Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: April 2013

The Two Meanings of Institution

The word institution has at least two very different meanings.

It can mean something good.

It is something that we have established and which we may respect and value – a constitution, an organisation or even a habit – like forms of politeness. While such institutions may vary in their social purpose and moral impact they are essentially good. They are the means by which we connect, act together and sustain meaning within and between generations.

As Charles Williams puts it, “An Institution is the nurse of souls.”

Without institutions (in this positive sense) our community would be a desert. We would have to make everything anew and we would have no traditions or systems for handing on knowledge, experience and wisdom.

But there is a second kind of institution, whose essence is bad.
For the word is also used to describe the buildings or camps that were set up – often deep in the countryside – where many thousands of disabled people or people with mental health problems were incarcerated. These institutions were very bad (although they were often established with good intentions). They were places where abuse was often rife and where people struggled to find lives of meaning or respect.

As these large institutions closed and people moved back in to ‘community’ there were many improvements – but often the institution remained. The institution seemed to follow people back into the community. People found that they were still not free, still could not connect, still could not contribute.

It turns out institutions can be large, but they can also be very small. Institutions can be far away, but they can also be next door. Institutions can be very obvious, but they can also be hidden. Community care – as it was called – was successful to the degree that it supported people to be citizens, to really participate in community. Sadly, for many, de-instutionalisation has only only meant closing down a crumbling hospital on the edge of town and transporting people into special units and day centres.

The essential difference between the first and the second institution is that the second kind of institution is a system of control. The buildings, rules and systems corrode human freedom, spontaneity and love. They dictate to us who we must be. [This is true both for the controllers as well as the controlled – often the guards, wardens or nurses are also damaged by this toxic environment.]
These institutions prepackage destiny. They are systems, habits or mentalities that determine how we should live and they exert their malign influence in many different ways.
Death is the only true certainty (it seems that even taxes can be avoided by some). But the institution brings death-like certainty to human life by killing our capacities for newness, creation and purpose.

Why is Pride the Greatest Sin?

Solzhenitsyn says “Pride grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.”

Dante places Pride at the foot of Mount Purgatory and imagines how it might take hundreds of years for us to pay its price. First we must wander along this first cornice – bowed down by the weight of a giant boulder carried on on our back.

But why is Pride the first and most dangerous sin? In what sense is it particularly dangerous? After all we can use the word Pride in a very positive way. I remember as a very small child being told off by my parents ‘Don’t be so proud, Simon!’ And I remember thinking to myself ‘Why shouldn’t I be proud? Isn’t pride a good thing?’ We imagine a proud knight in shining armour. We imagine a happy child beaming with pride at their achievement.

What is the key to unlocking the problem of Pride?

Perhaps it is to do with how we love ourselves. A proper love of ourself is necessary. It is not that we should love others instead of ourselves, it as we should love them as ourselves. Implicit in this is the assumption that love is real love – a real care and concern for the best interests of the person.

In this sense, good self-love – proper Pride in oneself – also assumes humility and a desire for change, improvement and making the best of ourselves. To not take care of our own needs, to not develop ourselves, is a moral failing. This is not about ‘just loving ourselves for the way we are’ rather it is about challenging ourselves to be the best that we can be – in the knowledge of our own needs and weaknesses.

But if this kind of self-love is not the problem then what is?

Part of this problem may be that in loving ourselves we struggle to avoid (a) thinking ourselves better than other people and (b) better than God. We seem unable to simply get on with doing the best we can. Instead we put ourselves at the centre of things. We lose sight of the value and gifts of other people and we lose sight of our place in God’s kingdom. Perhaps all our other failings and sins are rooted in this first sin – we put ourselves at the centre of things.

I love this piece of Jewish wisdom which captures the paradox of Pride most beautifully:

Just before he died, the Baal Shem told his disciples that the one among them who would teach them how to overcome pride would be his successor. The problem was put to each of them; the Maggid happened to be called first. His answer: Since pride is one of God’s attributes, man cannot uproot it entirely, all at once; it must be fought every day and at every moment. This reply was so favourably received, no one else was questioned.

From Souls on Fire by Elie Wiesel

Or to quote Anna Akhmatova:

Just save me from pride
The rest I can manage.

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