December 5

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The Power of Story (Part 7) – Are Traditions a Powerful Tool or a Waste of Time?


The Power of Tradition

My son attends Texas A&M University (A&M aka the Aggies), and one of the first things you learn is that it is unique from other universities because of its rich heritage of traditions that students, faculty, administration, and alumni follow.

A&M may at first seem like any other large state university. But then, as you start to talk with people, you notice that almost everyone greets you with a smile and a “Howdy!” (The official school greeting!)

When you talk to people on campus, especially students, you will find that they use some words you have never heard before. They say things like “Gig ‘em” and  call freshmen “fish” and seniors “zips.” (The names for sophomores and juniors are not appropriate for this email! Haha!)

Then, you might notice that there a number of students walking around in khaki uniforms that look like old military uniforms.  These students are part of the Corps of Cadets, and that’s where Aggie tradition begins.

Traditions Are Steeped in History

In 1866, the US Congress passed the Morrill Act allowing for land grants to establish colleges and universities throughout the United States with the stipulation that students participated in military training. Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College was established in 1876 as the state’s first public institution of higher learning.

A&M remained a military school until the 1960s. The school was transformed into a state university allowing students to attend without receiving military training. However, the Corps of Cadets remained a central piece of A&M culture with over 2500 students participating every year.

What makes A&M unique is that they use tradition as a way to honor the many people who have led, served, and passed before. One example is that A&M doesn’t refer to pasts students as alumni like most other schools. Instead, A&M pays honor to many former students who were sent off to war and never returned. A&M’s calls their alumni group The Association of Former Students so that they can include those students who died in service to our country.

Traditions Honor the Past and Bring Meaning to the Moment

Another example is how the school built a memorial commemorating the students who died in a tragic accident. On November 18, 1999, the logs of the giant bonfire structure that was being erected collapsed killing 12 students. It is a tragic story and a dark part of the school’s history. To honor those who died that day, the school built a beautiful memorial at the site of the accident with individual memorials for each of the 12 students who died that day.

My girlfriend and I happened to be visiting on the 20th anniversary of the accident. As we were touring the memorial park, we stopped at the memorial stone of one of the students by the name of Bryan McClain. A man was there with his wife and kids reading the same memorial. It turns out he was attending A&M in 1999 and knew Bryan. The two were actually from the same town in Texas and were friends. He said it could have just as easily been him out working on the bonfire the night of the accident.

Interestingly, we walked up to this particular memorial because my son is in the Corps of Cadets and is in the same outfit as Bryan McClain who passed 20 years prior. My son was even in charge of taking care of some of Bryan’s items that are passed down each year, and there is a picture of Bryan in the dorm hallway where my son and the rest of his outfit live. They still honor Bryan McClain to this day.

My son was there honoring a young man he had never met at the same time a man was there honoring his fallen friend. It was a powerful moment and made all of us grateful for the lives we have been given.

This is how tradition is supposed to be. It is meant to be a tool to honor the past. To honor the past lives of those who have sacrificed for our benefit. To honor the stories of the past that teach us the lessons we need to learn. To honor the stories of the past that bring meaning to the present.

Bringing Power to the Moment or a Useless Act

When tradition brings meaning to the present moment, it is a powerful tool. However, when tradition is done without thought or meaning, it is a useless act.

Here’s a little story to illustrate the point:

While preparing the ham for Sunday dinner, the mother slices off both ends of the ham before placing it in the pan. Her daughter asks, “Mom, why do you cut off both ends of the ham?” She replies, “…because that’s how my mother did it.” Grandma arrives at the house, and the daughter asks her, “Grandma, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before putting it in the pan?” She replies, “…because that’s how my mother did it.” When great grandmother arrives, the daughter asks her, “Great Grandma, why do you cut off the ends of the ham before putting it in the pan?” She laughed and replied, “…because I only have a short pan!”

Obviously, some traditions make sense while others do not.

So, What’s the Story?

The holiday season is filled with traditions. In fact, every holiday was created on the foundation of an important story that turned into a tradition. As we discussed before, stories are very powerful because of the meaning and the lessons they hold. However, if you follow a tradition without remembering the story or its lessons, then you’re just cutting off the ends of the ham for no reason.

Here’s the Midlife Lesson:

Traditions are based on stories and bring powerful meaning to the moment when we take the time to understand and remember the story. However, following traditions when we don’t know the story and don’t understand its meaning is a useless waste of time.

Make sure the traditions you follow are anchored in meaning. If you don’t know the story behind the traditions you follow, then take the time to learn the story so that it brings meaning to the act.

Here’s the Mighty Challenge of the Day:

1. What are three traditions that you or your family follow?

2. Do you know the whole story behind these traditions or just part of the story?

3. Take some time to learn the whole story behind these traditions and reflect on what they mean to you and your family.

Bruce Fleck

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