When I got up this morning, I went outside. It was still dark. Venus glowed in the east. It was cool; the sky was blue-black, with a slight lightening in the east where the earth turned toward the sun.
Looking at Venus, I thought of Jesus, who has been called the bright morning star. I paused, refreshed, not alone, enmeshed in institutionalized beauty.
I came back in the house and sat and talked to my wife. When we talk, we usually connect, very smoothly, very deeply, very satisfyingly. My identity and her’s merge, we easily understand each other’s abreviations, our freshly invented eloquences. These work out the subliminal deep structure of our relationship, the one that exits within the institution of marriage.
Later in the morning, I drove into work, opened the door to my office, and walked into a third institution.
My office manager came to work too. We are both well-individuated, but as we talked, worked out the plan for the day, sampled the pastry we would later serve to guests, laughed at ourselves, played our separate roles, made progress, we became a useful institutional team.
What is my life? It is a life of living and moving and having my being within institutions.
What are institutions?
Institutions not places, they are not buildings, they are the rules that structure our interations with the people we know. Institutions define the way we all relate.
The national government, our church, marriage, our school system, our economic system, even our language — all are institutions, that is all structure rules for relationships.
A woman told me last week that our church hurt her feelings.
I apologized. I hated that she was hurt. The protocol, the unwritten rules, the tendancy of a church to favor certain people — the unexamined structure of our interactions — these can damage. Institutions can brutalize people.
I have been harmed by institutions. You probably have too. But we have also been helped by them — medicine, art, family.
What to do to make our institutions healthy, good?
First, in institutions, make exceptions, regarding the rules.
Once a person didn’t meet a requriement of our church for leadership. In this case, we overlooked that one institutional requirement. We kept the requirement in general — it’s a good one — but we made an exception in this one case. It wasn’t a slippery slope. It was just plain smart, right, fair. And it worked well. The person has proven to be an excellent leader.
This is one way we kept our institution from harming the individual — we value the individual more than the general rule.
What else can be done?
We can keep changing. A healthy person keeps changing. Healthy institutions also keep changing. They change the rules, to address problems, to find creative solutions.
Our church is currently becoming more economically and racially diverse. So we are including more types of people in leadership. Women, ethnic minorities, young people, older people, introverts, highly spiritual people, practical ones too. We are opening the doors to a different look, to different kinds of relational structures. Some of the rules are changing, and so the institution is changing in a good way.
Today as I sat writing this in Starbucks — a major institution — two strangers got into a conversation about how to cool their houses in the current heat wave. One gave the other a new idea. This “third place” within our culture, this public office, creates a space for people to relate to each other in ways of their own choosing, and come to solutions of their own choosing.
The bottom line?
Love your institutions, use them to connect to others, to solve problems; make them work for you and others.