The Conversation We’re Not Having

“Tradition” and the future of Zeta Psi

By Alan van den Arend (Psi ’10)

What do we owe the past? What does our future deserve?

These questions have led to animated discussions within Zeta Psi. As a group, we are inclined to not want to raise these issues. We talk about our “history,” we stress the value of “ritual,” and we pride ourselves on “tradition.” In gatherings  around the globe, we celebrate our 173 year-long ‘noble experiment’ in Tau Kappa Phi, which demonstrates our desire to bolster the present with stories of a shared past.

This is not just nostalgia. By examining our present-day lives in a meaningful way, these stories help us to imagine our collective future.  It is the essence of our fraternity’s purpose: to connect men through generations in pursuit of mutual self-improvement for the betterment of society.[1] Zeta Psi’s success derives from and depends on our commitment to passing the Torch.[2]

The moral tone is also a product of our fraternal aims. Key assumptions underlie the Five Points and demonstrate our status as a values-based organization. We presume:

  • that morals matter
  • that they can be taught and learned through self-improvement
  • that there exist brothers who benefit from and seek out such instruction
  • that Zeta Psi is the best institution to provide it, and
  • that doing so is a positive growth experience for all involved

My point here is not to challenge these suppositions. Rather, I raise them to stress their significance. My thesis is simple: we benefit when we are candid about what matters to us and why. Doing so is not merely helpful, it is necessary for Zeta Psi to continue to flourish.

This assertion is not an abstract one. In Ithaca (2018) and in Baltimore (2019), the Grand Chapter dealt with contentious issues that were, at their core, disagreements about precedent. While participants debated transgender membership (Ithaca) and the publicizing of our values (Baltimore), the underlying discussion was about paying attention to precedent, yet being open to new options in the future.

Strong divisions resulted in the deferment of these issues to undergraduate chapters and the Virtual Online Convention in August, respectively. Whatever your opinion regarding the outcomes, the underlying symmetry between them matters. It demonstrates the essential conversation that we are not having. “Passing the Torch” becomes difficult without a widely-shared understanding of what the Torch is and how we go about passing it effectively. A missed hand-off ends our experiment.

Dialogue this substantial cannot and should not be– discussed in an article. This is important because it strikes at the heart of our most fundamental convictions. It needs not only time and space, but resources far more precious: listening, compassion, sympathy and grace.[3] It requires the nuance of expression that can be interpreted by pitch, intonation, and feeling.  In other words, personal interaction is far more important than the written word. It demands that we both espouse and demonstrate our values. It takes hard work. As Barry White might have put it: “[brotherly] love ain’t easy”.[4]

A change of perspective can lighten the load. For example, we can examine the metaphors we use to express important thoughts and feelings. Metaphors are essential tools of expression so subtle that we we often don’t notice them. Yet, their everyday presence obscures their substantial cost: they shed light on some insights while obscuring others. Like street performers, metaphors capture our attention over here while picking our pockets over there. “Tradition” is robbing Zeta Psi.

The word “tradition” has its roots in the Roman civil law term for the transfer of property (traditio), the most important kind of which was a son’s inheritance of his father’s estate (patrimonium). The term developed into a metaphor for anything that was“passed down” and effectuates an obligation. This is its distinguishing feature: “tradition” demands our response. We can acknowledge it, embrace it, fulfill it, expand it, alter it, shrink it or obliterate it entirely – but we must do something. Even ignoring it has consequences that we must face: “tradition” always comes with strings attached. These tethers provide solace by securing us to the past because they help make sense of who we are and how we got here. “Tradition” undoubtedly matters. It also constrains us by binding us to the whims of our forebears.

Our perception and understanding of what tradition means expands the definition of this metaphor by taking into account how we react to it. [5] It recognizes the choices we already make in our reactions to “tradition.” For example, we emphasize some features and ignore others, we treat one practice as sacred and another as expendable, and we hold on to certain behaviors too long and fail to adopt others soon enough. These decisions are both banal and crucial. They express our priorities, values and circumstances. They can also have dire consequences. Our chapters close because of traditions gone awry or our members go inactive and leave the fraternity over disagreements.[6]

“Reception” informs how we perceive the critical roles that we play in passing the Torch. It encourages us to reflect on and discuss how our choices regarding  “tradition” meet the needs of Zeta Psi in the 21st century. Reception also stresses the importance of our choosing well, which makes us responsible for our choices and their outcomes. It does not free us from tradition. Rather, it calls us to answer for it. Reception makes us stop, think, reflect and discuss: what do we owe the past? What does our future deserve? What is my role in achieving it?

Respectfully Submitted in Tau Kappa Phi,

Alan van den Arend (Psi ’10)

[1] “The object of this Fraternity shall be to advance true friendship and promote the improvement, interest, and happiness of its brethren” Art. II Constitution of the Zeta Psi Fraternity [Newburgh, NY: 1850]. Cf. “The primary purpose of the fraternity shall be to aid and encourage its student members to achieve that development of character and intellect and that understanding and capacity for human relationships, which are commensurate with the highest aims and purposes of college and university education and training; and generally, the fraternity shall form a life-long bond of brotherhood devoted to the fulfillment of the ideals expressed in the ritual and to the fellowship of its members” Art. II Constitution of the Zeta Psi Fraternity [Baltimore, MD: 2019]. “Happiness” in 1850 conveyed a distinct philosophical meaning: the feeling of self-worth and dignity that comes from contributing to your community through engagement with its civic life.

[2] Cf. The Torch of Zeta Psi as another example of this phenomenon.

[3] Phipps, A. “Leading with Grace” The Circle of Zeta Psi [109: Spring 2019]: 13-14.

[4] White, B. “Love Ain’t Easy” The Message is Love (audio – 1979)

[5] Willis, I. Reception [Routledge 2017].

[6] This occurred as a result of the decision in Ithaca (2018) regarding “transgender” membership.