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Adjustments to this year’s Pioneer Day traditions make us all pioneers in our own right

SHARE Adjustments to this year’s Pioneer Day traditions make us all pioneers in our own right
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Members of the Overseas Chinese LDS Pioneers Association march in the Days of ‘47 Parade in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 24, 2019. The 2020 Days of ‘47 Parade, like many Pioneer Day celebrations, were cancelled or postponed to 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This year, many of our traditions — pioneer and otherwise — are considerably revised or not happening at all. However, I’ve started to think that missing them this year might make us more, rather than less, similar to those about whom we tell stories during this season.  

At least to me, curtailing our traditions sounds like bad news at first glance. This is because traditions offer some support in facing a serious human predicament. The problem is that while we all have times in the past we would like to revisit, we cannot return to a place in time the way we can return to a place in space. Mortal life only pushes us away from the times we want to preserve in memory. As the philosopher Samuel Scheffler has written, “(W)e are all homeless in time. That is, we cannot carve out a piece of time that becomes our own and to which we can return at will.”

Traditions can help. Although we can never go back to visit an earlier moment in time, traditions allow us a kind of window in their direction. When we participate in a tradition, we perform the same actions, often on the same day each year, often in a way that resembles as precisely as possible the way we’ve done them before. We meet with the same people, in the same places, prepare the same meals and recall the same experiences. Sometimes we even recite the exact words as previously spoken.

Just as we can travel through space to our physical home and feel reassured by its familiar sounds and smells, traditions enable us to mark out a space of time in the future to resemble a specific time in the past. Traditions can help us create a “home” in time, to which we can feel secure in the prospect of our future return.

Sometimes traditions can even give us a glimpse into a time that we never actually saw. A tradition might confer entry to a time your parents or their parents experienced. Just because we never saw a time ourselves doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. As Scheffler notes, “traditions are by their nature collective enterprises, which are sustained … over long periods of time” through the “mutual recognition” of their adherents.

I have a picture that I took more than a decade ago of my grandmother leaning against the entry of the bunkhouse on her childhood homestead in Bone, Idaho. There’s another picture of her — this one as a young girl — standing in front of the same cabin, the same rolling sage hills behind her. I like to think you see a bit of the same nonchalant optimism in the young girl in the ’30s as you will find in the expression of the grandmother in the mid-2000s. Though my grandmother and I can no longer return together to the cabin in Bone, the time when we could is not altogether lost.

Perhaps a reprieve from our traditions right now is OK, because — like it or not — in 2020 we are pioneers all together.

It is perhaps one of the small ironies of this season that we have built up so many traditions to recall a people who were — in a million personal and public stories we all know well — doing something deeply untraditional. In many cases they were leaving not only the security of their physical homes for a place they had not been, but also leaving the security of the familiar rhythms of life to step into an uncertain future. In that sense, they had to leave a home in time as well as a home in space.

I, for one, am quite happy to have my times in our age rather than theirs — and not just because of my own poverty of farm survival skills. All the same, uncertainty about the future remains with us, now more than usual. Whatever else happens, the disruptions of the current season may require us to set out for a previously unknown home in time. Perhaps a reprieve from our traditions right now is OK, because — like it or not — in 2020 we are pioneers all together.  

Ryan Davis teaches political philosophy at BYU.  He writes about the value of autonomy in ethics and politics.