Departing the Institutional Forest (Part 1)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same…..
– Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken)

Last week I wrote about how past a certain scale and intensity, institutions can create new environments, within which people can become redefined, or socialized into mainly being “clients” of service systems. The new institutional environment, like a forest of services, can shape/school people in all kinds of subtle ways, so much so that eventually they find it hard to see the wood for the trees, let alone image a world beyond the forest. The solution to this “harmful help”, is not to be found in chopping or burning down the forest, or even in reforming the forest. The more hopeful; less violent path to a good life, is in rediscovering and restoring alternative environments at the edge of the institutional forest. This week and next week’s post will explore seven ways to depart the institutional forest.

Here are the first three of seven ways to restore the natural wilderness of our lives and rediscover the community way at the edge of empire:

1) Keep our feet on the ground

Regularly walking or wheeling in our neighbourhoods, on our own; with our neighbours (observing current local public health guidelines) or our dogs, and of course without headphones or our eyes fixed on a smartphone screen, are fantastic ways to reawaken all our available senses to what actually surrounds us, beyond the forest of the mind and the institutional way. As well as familiarizing ourselves with our neighbourhoods, it also makes us familiar to our neighbours, as we daily greet the same people, on well-trodden pathways. The mantra of a neighbour eager to reveal community assets is, let’s go see who’s there and what’s there that we can connect productively. The best way to see what lies beyond the empire is to go there in a spirit of curiosity and courage. Sometimes, that is easier said than done, because people have become so ensnared in the roots of the forest. In such circumstances they need a circle of support to break them free, a Robin Hood and merry band who know how to navigate the forest, launder its resources and get those resources back into community alternatives that promote civic participation.

2) Go at Speed of trust

A savvy farmer waits a year before farming new land, working to the belief that the land itself is the best guide of what might be possible if they (the farmer and the land) cooperate in a way that respects the natural rhythms of both. Here the farmer trusts the inner (invisible) workings of the land to declare themselves “all in good time”. The same holds true in life generally, people and places declare the best of themselves as well as their oddities over time and at the speed of trust. Trusting relationships act like plant pots out of which the seeds of fruitful community life spring up and where deep roots intertwine. It may take us a little time to figure out how we can stay connected while remaining safe during this pandemic, but we’ll get there.

Speaking of speed, it took four years for the Mumps vaccine to be safely developed; so far that’s been the fastest developed, while I am very hopeful that a vaccine for COVID-19 will come sooner and worldwide distribution will happen at pace, still, I believe the harsh reality is that we are looking at years, not months, who knows, it could be one year, or two, but it’s going to take time. In the meantime, we need to start figuring out a pandemic conscious way of living together and to stop lurching from one set of restrictions to the next, in the vain hope of an early end, or a Hail Mary fix. How can we stay apart while also staying together, and not just online, but also on land?

3) Observe the Sabbath

When I say observe the Sabbath, I don’t mean it literally, though I highly respect those who observe such faith-based traditions. Having space away from work and the marketplace or other forms of institutional life, to be reciprocal with unpaid neighbours at least some of the time is like building a dome of protection for community ways, it creates space within which we can be present, discover, and appreciate what it is we have in common. Indeed, we can learn a lot from the Jewish observance of the Sabbath where the most important rules are, firstly, destroy nothing; secondly, create nothing, thirdly, simply celebrate what is.

I have personally gained a great deal from working from home, but I am noticing a small grove of institutional ways spreading into my family and community life, through tweeter, emails and calls, my work unhelpfully insinuating itself into too many of my conversations with my wife and children. I find the need for a fence, or road, the places, solid boundaries between my work life and my home and community. To be genuinely present at home and in my community I have to declare sabbath, not just once a week, but throughout my daily comings and goings.

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