How many of the things that you do in your life on a continuous basis is actually your own choice? How many of those things, you only do because that is what you think you should be doing to be normal? To fit in? Or you do it because it is the “right” thing or the “responsible” thing to do – not for yourself, but mainly to please others?
I remember one time in high school the teacher discussing a Robert Frost poem called Mending Wall in my English literature class. It tells about a rock wall dividing two farms from one another. And once every year the two farmers will come together at this wall to rebuild parts of it by gathering around the loose rocks and stones that have fallen off during the past year. Every year they do this although the wall doesn’t serve any practical purpose to either of them. And so when the one farmer asks his neighbour if this annual exercise is totally necessary, the other farmer always replies with the same line: “Good fences make good neighbours.” That is the way it has always been done.
How many things do you do just because that is the way it has always been done? Or worse – you do it because you fear rejection or ridicule from others if you don’t do it?
There is a popular meme on the internet – Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people. Think about that for a moment. Why do we do the things we do?
When we are born, we are born into a tribe. This might not necessarily be like the tribes back in the old hunter-gathering days, but there is still a social structure that we grow up in and tend to conform to. These modern tribes exist in many different forms today and exerts various levels of influence over our lives and how we are supposed to behave.
The type of things you will hear in each tribe level:
- “Children should be seen and not heard.”
- “I am your mother. It is your duty to help me.”
- “Family is the most important thing.”
- “You have to help him. He is family.”
- “If you do that, you will bring shame upon the family.”
- “What will the people say?”
- “We should stay away from them. They are different from us. They are not from here.”
Your ethnic grouping
- “That is not how a proper Afrikaner/Zulu/Englishman/Indian should behave.”
- Of course, we must go to this (traditional event). It is expected of all of us.
- “If you don’t do it, God will curse you.”
- “A true loyal soldier must be willing to die for his country.”
If you repeat a statement over and over many times, it becomes a fact in people’s minds.
At every tribe level, there are traditions that have been formed. On a religious/ethnic group level, everyone tends to be familiar with the traditions that are usually centuries old. Christmas, Passover, Hannukah, Eid – those calendar events that everyone will know.
But there are also other traditions in our lives – smaller, more personal traditions - which we feel we have to adhere to without question. This is usually on a family/community level. I call these mini-traditions. They are the unwritten rules on how we should behave to be accepted and be “normal”.
A good wife must prepare a homemade meal for her husband at dinnertime.
A husband should always be the breadwinner, while the wife’s job is to bear children and stay at home.
Study hard so you can get a tertiary qualification, which will allow you to get a corporate 9 to 5 job until you retire at the age of 65.
You need money to make money.
You have to be ruthless to succeed in the business world.
You need to work extremely hard to be successful.
Good things come to those who wait.
That’s just the way my body is – it’s in my genes.
To some of these statements, many of you will probably reply by saying “You are wrong. That statement is absolutely true!”
Why do you believe that?
You have probably done and believed these things your entire life without question. And yes, some of these statements might be true – but remember that they are only true to you and not necessarily everyone else.
The fact is that the things you believe, tend to manifest and become true for you. Do you believe that good things come to those who wait? Well, then you won’t be looking for opportunities anytime soon, and later on, purely by chance, something good will probably happen. Belief confirmed.
Do you believe that you can’t have a healthy body because of your genes? Then you probably won’t put in the effort to look after your body and you will evolve into an unhealthy slob. Belief confirmed.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself next time when you need to evaluate if a belief or mini-tradition is actually helpful in your life:
- Where did I hear this the first time?
- Was this belief instilled in me as a child?
- Did I take this belief from my culture or religion?
- Is this belief optimistic and hopeful?
- Is it possible that there is another way of doing things?
- Does this belief actually serve me and my happiness?
If you start asking yourself these questions you might tend to go down a rabbit hole of questioning everything and believing nothing as true anymore. And this is the realization that will eventually hit you: there is no single truth, there is only what is true to you.
Does this mean I don’t help my mother and family when they need help? Of course not. Does this mean I think it is wrong to go to traditional events, enlist in the army or go to church? No, definitely not. All these things are helpful and good if you yourself find happiness and fulfillment in doing them.
When you are free to choose to do the things in your life out of a place of love and caring and excitement, then you won’t be bothered anymore to do things out of a sense of duty and fear. Life is too short to live by other people’s rules. If you find yourself continually believing and doing things that make you unhappy, then maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.