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Rejecting and maintaining tradition

On Easter morning, I awoke to a text from my grandmother. In the message, she expressed her wish that I attend a church service, as it is my family’s tradition. Of course, my grandmother has no knowledge of my religious vacillations. I stared at the text for a few moments, deciding whether to respond with a half-hearted fib, saying that I would go to the University Chapel. But as I have rarely found the courage to lie to my relatives, I chose not to answer at all.

This concern for my spiritual welfare is not confined only to the elders in my family. Most relatives on both my mother and father’s side desire that I maintain daily Christian practices. When I told one relative that I had been reading the Bible, I didn’t have the heart to say it was for class.

Even though I presently identify as agnostic, Christianity is valuable to me inasmuch as it is a family tradition. Religion has always been a cornerstone of my life, whether or not I choose to accept it. This sets the stage for an internal conflict that intensified after I came to Princeton: I wanted the freedom to articulate and accept my agnosticism while still holding on to the very religious upbringing I claimed to be disowning.

Granted, I laud Princeton for its religious diversity, and I think it makes for a more dynamic, educated student body. Yet even so, I’ve found that the personal independence that college affords sometimes endangers a family tradition that has provided a sense of stability and continuity for most of my life.

This is certainly no offensive against student autonomy. One of the things that excited me most about the college experience was having the opportunity to step out of the mold that my family has conformed to for generations. During a recent interview that I had (next door to the Office of Religious Life, coincidentally), a Princeton alumnus asked me whether I had thought about exploring any faiths other than Christianity.

Though the suggestion intimidated me (I can’t imagine how my grandparents would have responded if they had known I was having that conversation), I felt a surge of excitement. This was how they had advertised college, right? A place for defining yourself on your own terms?

But as the year has progressed, and as I’ve lost touch with my religious upbringing, I’ve been surprised to feel a strange combination of pride, nostalgia and fear. Though I boast of self-determination, I often look with regret on what has become of my religious heritage. Because I am clearly not perpetuating the tradition that my family upholds, I feel that I have in some sense undermined what my family has done for me.

While I ultimately subscribe to the motto “Do what’s best for yourself,” life cannot be so easily simplified. My relatives have always given me what I need out of love, but I also suspect that this love is derived from the same religious sensibility they hoped I would sustain.

With the freedom to define myself comes fear. Sometimes, I wonder whether my choices are the “correct” ones. I ask myself, “What if my family is right, and I am merely in a defective phase disguised as self-discovery?” After all, these are the same people who raised me and always seemed to know the best course of action. Would it be far-fetched to imagine that their tradition prevails over my personal choice?

Often the autonomy of college life (positively) connotes the maturation of responsibility and the nascent stages of financial independence among other things. And I agree that these are necessary steps toward a stable and pragmatic adulthood. But because our college years are interpreted as a time of unbridled opportunity, it becomes easier to veer away from the sense of stability one might have acquired at home.

This is not, I think, a simple case of feeling homesick or unprepared to face the challenges of the world beyond the gates of our campus. I would imagine that most of us still rely on our families for some type of assistance, whether financial or otherwise. Rather, my fear of abandoning my family’s religious practices extends into a broader discussion of freedom vis-à-vis custom.

I love feeling that I can explore my faith, race or morals without the surveillance of my relatives. But there still exists an anxiety that says, at some point, self-exploration not only dishonors the moral conventions that my family upholds, but may also lead to critical life choices whose consequences endanger my happiness.

For some people, it is easier to go against their family’s customs than it is for others, and that is fine. In my case, I find myself in between two extremes. I don’t ingratiate myself with my elders, but I am not prepared to say that I am my own sovereign. College is — and should be — an environment that allows us to begin working through personal dilemmas such as this one. I do not always know if my own decisions will benefit me, but if I fall, I suppose it is best that I fell on my own accord.

Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at aaroncr@princeton.edu.

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