This last week I've been on vacation with Kasey's extended family, away from the keyboard. But with vacation-- something they've been doing every summer for over a decade-- I've been thinking lately about traditions, how they form things in us without even thinking about them.
Brett McKay, founder of Art of Manliness, writes that the three pillars of family culture are values, norms, and rituals. Family values dictate how we do life and why: if fun is a value, then your family might go out to eat more than a family for whom frugality is a bigger value.
That ties in with norms: they're the unspoken and spoken values of your family in action. With our extended family on Kasey's side, for example, you'll rarely see them in separate rooms while in the same house: that's because quantity time is a value for them. Our extended family on my side, on the other hand, will never get together and just hang out. There's always a pretext: we'll play cards, it's someone's grad party, Christmas, family game night, etc: that's because we were never together all that much growing up, so when we are it feels important to engage well.
Traditions are routine behaviors that shape your family identity and speak to its overarching purpose. My great-uncle Butch is legendary for making up all kinds of holiday traditions, card games and money trees and retelling family stories. Our extended fam on my side has a long-standing tradition of taking kids celebrating birthdays out on a shopping & restaurant date.
The punchline in all this is that I sense these values, norms, and traditions taking place in our new family like paint drying after you've let it alone, and I'm pretty sure we've been half-asleep at the paint roller.
It's not that our family is growing rotten. We still talk with each other, go to Twins games with each other, and hang out together with the same friends. But since we are no more special than any other Bethel marriage-- whose divorce rates, I've heard, are not much different than the 50 percent in the U.S. abroad-- I'm developing a healthy paranoia. I have a creepy suspicion that marriages start to crumble, not after you've entered into its empty room with paint cans and possibilities, but after you've gotten so busy with life you forget it still needs painting.
So as the paint dries, Kasey & I are taking hard looks at the walls. Checking for cracks and subtle dangers, yes, but also refusing to settle for something functional.
So we're doing something that might look a little OCD from the outside, but feels important as we sink into ordinary life together.
Each week, one of us is writing a letter that answers the big questions about family cultures, both the ones we inherited and the one we want to cultivate together.
After we're finished answering them, we'll both re-read the letters and draft separate letters in the same week that list the 10 big ideas before coming together to craft a family mission statement.
Rest assured: it probably looks different for you. We both fumble our spoken words easily, and it feels easier to articulate the big stuff through the written word, so that's why our conversations will be taking place in letters. We're geeks about living an intentional life, so we'll probably take way too much time writing, thinking, and praying before we finally get a family mission statement down.
But don't be fooled, either: relationships are living things. If your cat gets more conscious attention than growing your closest relationships, something has gone wrong. Both are alive, but one needs a little Fancy Feast and scratching around the ears, and the other needs your best creativity, wisdom, & love.
(is that a weird last sentence or what?)
photo credit: some generous soul took this as we were maaaaybe three months into our relationship.
end note: lots of the thought behind this post can be traced back to this post by Brett McKay.