Tradition and Heritage

By Jim Selman | Bio

I was listening to a lecture today on the philosopher Martin Heidegger. He is pretty difficult to understand at the best of times, even though I have been a student of his thinking for many years. The lecture today spoke of the distinction he made between ‘tradition’, which he felt was a bad thing, and ‘heritage’, which he thought was a good thing. In fact, he felt heritage was essential to understanding the true nature of ‘Being’.

I won’t pretend to grasp it all fully, but what I did get was that our tradition is our ordinary sense of the past—the past that uses us, shapes our thinking and, ultimately, drives our actions. Tradition is when we take our past and throw it out in front of ourselves and call it the future. Tradition is what we have when we draw trend lines and forecasts based on our past. Most historians are keepers of our tradition and tell our ‘story’ in lots of different ways that, for the most part, lock us into a future that is more or less an extension of the past.

Heritage, on the other hand (as I understand Heidigger), is the deep memory of our authentic nature—who we were before we forgot or covered up and concealed who we are. In ordinary terms, this means our true or ‘higher Self’. He suggests that understanding and recovering this primordial ‘being’ is the highest aspiration of human beings.

This got me to thinking about how many of us relate to the past in our lives as we grow older. Do we speak of the past as ‘the truth’ and use our experience and knowledge to attempt to limit and explain life to those younger than ourselves? Or do we mentor and coach younger people to discover what we’ve learned for ourselves? Or, even better, to learn and discover what we were unable or unwilling to learn for ourselves?

I have this idea that “wisdom in action” is about assisting others to discover and manifest their own power, possibility and passion. Wisdom isn’t some arcane book of answers and Elders who know this are also able to be models of patience, non-judgment, compassion, gratitude and acceptance. I used to think that the job of Elders was to assure continuity with the past, the traditions and values of the community and teach the young what they need to know about the past. While I do think this kind of role has value, what I gleaned from this lecture is that perhaps our larger role is to remind the young of what is possible and who they are and can become. The choice is theirs.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.