The idea of tradition is something that has fascinated me simply because of its questionable application in what I see around me. It must be a truly humbling experience to visit wondrous, ancient beauties of our natural world, where tourists are said to have been reduced to stunned silence when gazing into the various abysses of the Grand Canyon, or the elegant cascade of Niagara Falls. Even grand designs of the human world of the past like the Pyramid of Giza or Chichen Itza generates collective marvel at the creation of such structures that are so alien to our current experience, that they might as well have landed from another planet. Being present in these vicinities feel like a transportation into the past, where you can compute in your head how these civilisations would have thought and what customs would they have upheld to consolidate their identity. But I’m not sure that remnants of the traditional world is not actually the kind of tradition that we experience, or indeed that matters. Much like an abstract painting conjured up by an obscure oil painter, you can appreciate and drool over the creation for all that it represents in whatever setting, but to you, whether you’re into Michelangelo or Monet, does it bear any real significance? “Wow, fair play, but I don’t really know what it’s supposed to mean,” is the kind of response that I feel is reasonable in the application of something from the past into your present.
And I was wondering that as much as the contextual setting for an oil painting is essential to both it’s understanding and application, surely it is the case for the idea of tradition. I read a little bit about the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, where nineteen young girls in Massachusetts were sentenced to be hung in the gallows because a doctor had diagnosed the children as being the victims of black magic. Across the pond, the Holy Roman Empire’s medieval law codes stipulated that witches be punished by fire, and an estimated 50,000 executions were overseen by many church leaders and government supporters . It’s a bit heavy I know, but if the genuine belief and custom held by the populace at that time was that a woman screaming hysterically and violently contorting obviously had to be a witch and that they needed to be burned to exterminate their evil spirit, then their response was pretty reasonable, for that time.
It got me thinking that maybe tradition was a sense of comfort and purpose, a way in which common security and a common goal could be achieved. If you’re the leader of a tribe, and every day you let everyone get on with whatever they wanted based on whatever ideals or interests they held, then there’s a good chance that at some point, starvation and mass inadequacy will ensue. But, if there is the overarching narrative that at a certain age, the eldest son of the family has to go on a hunt and begin providing for his family, or that the females of the tribe have to begin making clothes for the hunters, you’re no longer in the company of idle tribe members. Tradition in this sense, ensures that there is always purpose because there is always a pre-determined idea of what you as a member of a society have to be doing. You don’t really see anyone in 2018 who only just eats, sleeps and repeats because for the continual progression of the species, humans have to be doing things, and impermeable traditions and values makes sure that no one is left idle for a prolonged period of time.
But the interesting thing for me here is that this idea of tradition is also driven by fear. If you are bound by tradition for any reason other than you wholeheartedly believe in the idea that the tradition represents, you are doing it out of fear. Back when I was reaching the higher echelons of secondary school, going to university was the clearest, and exclusively the only advertised path, despite the fact that it is quite clearly not the only thing that every 16 year old does when they leave school. From going straight into full-time work, enrolling into an apprenticeship, or just taking some time off education, there are viable options to take, but they are not given any portion of the limelight, especially ridiculous given that going to university albeit increases your chances, does not actually guarantee you success. The fear of not being successful or nor earning a living is crippling one, and so tradition is on hand to highlight a path so that you feel that your perception of that specific fear will never be realised. Tradition provides a blanket of safety, where change is an unpredictable, ever-changing danger.
To me, tradition encompasses the big and little things that form the coating of cultural makeup that make up how we think, and basically how we are. It is an incredibly powerful force and one that people cling on to for dear life, because it seemingly represents the very fibre of who they are as a person. A person’s culture, language and food is part of them, and is an expression of their unique identity. It is an extremely sensitive and important topic in modern times, with the rise of cultural appropriation becoming more evident as we as a society become more multiethnic and multicultural, problematically resulting in the lines in which celebrating another’s tradition is being blurred with its theft. All I think is that traditions and customs should be treated with respect and people should be able to express them without ridicule and misunderstanding, but they should always be carefully criticised and dissected before we continue to rely on them too heavily.
I first properly questioned this notion of tradition in my own life when I was in Sri Lanka during a ceremony to respect the passing of my grandparents. I was designated by my family to be the first to greet the Buddhist priests, who would enter our home and bestow grace and remembrance upon us. My primary task was to wash the feet of all twelve priests who would spend the evening with us. It was something that gave me a great sense of pride and made me feel in touch with the historical aspects of Buddhism for a fleeting moment. But I did for a similarly fleeting moment think, “Hang about, what am I doing this for? I’ve actually got a man’s feet in my hands.” I was well versed in the necessary humility and respect that encircled Buddhism and that Buddhists, like my mum, continually seek a life lacking materialistic virtues, and a way of celebrating this was for me to wash their feet to uphold a tradition that was centuries old. It wouldn’t be a regular Saturday night slot or even a pressured obligation, it was a way for me to respect the world and culture that they are steeped in. But why though? As I’ve said, there are some perfectly viable reasons for why anyone should and why it should be upheld. But we should not accept that all traditions are always relevant in any sphere, and convince ourselves of the illusion that traditions are permanent. The very questioning of a tradition is what tradition itself actually abhors, but we should not be put off challenging it regardless.
And I think that, simply, is the crux of it. We find ourselves living in a time which is both rich with tradition and skint of critical self-reflection. Today, autonomous group thinking and the ability to be able to travel through life shoulder-to-shoulder in a woolly pack is both a source of unity and danger. We now have the means through instantaneous connections and the infectious spreading of thought to gel together and collectively change culture. It is now no longer as much of a monopoly for the elite and intellectually shrewd to dictate the weaves and meanders that a culture takes, the power is back to the masses. But that’s the trouble with infections, they don’t really set a course willingly, they grab you by the neck and throw you in some vague, general direction out of your comfort zone. The dreaded downside of mass thinking means that we now subconsciously stop questioning what is right in front of us. There’s the potential for what I’ve thought of as ‘autopilot submission’, which is the idea that you agree and settle on an ideal, simply because it’s an ideal that is common. A school of sardines in the face of an oncoming predator is such an example. The minute that first sardine at the very front sees a threat rising quickly from below the shadows, it darts one way to safety, and without any second thought, your sardine self somewhere in the middle of the school darts the same way, automatically in a split second. There is no guarantee that the choice you’ve made will keep you safe or is the right motion, but you’d much rather be surrounded by the comfort of the school, than be left straggling on your own.
But what if you’re right and they’re wrong? And this is the thing, because we now live in an age where you can physically see how many people are in favour of an ideal by the number of shares, comments and retweets, you can already gauge where in this sea of popular, cultural opinions you’re situated in. And if you’re the kind of person that prefers to steer clear from confrontation or controversy, it’s probably better not to be a sardine stuck in No Man’s Land. Of course, many ideals are sound and make perfect sense, like loving thy neighbour and living a healthy lifestyle. But equally, we should be able to observe and criticise prevalent ideals such as religious customs, political ideologies and cultural imperialism as a whole. To be able to question what is right in front of us and not accept anything just at face value, no matter the extent of the universal clamour that surrounds it or how many sardines are clinging on to it for dear life, is the key to making sure that tradition becomes malleable and moves with the times, rather than staying fixed in a time that is far from constant. I personally feel that we cannot allow the nostalgia of traditions to get in the way of innovation that benefits us all as a species. Summed up by the person who gave the men whose feet I washed purpose and maybe spotted a fair few sardines by the river Neranjana where it is said he reached Enlightenment:
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
– Gautama Buddha
What if you’re right, and they’re wrong?