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Thoughts on Traditions

Last fall, our school play was Fiddler on the Roof, which explores the theme of tradition (the photo above is from a moment in the play when one of the characters shouts, "Tradition!").

At the same time, our school's teacher in-service training this year has been focused on how the world is changing and how we need to change to become a school of the 21st century.

This has me thinking about traditions and change, and the balance between the two. The English author G. K. Chesterton said, "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead" (Orthodoxy 1908).

Here is an example. Lately, I have been aware of how much I enjoy and love my wife and children. They enrich my life, make me happy, and make me a better than I would otherwise be.

Occasionally I imagine life without them and shudder. What if I had made other choices? I didn't know, at the time, how much joy they would bring me.

Happily, my culture had a tradition that guided my actions and I got married. I could not have known at the time how happy a family would make me. Luckily, I didn't have to know this myself. My grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond knew this and their collective wisdom and experience created a tradition.

This is the value of traditions. They tell us things we should know, but that we cannot personally know at the time our the decision must be made based on our own experience. Traditions provide the benefit of experience and wisdom to the inexperience and unwise.

Not all traditions are necessarily good or wise, and I don't believe we should blindly follow every tradition. Still, while the world has changed a great deal, human nature has not. In our most elemental moments today we still ask the same questions that our ancestors ask. Today we may speed on interstates in cars whereas they travelled over dirt roads in wagons. But the fact that we are travelling faster doesn't change our destination, and the fact that we have paved over the paths they blazed might make us more, not less, beholden to their navigational skills.

It is the hubris of every generation to assume that they occupy a time in history so unique that the past has nothing to teach them, and I fear we have elevated this conceit to a civic virtue.

Are we truly wiser than our grandparents? Have we solved problems by severing our connection to the past? Are we more grounded, virtuous, or more tranquil than they were? If shedding our traditions has brought new freedom in some ways, are we freer inside? Are our souls truly freer? Are we happier than our grandparents were?

I wonder.

Braden Bell is the author of The Road Show. He is a husband, father, and teacher. He blogs about all of the above at

Photo Credit: Steve Lowery

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