Mark Mittelberg: "Are we willing to step back and examine our inherited beliefs?"
I think you’re getting my point: North Dakota is a cold, out-of-the-way place—one that most people would rather avoid during winter months. And yet, I still got strangely homesick for it around the holidays. It got so bad at times that I would come really close to throwing the entire family into the car—spur of the moment—along with all the Christmas gifts, parkas, sweaters, scarves and gloves, boots, tire chains, and even the dog. All so we could abandon the 80-degree California weather to risk our lives and drive almost two thousand miles through the desert, over the mountains, and onto the ice-packed highways straight into the tundra in order to get to my parents’ and my in-laws’ houses in time for the holidays.
Thankfully, I’d come to my senses just in the nick of time, put another string of lights on the palm tree, pour myself a glass of eggnog, and settle for simply calling our snowbound relatives instead. But one thing’s for sure: tradition is a powerful magnet. Especially when that tradition involves the place we call home.
One of the most haunting pieces of literature I’ve ever read is a short story called “The Lottery,” written by Shirley Jackson in the late 1940s. The basic story line is this: in a small, old-fashioned, and seemingly friendly town of about three hundred people, they have an annual practice that goes back further than anyone can remember. The residents gather together at the same time each year, and the head of each household draws a piece of paper out of a splintered, old, black wooden box. Because it’s a small, close-knit community, they know exactly how many families will be part of the lottery. They put just the right number of pieces of paper in the box—all blank, except one, which has a black spot on it.
The unfortunate family that draws the piece of paper with the spot on it then has to bring every member of their household, from youngest to oldest—small children included—back up to the box to draw pieces of paper, again with just one piece having the spot on it. This time, whichever unlucky soul happens to get the marked piece of paper is immediately turned upon by the entire crowd—every man, woman, and child, including the victim’s own family—and is summarily stoned to death.
In the story, Tessie Hutchinson, a beloved and respected community member, wife of Bill Hutchinson, and mother of three, draws the ill-fated ballot. The tale ends as she screams, “It isn’t fair! It isn’t right!”
And then, we’re told, the townspeople “were upon her.”
What’s interesting is that the characters don’t even question why they do this horrible thing each year. But when a man named Mr. Adams mentions to a senior townsman called Old Man Warner that “over in the north village they’re thinking of giving up the lottery,” Warner’s stern response gives a hint of the superstition that backs up the town’s terrible tradition.
“Pack of crazy fools,” he replies. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work anymore, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery.”
As frightening as that fictional story is, it illustrates a sobering truth about traditions. They’re just habits, sometimes older than memory, and they’re often accepted without question or even real thought. “Why challenge it?” the reasoning goes. “It’s the way we’ve always done things around here.”