When I was a prison chaplain, one of the offensive things one inmate would say to another was “you’ve been institutionalized.” It was also an anxiety, inmates would seek counseling afraid they had become “institutionalized.”
I never looked up the definition. I gathered that, as an insult, it generally meant that an inmate had stopped fighting the system, given in and started just “doing their time.” Usually, those who followed this course did really well both in getting ahead on their sentence and in personal growth.
When referred to in an anxious way, it seemed that many were concerned that they would lose their identity, who they thought they were, and give in to a new identity, “inmate.”
I didn’t know what it meant, but I thought it didn’t mean what they thought it meant, though as their pastor, I just walked their journey with them.
Is “institutionalism” so bad?
For what it’s worth, “institutionalized” is actually defined as: adj. An established practice or custom and established as a part of an official organization.
I’m a part of an institution. An ancient and modern one. A secular and a religious one. I represent that institution both externally with my alb, collar, and cross as well as my uniform, camouflage, and rank. A conflagration of institutions that carry baggage and tensions.
In the context of my posts about the “ten year itch” I read this passage from David Brook’s latest book, “The Road to Character.” In it, he profiles several people of great character, tells their stories, warts and all while making some profound observations on society and our culture. What follows comes from a passage about General George Marshall. It was so moving, I will post it here in its entirety.
I’m interested in your thoughts. I hope my fellow chaplains will read it as well as pastors for I think it speaks to both professions:
Today, it is unusual to meet someone with an institutional mindset. We live in an age of institutional anxiety, when people are prone to distrust large organizations. This is partly because we’ve seen the failure of these institutions and partly because in the era of the Big Me, we push the individual first. We tend to prize the freedom to navigate as we choose, and never to submerge our own individual identities in conformity to some bureaucracy or organization. We tend to assume that the purpose is to lead the richest and fullest individual life, jumping from one organization to the next as it suits our needs. Meaning is found in those acts of self-creation, in the things we make and contribute to, in our endless choices.
Nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disruptors, and rebels. There’s less prestige accorded to those who tend to the perpetual reform and repair of institutions. Young people are raised to think that big problems can be solved by a swarm of small, networked NGO’s and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.
People who possess the institutional mindset, as [General] Marshall did, have a very different mentality, which begins with a different historical seriousness. In this mindset, the primary reality is society, which is a collections of institutions that have existed over time and transcend generations. A person is not born into an open field and a blank social slate. A person is born into a collection of permanent institutions, including the Army, the priesthood, the fields of science, or any of the professions like being a farmer, a builder, a cop, or a professor.
Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation.
Each institution comes with certain rules, obligations, and standards of excellence. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have certain methods they use to advance and verify knowledge one step at a time. Teachers treat all their students equally and invest extra hours to their growth. In the process of subordinating ourselves to the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. The customs of the institution structure the soul, making it easier to be good. They guide behavior gently along certain time-tested lines. By practicing the customs of an institution, we are not alone; we are admitted into a community that transcends time.
With this sense of scope, the institutionalist has deep reverence for those who came before and the rules he has temporarily taken delivery of. These rules of a profession or an institution are not like practical tips on how to best do something. They are deeply woven into the identities of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to his or her sport, a doctor’s commitment to the craft of medicine, is not an individual choice that can be easily renounced when the psychic loss exceed the psychic benefits. These are life-shaping and life-defining commitments. Like finding a vocation, they are commitments to something that transcends a single lifetime.
A person’s social function defines who he or she is. The commitment between a person and an institution is more like a covenant. It is an inheritance to be passed on and a debt to be repaid.
The technical tasks of, say, being a carpenter are infused with a deep meaning that transcends the task at hand. There are long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out of them, but service to the institution provides you with a series of fulfilling commitments and a secure place in the world. It provides you with a means to submerge your ego, to quiet its anxieties and its relentless demands.*
I wonder: what do I owe my professions? Both that of an Officer and a Pastor?
*all emphasis mine.