Of Mice and Birthday Cake
I have seen a great deal of conflict over traditions in my time, and yet my time on Earth has not been all that long, a little over thirty years. Why is it, that something as “good” and “fun” as tradition can lead to something so negative? One of my inspirations in life is Rastamouse, a stop motion, crime busting, velveteen mouse who's “Gotta make a bad thing good”. How do I get to the goodness in the heart of a tradition, to bring that out and, transform it?
At the core of any tradition is it's truth value. That is the thing that is "true" about it, regardless of where and how and why it is celebrated. Even something as simple as a birthday can become an issue of strife. Some cultures do not recognize birthdays at all, and there is a truth in that to be discovered. In some cultures it is a day to show gratitude to parents. In others, parents are to show their affection for their children by throwing a party. There is no single birthday tradition, so simply saying "birthday" could in fact arouse a whole spectrum of different emotions in different people. So I now understand that I can be causing conflict and dissonance when I use the term "birthday" with another, and I am only thinking of my own tradition as I do so.
Much of history and culture is recorded from the side of the "winners" - the dominant tradition in this “war of meaning”. In the case of "Birthday", I believe that for this community it will mean candles on a cake, and the receiving a gift from a close relative on your birthday; and the congratulations from colleagues. But this need not be the case. There is sufficient space in the world for multiple understandings of the term "birthday" if we take the time to listen to one another's experiences of life.
By welcoming in multiple traditions, while keeping our own, we loose nothing. We gain much flavour, and colour. There is that spark of creativity, imagination and originality. We can learn truly how to work well together, and gain a zest to do so from our love of learning. We can learn about ourselves as we learn about others “Ah yes! I too have a sense of gratitude towards my parents for my life, I and wish to celebrate this day with them; though it is wonderful too, to know that I am loved.”
As I break down my assumptions, I find that communication becomes easier, simpler, and I get closer to the essential truths - those mysterious elements that are contained within the traditional practices. The cake isn't the important bit – it is in fact a bit of a distraction – the outside sign of an inside meaning. In time it is worked out. And so within my household, my clan tradition of thanking the parents for birth on a birthday has been combined with my partner's tradition of receiving a gift. On my partner's birthday, I thank his mother for his being, and there are cake and gifts as well. And I am beginning to understand that these are about valuing the other. Gifts match the other's talents, celebrate their enjoyment of delicious things, and aid them in their being loving towards themselves. It's not just barbarous consumerism as I may once have thought. That would be a bit of ideology that was fed to me as part of the “war of traditions”. Because the traditions need not be exclusive. When I get to the hearts of the traditions I also find I am in a situation of "Yes; and..." not "either/or". It takes discipline and work to learn new traditions, but I am assured it can be done.
In leaders, or persons belonging to the "winning traditions" the necessity to do this work is multiplied, lest a tradition is lost through carelessness, a lack of support, or fear. It's important to be aware when we ourselves are part of that “winning tradition”; and awareness is such a difficult thing to acquire. We come back to good listening, to pick up on the cues that we might need to let us know if we are missing out on a difference. Forgiveness, patience, inclusiveness, and a willingness to learn are essential in the time taken for these traits to become more natural. But I think it's worth it, to make a bad thing good.