It’ an odd thing that as most people my age and older get more nostalgic and interested in the traditions of their families I have grown increasingly indifferent to both. It sounds so harsh to say that but it comes from years and years of sitting with people who are dying or people living through a crisis or people offering wisdom to those who are younger. In none of these examples have I witnessed nostalgia or tradition playing any constructive role. Only at retirement parties do I see these classic touchstones in full display. And as quick as you can say “gold watch” it’s back to the prospect of living a life of meaning. Nostalgia and tradition can only assist with such a meaningful life if infused with a memory of something or someone who participated in an event or experience that led to larger connections.
Jean Vanier says that a meaningful life is one where we acknowledge our brokenness and find in our mutual vulnerability an empathy that brings out the human in us. Viktor Frankel says that a meaningful life is one connected to a cause or a movement or a piece of work that takes one’s suffering and frames it as part of something larger. The mother who experiences a children dying at the hands of a drunk driver joins MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), an adult who was bullied as a child forms support groups at local schools, a business person who grew up in poverty creates a non-profit to assist budding entrepreneurs who lack capital, the refugee who does well in business creates a community centre for new Canadians coming from her native land. All of these choices reveal a hunger for meaning that stems from a recognition that one’s broken places exist in others.
In none of these examples would nostalgia or tradition make much of a difference. They are like a drug that hides the effects of the void in one’s life for a time but everyone know that void will return. One can look back at one’s life and see places, people and experiences when one transcended one’s pain with a connection to another in pain. The resulting healing in the other causes healing in ourselves. Those experiences, looked back upon, can be helpful, even life-giving. But it is not the art of nostalgia, that fine gloss of memory that makes the moment full of joy and contentment it is the meaningful moment itself. In short looking back does no good if there is not meaning to be found.
I don’t have many traditions, family or communal, that I have maintained. The three I inherited from my parents are; 1) making the newcomer feel welcome (mom), 2) finding items that others would need or enjoy and presenting them to the recipient as a surprise (mom) and 3) doing things not in the usual way but in my own way (dad). These are traditions or practices that I have passed on to my own daughter. I am all for traditions that come from one’s cultural background but I have none of these. My people were a mixture of Irish, Scottish and British stock and no tradition related to any of these nationalities was ever imparted to me. If I were to start a tradition related to any of these groups there would no real point to it other than novelty. I envy somewhat cultures that have found ways to pass on important aspects of their identity. Again, I think this less nostalgia or tradition and more a living culture, a living sense of meaning, a living way to connect people through empathy and a cause larger than self.
These are the matters of the soul and they remain a hunger throughout our lives.