Sunday, July 11, 2010

Debunking the "Traditional"

I have always struggled with tradition. In many ways, I am very conservative and traditional. In others, I would be considered liberal at best. A myriad of articles I've read over the last week and conversations I've had with family and friends has made me re-think the topic of tradition.

First--not all traditions are bad. Sometimes we follow a tradition--and don't know why--but it still leads to a positive effect for the person and the community. It is harder and harder these days to find true "community" traditions--maybe in very small towns. For instance, at the beginning of winter, there are a number of religious holidays celebrated, and there is frequently conflict when community wants to cater to one of them--or all of them. It's an interesting study in community dynamics, and the "need to belong". Emphasizing one group implies non-acceptance of others, at least to those who are complaining. In this era of individualism, we still want social acceptance. This is true among our friends, our family, our neighborhood, and then the world at large. But it is not unreasonable to assert that the larger the community, the more care has to be shown when following tradition. Nonetheless, many of us have our individual traditions that we follow--even if no one else does.

But where does tradition come from? Inevitably, it comes from myth. When I say "myth", I'm not talking about Greek and Roman gods--I'm talking about everyday mythologies--the stories we believe about the way things are. When one follows a traditional pattern, it could be nostalgic (i.e., "we always did this in my family"), but more often than not, our everyday myths come from the social stories we believe, or are pressured to believe. There are a few examples that I want to take to task.

First--the myth about women's worth. For all of the advances women have made, for all the intellectual achievements she may have, for all the good she may have done for the world--she is still judged on her attractiveness and ability to find a good mate, above all. While a woman's single or divorced status is not such a scandal anymore, she is still subtly reminded of this fact regardless of anything else she's done. I look at Eleanor Roosevelt--there was a truly accomplished woman, and yet I still hear, oh, poor Eleanor, Franklin always cheated on her and she just wasn't that attractive. (Which adds the additional sub-myth that says if your man cheats on you, it's because you're somehow undesirable). I go through this regularly myself, even though I went through a bad marriage and learned the hard way. Some days I look at myself and say, "Well, Brigid, you're probably not good looking enough, you're probably too intellectual, which men don't like..." And then I have to shake myself and tell myself to stop being such an idiot. But the point is no matter how reasonably I approach the issue, it still manages to affect me--and since it's part of the collective unconscious, it sneaks up on me to torment me when I least expect it. As much as I love being a free and independent woman, social myths, and therefore tradition, don't allow for that. So, I'm forced to struggle with it now and again.

Another related myth is one I encountered watching some old 1950s educational films. They talk about the girl who is obviously snooty and maladjusted because she wants to date the boys she likes (who may not be available to her, or interested in her), not just anyone who asks. You may say, "Well, that was the 1950s," but Yahoo recently ran an article on a similar subject (Are you single because you're too picky?). What I get from this is that I should just settle for anyone who asks me, even if I already know in my gut it's not going to work, and the guy's going to be angry with me for "leading him on" and then rejecting him. But I shouldn't reject him, right? Even if there's no chemistry? This is a myth that really irritates me. I'm sure there are women out there who are gold-diggers and status hounds--they're only interested in what status the man can give them. (Please see the first myth above). But I cannot do that no matter what--there are lots of men who I think are fine people, who are not ugly, but I'm just not feeling it. Is it better to date them and then drop the bomb, or divert their attention from that end and just stay friends? Which is kinder? Which is more honest? I can't pretend to be attracted to someone I'm not, and that doesn't make me "snooty".

And speaking of snooty--there are myths about status. This is not as much of an issue in the United States--sure, there are very rich people who have an air of superiority, but they're regarded more with amusement. People may choose to hang out with people of their own status because they understand each other (e.g., a person who struggles cleaning houses for a living may have a hard time moving in social circles with people who routinely drop thousands of dollars on clothes). But that doesn't mean they can't respect each other for what they have to offer. However, when I'm in England, I see the myth of status has a really strong grip. As an American I tend to fall outside of the whole structure--but there is a sense that, no matter what you accomplish in life, you will be judged by the social status you were born with. Men and women born into working classes may try to marry or partner with someone above them in social class--not only for money, but somehow to unconsciously prove their worth. Making money alone is not enough, though having money is a sign of being "raised up" in such a myth. I actually despise this myth, maybe more than any other, because it is an attempt to validate what Erik Erikson called "psuedospeciation"--the notion that one group of humans can some how be superior (or inferior) to another. This is the basis of all hate and prejudice. You can justify cruel actions towards someone who is "lesser", because somehow they are "less" human. And yet--the working class folk are the honest-to-goodness humans in many cases. To say that working class folk are always trashy, and upper class folk have, well..."class"--has often proven to be untrue. (Paris Hilton, anyone?)

John Foxx actually has a song I dislike intensely, called "A Million Cars". Technically and musically it's a fine song, but lyrically--well, it's all of the above. I'm not sure if John really buys into that myth (living in Britain, it's hard to imagine he's not affected), or just poking at the absurdity of it. Either way, the myth pure bullshit. Money and status doesn't raise you up from anything--you were never "low" to begin with. Being a good and decent human being to everyone--regardless of status--is what raises you above others. But it's another example of how a social collective myth can affect someone.

Switching gears, I want to mention another myth--the myth of perpetual happiness, or--the myth of not ever being sad or angry. Did you ever notice that if you have a day when you're angry or sad, people feel the need to "fix" it? On the one hand, this can be driven by the best of intentions--friends and family are there to support each other, after all. But sometimes, you need to--have the RIGHT to--be angry and/or sad. We act as though this is unnatural, and if it happens, we should move to stifle it at all costs. I'm pretty even-tempered most of the time, but I have days when I'm overwhelmed, and I feel terribly sad. And I don't want anyone to "fix" it. Leave me alone. If I don't feel it and deal with it, it will just sneak up on me again at an inconvenient time. There's no need to push things into the realm of unconsciousness--then it will probably affect others when I lose my temper at them. Own your own anger and grief when it happens. No one wants to feel pain anymore--they want to numb it out. But allowing yourself those feelings in a space that doesn't hurt others can be very helpful.

Finally--related to the above--the myth of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, but it's not what most people think it is. Forgiveness is not saying that someone's hurtful actions are okay--it's saying that you are no longer angry. Anger doesn't go away overnight if you are really hurt by something. So, you have to be angry. You have to envision yourself smacking the offender silly, or telling them which level of hell to go roast in. That doesn't mean you should ACT on your anger and hurt someone else. But you have a right to be angry--and anger is a process. Eventually the sting will lessen, and you will be able to forgive, even if the relationship is not repairable.

We are all human. We are living the drama of human life, and we have feelings. We should be true to those feelings. But to be an integrated person, you can't ignore the influence of collective myths--and tradition.

Matthew Arnold summed it up well in the end of his essay on Hebraism and Hellenism: "Everywhere we see the beginnings of confusion, and we want a clue to some sound order and authority. This we can only get by going back upon the actual instincts and forces which rule our life, seeing them as they really are, connecting them with other instincts and forces, and enlarging our whole view and rule of life. " Or, more simply--Make your own myths.

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