Ritual or Rote?

seagulls-008“Tradition” is a dirty word in some circles, but for others, it is practically sacred. Some eye anything repeated with suspicion while others fear the new and different. I recently heard a story that demonstrates the beauty of meaningful tradition.

Every Friday afternoon an older man would carry a bucket of shrimp to a particular spot on a pier in Florida. The shrimp weren’t for eating or fishing or for crabbing; they had a different purpose. As soon as he arrived in his spot, the sea gulls would take notice and swarm him. He fed the shrimp to the gulls, one at a time, until his bucket was empty. Then he returned home.

What was the purpose behind this strange ritual?

The man was Air Force Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. In World War II, he and 7 comrades were flying a B-17 across the Pacific to deliver a message to General MacArthur when the plane went down into the ocean. These eight men had to survive on a tiny life raft. When their emergency rations were exhausted, the men knew their situation was bleak.

After a period of prayer followed by a nap, Rickenbacker awoke to a sea gull landing on his head. He knew that if he could catch the gull, they could survive. He reacted quickly, caught the gull, and the men now had meat and fishing supplies that sustained them until help arrived.

When the war was over, Rickenbacker made a tradition of going to the beach to feed the gulls as his way of saying, “Thank you, God.”

Tradition, when infused with meaning, purpose, and feeling, is a beautiful thing. Tradition divorced from its meaning is an empty shell of a thing. If our worship is infused with meaning and passion, it can be a beautiful ritual. If it is mindlessly offered and repeated, it will become a worn-out rote.

Harder, But Better

jeff-bezosJeff Bezos was an exceptionally bright young man. Even in grade school, he became a leader of his peers in the program for gifted and talented children. He has used his abilities well. You most likely know of him as the founder of Amazon.com. He is one of America’s wealthiest tech giants, but the lessons he has learned as a genius and entrepreneur are insignificant to one that he learned from his grandparents.

Young Bezos had to learn that there is more to life than being bright. When he was only ten, his grandparents took him on a road trip. From the backseat of their car, he heard an anti-smoking public service announcement. Bezos took the data he heard on the radio and did some mental math, before proudly announcing to his grandmother that her smoking habit was likely to cause her to die nine years prematurely.

You probably aren’t surprised to know that she didn’t take this pronouncement very well, but Jeff was caught off-guard. He didn’t understand her reaction. What he said was true. He His grandfather pulled the car over and escorted him away as his grandmother continued to cry. Bezos wasn’t sure what would happen next—a lecture, a spanking, a disagreement—but he never forgot what happened next. He said, “My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, ‘Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.’”

It’s not that hard to be right. Clever isn’t that difficult, either, but kindness, that takes work.

Maybe we need to learn the lesson that young Jeff Bezos learned. Maybe we need to do the hard thing. Maybe we need to do the better thing.