I saw a LinkedIn article last week that was discussing the danger of the phrase “We’ve always done it this way.” Having worked in and consulted with various organizations, “we’ve always done it this way” can become code for “I don’t want to deal with the discomfort or exert the mental and physical energy to change.” So, in addition to the dangers noted in the article (which were largely related to missed opportunities for innovation), I’d like to add one more: When the past is constantly activated as an excuse to retain the status quo, the importance of history as a source of insight, stability, and meaning is diminished in at least three ways.
First, it is certainly true that our view of the past is influenced by our present circumstance. In his essay entitled “A Definition of the Concept of History,” Huizinga notes, “Every man renders account to himself of the past in accordance with the standards which his education and Weltanschauung [worldview] lead him to adopt.” To say that we understand the past under the influence of the present, however, does not mean that every historical rendering is distorted by present agendas. It means that as we look to the past, we have to be aware of how our present point of view may be skewing our view of it.
“What we’ve always done” can become an excuse that allows us to avoid reflecting on the complexity and depth of the past. For instance, in my experience, “the way we’ve always done it” is seldom actually “the way we’ve always done it.” In other words, the phrase doesn’t refer to the past…it refers to the current state of things (“we are doing it this way now and I don’t want to change”). We read back what we are doing now as if it has always been. “What we’ve always done” misrepresents and ignores the past. In so doing, those who want change may begin to feel that the past is the realm of antiquated thinking and primitive solutions unfit for the future. The past, however, is not the problem. The framework through which we view it is what keeps us from moving forward.
Second, as the past is misrepresented in the present, we may be tempted to devalue the past as a crucial part of what makes us who we are. Without the past, we exist in a rootless space isolating ourselves from the wisdom of those who came before us. Using “what we’ve always done” as an excuse not to change creates a situation in which (ironically) we pay less careful attention to the past.
The past is full of important insights and thoughts that we cannot lose and should not ignore. We don’t emerge from nothing. Our histories are significant because they help us understand who we are and how we got here. The past also helps us understand what we might do to change and, often, what we will want to preserve.
Third, by diminishing the past, we run the risk of making changes without understanding the implications of doing so. As G.K. Chesterton said, “…nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.”
The point is that when “we’ve always done it that way” diminishes our perception of the past, we increase the risk of changing something we shouldn’t be changing. It isn’t a question of sustaining the status quo for the status quo’s sake, but of deeply understanding what worked and why. Too often we aren’t actually considering the past in that way. We are, instead, overlaying the present model on the past and assuming a deep continuity when there is only a superficial continuity.
As we interact with history, we must take care to do good historical work. Within the church, there is a particular need for us to be informed by history. The church is a multi-generational community, as well as a multi-cultural community. To ignore or diminish the past because we are unwilling to let go of our agendas in the present is not simply a bad idea…it ignores God’s wisdom and neglects the fundamental character of the community He has formed.
Too often those who say “we’ve always done it this way” aren’t honoring the past…they are ignoring it. They use history to justify their decisions and positions without allowing history to truly have a formative effect on the way they see the present. They skew and simplify the historic situation and, in doing so, skew and simplify the present situation as well. So the next time you hear someone say “we’ve always done it this way” do yourself (and everyone else a favor): dig into the past instead of ignoring it. Let’s start to make honoring the past and learning from it “what we’ve always done.”