Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tradition, Tradition

If I were like most people I’d wake up inside my tent, say my prayers, chant in praise of the unseen spirits that got me through the night or maybe curse them for not carting me off to paradise free of earthly travail. I might put on phylacteries or amulets or read from the holy book. They know the drill. They know what must be done to appease their God: sacrifice the goat, fetch the prayer rug, eat this, not that, sit, stand, damn that drought, bless this rain, avenge the cousin’s death, stone the sister’s sin.

Tradition is the easy act to follow. Join the crowd. Mumble the mumble. It is heresy to refuse. Don’t you dare. You are a spec in the Hajj to Mecca. Beware the pilgrim who loses his way, who refuses the wafer, won’t attend the Seder, doesn’t wash in the Ganges.

From the Gobi to the Kalahari, from Amazonia to Alabama people live between obeisance and transgression. Sin and confess. Thank you, Jesus, for that home run, winning basket, touchdown or for sparing my child, restoring my sight.

(Bear with me. I’m trying to come to terms with all this. There is some thing in my nature that abhors prescribed behavior.)

The Greeks put theirs to bed. Those were human gods and got exhausted from their pranks and foibles. They taught us how to live as if. And now we see the world symbolically as if spring were a resurrection or a passage out of bondage. As if the darkest, shortest days of winter brought on a festival of lights with candles to be lit or a baby to be born.

Some of us see these as metaphors. For others they are reality just as dreams are certain Indonesian tribes’ reality. What I see as poetic fables, others regard as sacred narratives. They look for purpose in the mystery, meaning for this randomness or a supreme answer to the overwhelming question.

In a Booker prize-winning book recently read about an impoverished Nigerian family, the author invokes the spirit-world of animism for 500 pages. It reads like an hallucinogenic trip yet for Ben Okri, the author, it is reality. In so far as their plight is concerned, nothing changes except the dreams seem to confer the promise of hope. Does immersion in this netherworld numb like an opiate or fortify as protein drink?

The tribe endures. It offers a kind of identity. It keeps the continuum alive and the wish to pass it on. Do as the ancients did and you are granted the illusion of permanence. Tradition guarantees coherence. It sanctifies the irrational and gives succor. It is the ultimate familiar; warm and fuzzy, the glue that binds a fractured life.

However, what assures the continuance of tribes also deepens the divide between people here and people there. Even as the Internet shrinks the planet, sends tendrils across the map virtually eliminating geographical borders, more partitions appear. Does this speak to the tenacity of tradition’s hold on the human psyche? Or are these differences inflamed by certain forces to distract and keep true believers in war without end. Or do I detect a glacially slow withering away of differences and recognition of some more universal kinship?

There seems to be a push / pull. The closer we are linked, technologically, the greater is there a perceived threat, with old orthodoxies feeling under siege and reacting accordingly. Is it not possible for traditions to persevere and coexist as we move toward universality? There is a richness of language, dress and customs which may be irretrievable.

(This is progress for me; letting in the value of ritual as an approach toward religious experience.)

Secular traditions have emerged which may serve the yearning for community. July 4th BBQs and fireworks, Super Bowl Sunday even Oscar night have become shared experiences under our communal noses. Pizza might be the communal breaking of bread.

Can art, music, literature speak the common tongue and offer transcendence? If the planet is threatened, as it is by climate change, are we capable of responding globally, as one people, putting aside these vestiges of pre-history which set us apart?

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