We are a people of habits and traditions. So much so, we often can’t explain why we do certain things or remember why we commemorate an event a particular way. If you take the time to examine one of these “just-the-way-things-are-done,” you might realize there’s no particular reason you have to do them. And if you don’t want to, then, well, you don’t have to.
This past December, I stood in my kitchen (my favorite room in my house) decorating Christmas cookies. I suddenly thought, “I’m decorating Christmas cookies… I should listen to Christmas music.” The thought immediately made me anxious. Christmas has become very difficult for me, and I’m not into celebrating it–at least, not with the trappings our culture usually associates with the holiday. Then, I realized, “I don’t have to. If I don’t want to, there’s no reason I have to.” It truly didn’t matter if I listened to Christmas carols or if I chose not to. So, as much as I love Bing Crosby, I turned on the same showtunes I like to listen to whenever I work in the kitchen. I enjoyed it as much as ever, with the addition of a small newfound sense of freedom.
It’s hard to resist pressures when there are strong feelings about the way something should be done. Whether the pressure comes from a version of “you” from a few years ago, someone you know, or general society, what’s important can easily get mixed up in what isn’t. In high school, I remember being pressured to go to the weekly youth service at my church. I didn’t want to. It was loud, it was uncomfortable, and I’m pretty sure it was fashioned for extroverts by extroverts. But when I would tell my fellow “youth” that I didn’t want to go, they looked at me like I was doing something wrong. So, every once in awhile, I would go. I didn’t have to. But it seemed like I did.
As a last (and probably best) example: I’ve been around a lot of wedding planning lately. Of any event, weddings probably have the most customs divorced from their context (no pun intended). Wedding planning also seems to awaken multiple sources of pressure to do things a certain way, pressure stemming from self, family, friends, and/or cultural expectations. There are very, very few actual legal and/or religious requirements to get married. Many of the cultural traditions stem from historical factors, almost all of which no longer exist (you can google this one like crazy). In observing and helping my friends as they plan, I’m reminded again and again that if there is something they don’t want to do, they really, really don’t have to. I do my best to remind my friends from time to time, too.
Certainly, there are reasons to continue a habit or tradition when you don’t have to. If it’s harmless, you can keep doing it just because you want to. Or, you can continue out of respect for someone you love and for whom it is important. But… if there’s no real reason to… and you don’t want to… then you really don’t have to. Really.
Related Posts: Rethinking Obvious Options, Freedom From Devotions, When Christmas Gets Real (Sojourners)