Monday Morning Greetings 2018 #8 – The “I” Word

February 19th, 2018

Quick! Think of the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the following word: Institution! Bureaucratic. Restrictive. How about another “I” word: ISKCON! Constraint. Impersonal. Perhaps not all will react this way, but has anyone reading this spontaneously blurted out freedom, initiative, or creativity? I doubt it, because institutions by nature set limits on what we can do, and we generally tend to dislike anything that restricts our independence and expression. But is the angst we feel when we hear the “I” word the legitimate fear of an intrusive monolith of conformity, or is it just the adolescent in us that wants unconditional freedom? Can we step back from our prejudice to make a detached judgment? Simply put, are institutions a blessing or a curse?
An institution may start out with a noble objective, but inevitably those dedicated to running the institution tend to deify it. The institution then gradually supersedes the objective for which it was started. For example, a religious institution may start for the purpose of spreading compassion and love of God, but wind up practically making institutional loyalty the standard of spiritual advancement. As a result corporate attainment (rather than spiritual) becomes conflated with genuine devotion and people tend to aspire for position rather than purity. Those outside the institution also become judged negatively simply because they have a different affiliation. This inevitably leads to offense. Ironically, sectarianism and enmity, the enemies of spirituality, become the norm.
As an institution tends to value the corporation over the individual, its integrity can also be compromised. One such area would be its system of justice. Dedicated people who err, or who are just accused, too often live in fear knowing that expedience trumps jurisprudence when justice appears to not serve the institution.  And more often it is the victims that suffer as “venerable” institutions hush up their problems for the sake of their brand, fostering an atmosphere conducive to harassment and abuse.
Usually an institution naturally follows the inspiration and teachings of a charismatic leader. In order to share and preserve the mission, that leader, or his followers, may establish an institution. Unfortunately this is not without risk. The very same rules created to maintain the institution often stifle it by cramping the creativity of its most dynamic people – ironically the people who most emulate the initiative and charisma of their founder. Institutions are a curse!
Naturally an institution seeks common interest at the sacrifice of individual desire, but is that necessarily bad or mean tyranny? Cultured people reasonably conform to values above their own desires in social contracts meant to serve a common interest whether it is partnership, family, community, or the institution they join. In fact, isn’t that the difference between a community of people and a crowd, the former being shared interest and the latter only a mass of individual interests?  Of course, there is always a risk of exploitation and disempowerment when we sacrifice some of our independence, even for the common good, but isn’t there a risk in any worthy endeavor? The risk of institutionalizing values is obvious, but isn’t the risk even greater if we don’t support institutions that share our values? And without establishing an institution to preserve a mission’s legacy, the mission itself will die. Tom Wolfe once criticized what he called the “me generation”, the children of the Sixties, for “they will never understand duty over self.” Is prejudice against the concept of institution itself just another form of the same ignorance?
Rather than just delineate in detail the benefits of socializing and sharing our values, I think we can just honestly look at what we gain from the institutions we join, whether they be social, educational, or religious. Would we be better off if they didn’t exist? For example, when I look at ISKCON through the years and shudder at the occasional disempowerment and injustice, I also consider the immense gifts we receive from the books they publish that we study, to the saintly devotees and spiritual centers born of ISKCON that nourish our devotion. Institutions are a blessing!
Blessing or Curse?
Institutions are like the water in a lake that keeps a boat afloat. Without the water the boat is useless, but at the same time if the water enters the boat it sinks. Similarly, while institutions are essential in supporting our life, they are also potentially harmful when too intrusive. Conclusion: Institutions are a blessing and a curse, but only a fool is happy without any.

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