I have been doing a lot of research on community building. One aspect of community often overlooked by liberal types like me is the importance of ritual or traditions. The reason why we liberal types tend to have a blind spot when it comes to community norms has everything to do with the expression, “we’ve never done it that way before.” The opposite side of this expression is obvious, there was a certain and “right” way that thing you want to do has been done. And the way it’s always been done has become part of our norm as a community.
On one hand that kind of resistance to change can deaden creativity and remove from a community the new life it needs to keep going and keep adding new people. On the other hand removing sacred norms has a way of destabilizing a community and confusing its members, removing from their midst touchstones they need to remember who and whose they are. How do we strike that balance?
Liberal types like me are good at introducing change and new ways of being community. Traditionalists are good as keeping the familiar norms in place so community is reminded of their identity. The communities I know where this balance has been maintained appear to honour certain experiences and at the same time leave ample room for new traditions to emerge. I think the key there is to identify and celebrate and make room. Can you name the touchstones that make your community who you are? Can you name traditions that you’ve followed that no longer make sense and indeed seem to impede community? Can you name something a newer person to your community has suggested that might well become a new norm?
Families, communities, institutions, volunteer associations, churches, and fraternal organizations, all of us can name the rituals and traditions we’ve practiced over the years that seem to bring life and meaning to our coming together. It is important to name these and in celebrating these times remind new people why these traditions are maintained, that they mean something beyond “we’ve always done it that way before”. And all of us, if we are open to honest feedback, can name norms that no longer make sense for us, that seem to undermine community. If we can name these openly we can surgically remove the rituals that need to be replaced. And all of us can keep our ears to the ground, listening for ideas that come from our newer members, norms that might further deepen our ties.
Community is not a collection of individuals with mutual self-interest. There is not a contract that maintains our collective health. Rather our health is in part related to the social activity of ritual, tradition and public norms that establish our identity. It’s not that changing these is wrong because, “we’ve always done that way” but rather examining what we do and how we do it reveals something about who we are. If the tradition still connects us to that identity “thanks be to God!” but if it does not it may be time to replace it with something new. Exciting times.