Monday, January 09, 2012

The customs we are

Customs play an important role in life. They are not simply like branches on a path that we throw away, when we think that someone can stumble over them. Or like cars we stop for, when we want to cross a road. Customs are not accidental but they guide our lives, they can give our stream of activities a certain rhythm and function as reasons for what we do. They are threads in life and help us get hold of what we do. So the Christian holidays, a kind of social customs, are for many people reasons to go church and for them they are highlights of the year. For others the vacations around these feast-days are reasons for making short trips or longer travels. Together with the yearly summer vacation – in fact also a kind of custom – these fixed points of attention guide or maybe even determine the recurrent cycle of life. For some this cycle may have a spiritual meaning, for others the meaning may be worldly when it determines, for instance, the planning of their outings and trips.
Customs as such can be reasons for what we do that need no further explanation. A Christian does not need to explain why s/he attends church on Christmas Day. Just the fact that it is Christmas is a sufficient reason. Or once we know that a person loves playing tennis, s/he doesn’t need to explain that s/he is going to play with friends every Sunday morning. It’s enough to say: on Sunday mornings I cannot visit you, for then I play with my tennis friends. For many things we do there is no need to explain them, when they are customs or even habits. It is a sufficient reason for acting, which does not imply, of course, that customs or habits cannot change.
However, customs, and habits, too, are not simply things we regularly do, nor are they only reasons for our actions, like branches that we throw away because someone might stumble over them (with the implication that we are free to do it or not, as we like). In a certain sense we are our customs and habits. Once we have them, they are part of our identities, not only in the sense that we can remember how we followed them during a big part of our lives but also that they continuously make us act in a certain way and that we become quite annoyed, to say the least, or even mentally disordered in the worst case, if we are obstructed doing them. And the same so for “passive customs”: things people are supposed to do to us and ideas and thoughts that automatically pop up in us, because they are related to our habits and customs, although they may seem ridiculous to others. So, I feel a bit annoyed when guests on the birthday party of my wife forget to congratulate me, for in the Netherlands it is a custom to congratulate not only the person whose birthday it is but also her or his partner and relatives. And when, during the weeks before St. Nicholas’ Eve (December 5) I see a man dressed like a bishop, I – unlike foreigners – do not see someone who plays St. Nicholas but someone who is St. Nicholas, since I – as a Dutchman – have been educated in this tradition. And so it could happen that last month somewhere here in the Netherlands, a man dressed and made up as St. Nicholas stopped his car, walked to the middle of the crossing and begun to regulate the traffic like a police man, just for fun. And everybody obeyed, and probably nobody got the idea that the man was a joker. For the Dutch he was St. Nicholas and what this saintly man says or does is right, anyhow, for so this tradition has made him.

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