On Tradition

In Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” two men are building a useless wall.

(Read the poem here.)

The speaker of the poem and his neighbor are re-building the stone wall that divides their properties. Every spring, they come out to mend the gaps that have opened up in the wall over the winter.

According to the speaker, their efforts are completely useless.

Mending the wall amounts to nothing more than “another kind of outdoor game,” according to the speaker—a use of time and energy that has no practical purpose. Just a way to pass the time.

The wall they are mending runs between two orchards and, really, it doesn’t need to be there.

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

They must build the wall because, as the speaker’s neighbor puts it, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Except they don’t—not anymore.

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.”

Why do you need fences in farming country?

Usually, it’s to keep one farmer’s cows from crossing over and eating the other farmer’s crops.

But this speaker doesn’t have cows—and neither does his neighbor. They’re building a wall that doesn’t need to exist solely because of a saying that doesn’t even apply to their situation, a rule of thumb that was created for a completely different context.

It’s tradition…

A lot of what we do comes down to tradition. It’s just the way we’ve always done things in our families or our communities or our cultures.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. We find comfort in the familiar, in rituals and traditions that we repeat over and over again.

On top of that, traditions provide a standard to which every member of a group can adhere, and when everyone in society is following the same conventions, the society is a little more orderly.

But occasionally, we observe traditions that don’t make any sense.

The springtime tradition of mending the wall between two properties originated years ago to solve a problem: wayward livestock eating other farmers’ crops. Once the livestock problem no longer existed, however, it didn’t make much sense to spend time solving a nonexistent problem.

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a tradition even when the reason for it has faded away. As I mentioned earlier, traditions can be comforting, and they can bind us to those who follow the same traditions.

But if keeping a tradition has become a waste of our time and energy—as it had for the speaker of “Mending Wall”—we would be wise to consider letting it go.

“He moves in darkness…”

The speaker’s assessment of his neighbor is that he is in the dark—figuratively speaking—because he doesn’t seem to be capable of thinking through what he does to make logical decisions.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying…

He seems to the speaker “like an old-stone savage”, someone from a bygone era, out of touch with the reality of modern life. He goes through the motions over and over again—but he doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing. And he’s wasting precious time on a tradition that has no significance.

I don’t want to move in darkness.

I don’t want to do things mindlessly, just because that’s the way I’ve always done them.

I want to know why I do things, to be able to choose whether or not the traditions I observe are worth maintaining.

I don’t want my only reason to be, “because that’s just what we do.” I want to live intentionally, purposefully.

How about you?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

What traditions do you observe that are, perhaps, no longer necessary?

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