already adapted to in their lifetime. It’s pretty breathtaking how many common technological advancements took place after the middle of the 20th century, at least in terms of when they became common. For example:

  • Airplanes weren’t an accessible form of travel for average citizens until the later 1950s and 60s.
  • Air Conditioning had been considered an unnecessary luxury that many bosses wanted to deny employees for fear they would be lazy. But when a study proved a 24% increase in productivity when employees worked in cooled, comfortable offices, things changed quickly. By 1957 they were considered a critical component of productivity.
  • The interstate highway system was commissioned in 1956, but the original portion wasn’t completed until 35 years later.
  • Let’s not forget some of the recent inventions like the iPhone, which was first unveiled in 2007!
Can you imagine what the future will hold 50 years from now?
Can you imagine what the future will hold 50 years from now?

The world is changing rapidly. As I look at my case full of more than 200 DVDs, I’m reminded painfully of how quickly technology leaves behind what seemed like a gold standard only a few years ago. It is with good reason that many older people look at innovation with suspicion. Why invest so much energy in something that’s about to go away by the time I figure it out? Figuring things out can take a lot of effort!

It is important to understand the difference between tradition and traditionalism. Tradition has some strong positives. Where you see tradition, you also see commitment. A person or group who maintains a tradition has chosen to do something in a certain way and has maintained that way of doing things. When done well, this is a good thing which helps to create a group’s identity and character.

What are your best family traditions? Do you have a “no technology” family night to connect with each other? Do you have favorite jokes or stories that you tell and retell at family gatherings? In my dad’s extended family, we have an ongoing tradition of allowing the youngest capable grandchild to be the one who distributes gifts in our Christmas gift exchange. As the family has grown, the task has become formidable, but it’s a tradition we’ve enjoyed for years, as many of the grandchildren have had our turn.

In church settings, there are set traditions that help keep us focused on who we are trying to be. What better way to start any week than by remembering Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection as we take communion? What better way to practice unity than to sing together and express our shared beliefs through the lyrics? There are within every church likely a few special events or activities that are valued and continually supported. Traditions take some effort and energy but can be worth what they cost because of the culture they create. 

Traditionalism, on the other hand, is more nefarious. Traditionalism is when you use a tradition as a weapon to avoid change. Traditionalism means you’ve stopped thinking about the real purpose for which a tradition exists, and that you are simply trying to fight off what threatens to push you outside of your comfort zone. Traditionalism loves to set up shrines and sacred cows that are presented as being above critique or questioning. Traditionalism looks at the past through rose-colored glasses and refuses to believe the future could be of similar value if it appears different. In Jesus’ experience, traditionalism was functioning as if Man was made for the Sabbath, forgetting that the Sabbath was made for Man.

Fortunately, not all traditions deteriorate into traditionalism, but every organization must be careful about getting too attached to traditions that were intended to bless, and not to stunt community life.

This brings us back to Appreciative Inquiry. No matter how differently older and younger people feel about their shared group’s identity, when a group has a history, it is important to allow some areas of continuity with the past. While the longer-tenured members of an organization should never stifle the spirit of the newer members, it is also not fair for someone to come out of nowhere and then proceed to do a hatchet job on all aspects of an organization without first learning much more about the values of this organization and what has helped it to tick for all of these years. Remember: Every group has some things that are good about it!

AI assumes that people are more confident moving forward when they are able to bring along some parts of the past. It’s worth giving some thought to the traditions and rituals that make your family or group unique. What are our traditions? What traditions have shaped us the most? In what ways have these traditions shaped us?

One should exercise caution in abolishing a tradition without first knowing what that tradition does for the group, and if they remove it, what they will do to replace the function of that tradition in the community’s life. If group unity is a desirable thing for you moving forward, then be sure that as you implement new things, you bring along some of the older ones as well; especially if they’re serving a positive purpose. There’s no harm in continuing some of what has made your group become what it is. If anything, it helps those with a longer history to feel as if their history is valued.

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