20 Aug 2012

Traditions and Trade-Offs

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“Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.” Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof.

Jay and I recently renewed our love of this award-winning play by watching one of Topol’s final performances as Tevye, the patriarch of a close-knit family whose daily activities and life decisions were guided by strong Jewish values and “TRADITIONS”. As observers and researchers of people, we could hardly ignore the similarities between the renowned Broadway musical and the evolution of a few basic societal norms over the past few decades. Not too long ago, sex and pregnancy without marriage, an Italian American marrying a person of German descent, or a Catholic falling in love with a Protestant, often resulted in a lifelong separation from family and community. Relationships were obliterated. Forty years ago, in most states, it was not only “untraditional” but illegal for a Caucasian to marry a Black, and the children of those unions often faced personal and societal identity crises.

Don’t misunderstand the message. Traditions are wonderful when they produce a stabilizing effect. However, when traditions serve to stifle the very essence of relationships – for example, when they create barriers to our pursuit of happiness with another human being – history tells us that the “tradition” eventually will be supplanted by a new one, and that over time the underlying activity is either actively or passively legitimized. Since the dawn of time, people are nothing if not inventive. When it comes to building a life with another, people create paths forward and deal with the consequences as they happen. Unfortunately there is a lag between the development of new traditions and their recognition by the legal system.

If you have not seen Fiddler on the Roof, or if it has been awhile, SPOILER ALERT: Two of Tevye’s daughters fall in love with men who do not represent his “traditional” values. One is a political agitator, and the other does not have a trade that would support Tevye’s dream for his daughter’s future. The story ends as Tevye embraces the decisions of his daughters. His desire to have a fulfilling relationship with his loved ones transcends his commitment to holding true to “traditions” that would have stifled his role in their lives. He wisely concludes that there are times to hold on to “traditions”, and times to let go of them. In our work as mediators, we often see this dynamic at play.  Whether it is a slip & fall defendant’s desire to litigate a case so as not to appear “soft” or “weak”, or a wife’s desire in a divorce case to have full custody of the children simply because she is “the mother”, the underlying “traditions” are often stifling rather than stabilizing.  Blind obedience to a tradition can result in painful sacrifices that are difficult to erase and, sometimes, wholly unnecessary.

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