“A love for tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril.” ~Churchill
There is something very comforting about tradition. Even the most modern millennial looks forward to the Memorial Day BBQ, the Macy’s Day Parade, the Thanksgiving meal, the half eaten chocolate Easter bunny ear. Traditions are fundamental. They help us celebrate, remember, pause to commemorate. Traditions anchor us in a unique way to our particular heritage.
I was born and raised at the United States Military Academy at West Point. That is my heritage. Their customs, my traditions. I can recite their creed, their mottos, sing their hymns. I find comfort and security in their traditions and in them lies my unique history.
To honor my connection to the Academy, to honor my father and his 23 year legacy as the Chaplain there, I embarked on a cross-country visit of Founders Day Dinners from the OC to DC and several heartland locations in-between. Founder’s Day is a tradition. It celebrates the 217 years of the Academy’s existence. At a few of the dinners, I gave an invocation or read the Cadet Prayer. For me, these trips were a piece of home – stories of roads taken and paths crossed.
My first visit was in Little Rock Arkansas. The man I sat next to was General George Crocker, class of 1966 and featured in the book The Long Grey Line. My final dinner was Huntsville, Alabama and I sat next to Mr. Stewart, class of 1966 – my trip bookended by two incredible men from an incredible class that suffered incredible loss – the embodiment of perseverance at a time when most of us would have lost hope.
In-between I met with grads in Orange County, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. – the Mother Ship – where I was hosted by Col. and Mrs. Bolger, cheered on the Supe and visited life long family friends Herman and Iris Bulls.
In Oklahoma City, I sat at the table with five new recruits – cadets who in a few short weeks would be joining the class of 2023. At the beginning of dinner, a lovely woman in her dress blues came up and introduced herself to the high school boys at my table. They were polite. When she walked away I said to them, “do you know who that is? She is from the class of 1980. She is from the first class of women. What she went through – what she accomplished is far greater than you or I will ever understand. Now go meet her again knowing who she is.” And they did. She represents the breaking with tradition. She represents a new tradition.
My date in Oklahoma was Joanna Shine. Her father class of 1963, her uncle, 1969. The oldest grad was asked to speak. He eloquently talked about the Vietnam years, the sacrifices of those that went and the families left behind. He counted his 19 classmates who never returned. Joanna’s uncle was one of those 19. At the end of the dinner I introduced them – an instant connection between two strangers bonded by ghostly assemblage.
Back at my table, I asked one of the recruits what he was most afraid of. “Failure” he said. “I’ve never failed at anything before in my life.”
Thinking back to my childhood, I remember this being a common fear, often coming to fruition over a class, an exam, an honor violation or something less concrete like pregnancy, loss of faith in their higher calling, conscientious objection. I reminded him of Romans 5: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” If the honor code is to work, you have to have character. To build character, you have to persevere. To persevere, you have to face conflict.
You have to fail.
We are so consumed with teaching the next generation how to succeed, we forget to teach them how to fail. Maybe the higher calling is teaching them how to fail forward – to face adversity, to lead in a direction, be able to change course if it’s not working out, to not look back and dwell on your mistakes but to fail forward and soldier on. We need to teach them to “choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong”. Maybe we need to be learning lessons of loyalty and reverence in the sacred things of life. Maybe we aught not put so much effort in intellectual and physical muscle and neglect the spiritual muscle – the muscles of hope and faith – the ones that we need to engage when our minds and bodies fail us. Maybe faith is a tradition we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss in our increasingly secular culture.
My last stop was Huntsville, Alabama. On a manicured golf course where all the servers wore black and gold ties, I really felt the Academy spirit.
The guest speaker, class of 1996, brought his teenage son. Poor kid. There’s nothing worse than a mandatory dinner where you can’t play on your phone and the closest person to your age is your father. I’ve been there. I related. So I made a new tradition – the table selfie. We took a selfie with every table in the room. A new tradition?
Traditions have value. Founder’s Day has value. Connecting with classmates, roommates, teammates has value. Traditions help remind us of what we know is true – of the important things in life. They remind us of our shared history, our heritage, our uniqueness in an increasingly homogeneous world.
The “Chaplain Camp Award” is given to the graduating president of West Point Fellowship of Christian Athletes each year. It has become a tradition that brings my family great joy. I sit on the board of C4 – Chaplain Camp Christian Charities – a rabble rouser among 11 graduates whose sole mission is to “build spiritual muscle in cadet athletes at West Point.” We do this by advising and resourcing WP FCA.
All athletes understand the importance of physical fitness. They work hard to be physically fit and build physical muscle for the game. Spiritual muscle is necessary for the sport of life.
I’m thankful to have shared this tradition across the country with so many marvelous people – men and women who have accomplished incredible tasks, served in distant places, failed forward and maintained the traditions of West Point in doing their duty to God and to their country.
“Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof