You Can Set Your Clock By It

Health care can deadlock a Congress. Taxation can set pundits to wrangling. But if you really want to get a room full of people fighting at maximum intensity, there’s nothing quite like an arbitrary tradition.

You know the sort of thing I mean.

“No! We open presents before stockings, not after!”

“What do you mean you don’t use the Oxford comma?”

“I will defend to the death Pluto’s inalienable right to be called a planet.”

Majestic molehills, all of them, and I have summited each of their peaks with an unholy glee to do battle with the incorrigible heretics arrayed against me. But for the greatest level of intensity over the most arbitrary of traditions, it’s really hard to beat Daylight Saving Time.

Our twice-a-year clock fumbling has nothing behind it but history, and a venerable series of mythic justifications. No, it doesn’t help farmers – cows don’t care what time it is. No, it doesn’t save energy – in fact, some studies say it actually uses a little more. And Benjamin Franklin never boosted the concept except as a satire.

So it comes down to “We do it because we’ve always done it.” For some, this might be a sign that we don’t truly need it. But for the truly committed – social media fans, state politicians, and perhaps the hidden space aliens living in the Earth’s mantle – it’s a chance to start two fights: one over whether to stop the clock, and one over where to stop it.

PERSON ONE: “I want to walk my dog after work when it’s still light!”

PERSON TWO: “I don’t want to do my morning bike ride in the dark!”

PERSON ONE: “Oh, just man up and spring back!”

PERSON TWO: “It’s spring forward, you clock abuser!”

PERSON THREE: “Um, I work nights so I don’t really care …”

PERSONS ONE AND TWO: “You stay out of this!”

Each year, the time passes and the debate gets tabled for another few months. Once in a great while, a state will actually vote to freeze the clock (hi, Florida!), but usually it all winds down in muttering and sarcastic suggestions. (“Tell you what – you can have daylight saving as long as we get to move the clocks forward at 4 p.m. on a Friday.”) An opportunity lost, again.

And yet, this too may have its value, for two reasons.

First, if we can actually capture all the heat generated by daylight saving debates over the years, we may have discovered a valuable new energy source.

Second, and more serious, it means we inherently recognize that tradition itself has some value.

Traditions are the stories we tell ourselves. They’re the frame that we set around family experiences to make them our own. They’re the moments that bring people together, whether it’s applauding a fireworks show or singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” They set a rhythm that gives us just a small bit of control over the world around us.

Sure, not every tradition is equally valuable. Some can be outright harmful, especially when pushed on someone who doesn’t want to participate. (No one likes being forced to tell a story.) But the idea has power. And when done right, a tradition can connect people into something bigger than themselves, preparing them to face the world together, tied for a moment to each other and to those who came before.

That’s awe-inspiring.

And even if we all collectively come to our senses and stop the clocks once and for all – you know, actually agree on that great tradition called “time” – we needn’t worry about boredom. There will be other stories, on other days.
Speaking of which – did Pluto get the shaft, or what?

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