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Tradition and change belong together

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When I was a child, “tradition” was not my middle name. Born in the fifties, I saw tradition as having to wear pointy-tipped Maidenform bras, being dragged to Sunday school to learn the rules of life from a meek, pasty-faced Jesus, or reading about exclusionary clubs and schools that rejected minorities. And the tradition of marriage? It was strictly for same race/different sex couples who wanted to breed.

When I hit adolescence in the 60s, I couldn’t wait for things to change. Dump the bra, rely on drugs rather than rules for spiritual experiences, and lobby to force schools and clubs to be open to all. And marriage? Well, why not declare the institution dead?

Now, years later, my perspective on tradition has softened, especially after spending two years seeing the world knocked off kilter by Covid (not to mention a series of political and environmental disasters).

In a world that’s not sure if it’s going to survive, tradition–or a strong tie to the past, looks more appealing. Many anchors we once hung on to for stability (remember when banks felt secure?) are gone. Change that’s too much, too fast, or thrust unwanted upon us leads to stress, burnout, illness, foggy brain, and even suicide.

Maybe it’s time for some stabilizing traditions

The Queen’s Gift

With the passing last week of Queen Elizabeth, the world has been honoring a woman who ruled with integrity, service, kindness, and grace for an amazing seventy years. Many, including King Charles III, acknowledged her acumen in being able to uphold tradition while recognizing the Empire’s need for change. She kept her people anchored in a pride for the past while acknowledging and accommodating, if not always initially embracing, change.

Finding the balance

Tradition and change are polarities – interconnected values that travel together. If you side with one and neglect the other, things won’t work in the best interests of all.

In the 50s, my reaction to tradition was based on seeing its downsides. (There were also many wonderful traditions in my family–like Thanksgiving–I took for granted.) But without change, holding to tradition can leave people stuck in a bygone world in which they talk about the good ‘ole days while ignoring that those days were never that good for a lot of the population.

A commitment to tradition without change can also suppress creativity and leads to stultifying roles and bigotry. Those with power try to keep it, not knowing that the true power is being able to flex with the times.

Yet change without the balance of tradition has its downsides.

Over the past couple of years, many nurses, care workers, and service professionals were pushed beyond what they could tolerate adn began quitting in droves. Their departures leave their institutions understaffed, adding to the workload and stress of those who stay.

Others feel unmoored, depressed, and dead in the jobs they still occupy–leading to “quietly quitting” one’s work while still on the job. Negativity and cynicism are rampant.

In the face of the stress of change, the traditions of the past may look even more inviting.

Oh, it only goes to show that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Joni Mitchell

During the pandemic, I learned how much certain traditions meant to me because I lost them or they were put on hold. No Christmas Eve caroling. No family get togethers over the holidays. No in-person weddings, funerals, or graduations. My women’s group that met once a year for thirty-five years had to cancel two of our yearly gatherings.

Change isn’t going away. So how can we, like the Queen, learn to bring what we loved from the past into the future?

Coaching the marriage of Tradition and Change

Tradition and change belong together.

But, before we allow these two to take their vows, let’s support their union with a little couple’s coaching.

Let’s ask Tradition, to make her gatherings, or ceremonies, inclusive. (I tried to be gender neutral, but saying “they” gets confusing.) For example, when I was invited to attend an online Jewish wedding, the hosts gave me an orientation to the Jewish rituals I was about to see. That information helped me feel included and added to the joy I brought to the event.

Tradition can avoid we-they language and make sure her rituals fit today’s social context. Sorry, but the time of naming your teams “Redskins” is long over, along with whatever “Powwows” you might have once celebrated.

Tradition knows the importance of food at gatherings, and has even started including vegetarian along with gluten and gluten-free options. Perhaps at her community events, she can add food dishes from underrepresented groups.

When Tradition gets nostalgic for how things used to be, remind her that the past wasn’t kind to everyone.

At the same time, celebrate her commitments to deep values: family, kindness, community, integrity, continuity, respect, beauty, faith – whatever’s on her list. We need values–we just want to make sure that they embrace and protect the whole of the human race (or planet) and not just small segments.

Assure her that Change will honor her values.

As for Change, he needs coaching to remember that although he may like to move fast, going too fast for too long will exhaust friends, family, colleagues, employees, and probably himself. Remind him that breaks are good, pauses are great, and full stops can be useful in helping people regain balance. And those values that Tradition represents can offer ways to anchor a culture as it moves ahead.

Invite Change to create new rituals or traditions that celebrate what’s good about a company, community, or life. Celebrations give us a chance to remember the good during crazy times.

During the pandemic, I started meeting quarterly on Zoom with a group of friends from high school. Some of them I barely knew, but we all shared a connection to an important time in our lives. (And no, I didn’t love high school.) Whatever we once felt about being seventeen isn’t as important as the joys of being alive at seventy. Our meetings ahave become a new tradition that i value.

What ideas do you have for honoring time-tested values and letting them evolve? Honoring the magic of human connections and fostering inclusivity? Maintaining roots in the past while growing wings toward the future?  

King Charles III will be balancing tradition and change as he continues his mother’s work. I wish him well, and I send blessings to the great soul who was his mother, may she rest in peace.

And now for a song that I can’t stop thinking about after quoting it. It comes out of a grand event, in which songs from the past become as present as ever, and young and old partied together.


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