Four to ten-year-old kids increasingly wake up to, “I’m part of a family, tribe, and nation that I care about.” Most children eventually feel morally bound to follow the rules and roles of their families (though I’m sure many frustrated parents would occasionally disagree). These rules and roles arise from traditions and customs—culture—played out through the values and behaviors human groups inevitably generate.
There’s something awesome in the evolutionary arc of customs. Family and cultural traditions initiate children and adults into understanding morally acceptable living and connecting. The mark of a good tradition is that it appeals to everyone at all ages, like Christmas, Thanksgiving, or helping children in need. All groups and families naturally create sets of customs, ceremonies, and values—uniquely human forms of relating.
Think about it. How did we develop from highly social mammals in packs in the wild–like killer whales or chimpanzees—into us. Out of many variables, human culture seems special. There is something so beautiful about self-aware consciousness constellating into customs—common observances—uniting families, tribes, friends, and strangers.
The following is a story (as best I remember it) about a custom in Mexico I heard about from my brother-in-law Dave.
Paul and the iguana.
Dave told me that his friend Paul was vacationing alone in Puerto Vallarta, a tourist town on the west coast of Mexico. Paul checked in to the hotel, walked up to his room, put his bag on the bed, and stepped into the bathroom. To his horror, there was an iguana lying on the floor. The iguana, apparently totally stressed out by Paul’s sudden arrival, went into a paroxysm of motion, thrashed around for a moment, and then flopped down dead. I guess Paul was too much for this old iguana.
Somewhat miffed at finding a big lizard in his bathroom, Paul walked down to the front desk and said, “An iguana just died in my room!”
The Manager’s eyebrows rose in alarm and—totally unexpectedly—he said, “You killed our iguana! We keep it to eat insects.” Paul was astonished. This was not the response he expected.
Then it got weirder. The manager explained, “Now you have to go up the river and catch us another iguana. It is the custom.”
Paul, alone on vacation, found this strangely endearing, and went right along. “Sure, let’s do it tomorrow!” The manager was delighted, as all of us tend to be when others relax gracefully into what we believe is right.
The following morning they got into a boat and motored away from the tourist beaches of Puerto Vallarta and up the river. Soon they were gliding through a tropical stream surrounded by beautiful jungle. Sure enough, after a while Paul began to notice iguanas on rocks and in the water. The manager handed Paul a stick with a noose on it and, reaching out from the boat, Paul hooked a replacement iguana.
Problem solved, people united in shared ceremony.
All of us were feeling pretty happy as Dave finished the story with the punchline, “The last thing Paul said was, ‘It was the best part of my vacation!’”
Of course! We are bound together by customs. Paul and the hotel manager were united and soothed by shared cultural observances.
It feels good to belong, contribute, and be appreciated by others who give back.
Just ask Paul.
Image Credit: -Cy-