Tuesday, November 23, 2004


We all love to stay with tradition. The more we experience in life, the more likely we are to fall back on tried and true methods to accomplish our goals in our business or personal life. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" has become our motto. Children who have no history of success or failure are much more likely to experiment with the new. They may even play with what the experienced people call fire.

"Tradition!" exclaimed Tevea in "Fiddler On the Roof" as he fought to hold onto what he knew worked, what provided him with a sense of purpose in life. His three girls were bent on change, and the environment around the family was crumbling due to other forces at work. In the end, he changed up to a point in order to accommodate his daughters. Beyond that point, he was afraid that he would break. The environment changed and swept him and his family up in it. How much can we change before we break? How do you know when things need changing even if they don't appear "broke?"

It's amazing how easily traditions get started in a family. All you have to do is do something the same way a few times, and it becomes the accepted way, especially if it is a pleasurable experience. You may even have a hard time remembering how they got started.

My mother used to cook pork roast and potato dumplings. The dumplings were big, heavy like cannon balls, with a flavor and consistency I admired. They were cooked with the pork roast in the gravy. Can you imagine the calories and cholesterol? As a big, fast-growing, athletic teenager, I relished the meal when it was infrequently prepared. The recipe had been handed down for several generations. The dumplings each had a small piece of the crust of bread in the center. I asked mom once why the crust was there. She said that she didn't know. That was just what Grandma Schumann said had to be there.

I was struck by an article I read about a tradition that defies explanation. The small town of Pandhurna, India, population 45,000, has an annual event called the Gotmaar Festival. No one really knows why the festival exists; some older members of the community say that it goes back at least three centuries. All the Pandhurnans know is that once per year, on the day of the new moon in the Hindu month of Sharawan, the drums begin beating along the river Jam, and the time has come for another time of madness.

Within minutes, thousands of males divide into two groups, gather huge piles of stones on opposite sides of the river, and for the next 6-1/2 hours, try to kill, maim or mangle as many of their fellow townsfolk as they can. A tree is positioned in the center of the river and the object is to chop down the tree with an axe without getting stoned to death in the process. In one event, four young boys were killed and 612 people injured. Explains one of the residents, "We all know it is barbaric. It is a kind of madness. And it has no reason at all. But it has been with us since day one, and, on that day every year, we just cannot help ourselves."

It's been over a hundred years since the Hatfield and McCoy feud ended when a jury sentenced eight Hatfield clan members to life in prison and ordered a ninth hanged for the slaying of five McCoys. The trial ended the blood feud that killed 10 to 20 people. We no longer even know the cause of the feud, yet the names Hatfield and McCoy represent traditional views carried to the extreme.

A woman was once asked why she had just cut off the end of a ham she was preparing to roast. "It's because my mother told me to," she explained. When the mother was asked, she said it was because her mother told her to. The grandmother, who was still alive, told them that it was because the hams had always been too big for her roaster, so she had to cut a piece off.

Tradition is not limited to people. Animals can exhibit the same type of behavior. Processionary caterpillars follow each other in a line. In an experiment, a ring of the caterpillars was formed. Each marched around, following the one ahead of it. But, since they were in a ring, no progress was made. Food was placed in the center of the ring, but the caterpillars continued to follow each other, ignoring the environment around them.

People who follow only tradition are like the caterpillars. They are unaware of the opportunities around them. They cannot see the environment, changes in the environment, or opportunities such changes might afford them.

Milnes' books about Winnie the Pooh were some of my favorites as a child and some of my favorites as an adult that I read to my children. In one episode Piglet comes upon Winnie the Pooh walking with his head down as he follows tracks. Piglet asks what he is doing. Pooh explains that he is hunting a Woozle whose tracks he is following. Piglet joins with Pooh and they continue to walk. Soon they notice that the Woozle has been joined by other Woozles. As they continue to walk, they become more and more concerned as the number of tracks continues to grow. Frightened, they call off the hunt. Christopher Robin has been watching this in amazement from a perch high above in a tree. Pooh and Piglet have been walking in a circle. They were following their own tracks and became frightened by their own activity.

Not only can we get into ruts following someone else but we also can get into ruts following ourselves, and then confusing our tracks for sure signs that we are on to something big.

Escher in some of his prints catches the humor in this. In his design for the impossible building, where monks walk a square path up and down steps that are really all at the same level, an observer like Christopher Robin watches in amazement. It is difficult for someone to observe the predicament inside the tradition. It is rare that someone can. It is best observed from the outside. Yet if we don't communicate with the outside, how will we ever know? It's hard to read the label when you're inside the jar.

We cannot blame those that went before us whom we follow, or even blame ourselves for previous decisions we have made. We, and those whom we have followed, in all likelihood made good decisions based on the environment of the time. Now, the environment has changed. It requires different actions. Some of the leaders in Eastern Europe understood this point well. Va'clav Havel, when he was the new President of Czechoslovakia, stated in a New Year's Day address, "We cannot lay all the blame on those who ruled us before, not only because this would not be true but also because it would detract from the responsibility each of us now faces - the

responsibility to act on our own initiatives, freely, sensibly, quickly."

We must be fiddlers on the roof. From that vantage point we can have a different view of what is really happening. And, like a fiddler on the roof, we must carefully balance so that we don't fall off. We must balance between tradition and change. Like fiddlers on the roof, we are just trying to scratch out a simple tune without breaking our necks.

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