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Meditation 735
Stuck on tradition

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I occasionally read advice columnists, partly as a guilty pleasure, partly to have some ideas should I get asked a similar question. I read a letter[1] a couple of years ago that has stuck with me - even though the advice given is long forgotten.

A young woman wrote in and said that her mother had taught her to fold towels in thirds, and this was a matter of dispute with her husband - whose mother had taught him to fold towels in quarters. And the couple could not come to agreement.[2]

I can't remember how the columnist replied, I do remember disagreeing with the reply.[3] But the correct way to fold a towel[4] is not the subject of this column. I want to consider how this couple might havereached this impasse.

I suspect that both of them as children required to be of assistance around the house must have had it drilled into them: "This is the way to fold a towel." And if they did it wrong, they were subject to correction until they did it right. And neither of them were told why it was the right way to fold a towel. I think it is fair to assume that if they were arguing over it now and still using their mothers as authority, then they had each referred the problem to their mothers and got back the standard answer without explanation: "This is the way to fold a towel."

Now, if neither mother could explain why their particular method was appropriate, then it is fair to assume that this too was drilled into them when they were young without explanation. You could probably go back several generations, perhaps back through the mothers in each family to the time when it became fashionable and affordable to have enough towels to store spares in a linen cupboard - and there in the past you would find the two matriarchs who each decided how to fold her towels to meet the dimensions of her particular linen cupboard.[5]

And from that time on, an initially logical decision got handed down as a mandatory directive which turned into a family tradition. And it could carry on forever as long as the tri-folds and the quad-folds do not marry outside the faith.[6]

Most traditions have a logical original purpose. But, as traditions, they carry on unchanged even after the original purpose has been lost. That's not necessarily a problem - traditions can add a comfort factor to life. But when traditions become counter-productive, when they produce conflict and no longer are relevant to the original purpose, it is time to abandon them.[7]

And is religion much more than a collection of mostly outmoded traditions?


  1. Memory says it was Dear Prudence in Slate, but I can't find it in Slate archives
  2. Yes - a trivial problem. But having volunteered on a crisis line for fifteen years, I can assure you that an astonishing proportion of problems that cause people to seek assistance are (at least on the surface) trivial to the outsider.
  3. My own reply (if I were to limit it to the surface question) would have been along the lines of whoever does the folding makes the decision; or if it is a shared task, then fold the towels to make the best use of your linen cupboard shelving space.
  4. The official Apathetic Agnostic way to fold a towel is to accordion-fold it in sevenths, and then fold it in thirds in the other direction. However, in general we don't care to do so.
  5. I don't think it is sexist to assume that until very recently, towel folding decisions proceeded down the matrilineal line.
  6. Or if they marry outside the faith, they should marry only agnosti-folds.
  7. The tradition of celebrating at this time of year remains true to its purpose of celebrating the start of the lengthening of days (at least in the northern hemisphere) with friends, family, and good cheer.
  8. I'm not sure how I wrote a meditation on towels without once mentioning Arthur Dent, except, of course, in this unattached irrelevant footnote.