Institutionalization and identity

Something magical happened with my coach the other night. I can’t explain it very well. It felt like I had a vision of perfect clarity of my innermost core, of the spark that drives me when everything false is pulled away. It was a profound moment, like a flash of blinding light. My coach said he got chills.

As I sit here typing in easy hindsight, it feels like everything I’ve been doing and learning and feeling since last August was leading to that moment. Now, of course, I’m on the move again, as we keep changing and evolving every minute of every day. But for a few seconds, I could see all the threads converging into something like a mile marker on a highway. I can return to it as a point of reference, but it’s just a point of reference, not a stopping point.

Since then, I finished some reading. If you believe that everything happens at certain times or places for certain reasons (one might even say the right place and right time for the right reasons), then you might believe I read this passage this week as part of a larger chain of connectivity. The reading was about how movements start and spark institutional change.

The first thing that happens is that individuals, initially isolated and not in communication with each other, have realizations that they are divided from themselves. They might be a part of a particular institution that has so successfully institutionalized them that their selfhood begins to wither away. They hit a point where they can let their selfhood die or take back who they really are at their core. At this juncture, the pain of staying the same often becomes greater than the pain that comes with the risks of change.

This is what happened to me back in August, although I didn’t have this language for it until now. (It’s been fascinating to me how each time I revisit my story, I have new language to describe what’s going on.) With the resources and knowledge I have now, I can see that I was so successfully institutionalized by the norms of academia and my two graduate programs that I had become divided from who I really am — so divided, in fact, that I had lost my own identity or sense of self.

Something in me last August intuitively knew that I had to bring my actions and outer life back into alignment with my inner life. That version of me didn’t know how it was to be done, but she followed her instincts and here we are today.

I inhabit the university because it offers me opportunities that I value. This is true of all kinds of institutions for all kinds of people: democracy, marriage, corporations, etc. But sometimes the institution makes claims on us that are at odds with who we are at our cores.

Academia made claims on who I now know myself to be: a deeply heart-centered person. I lost sight of that person along the way because the academy so values more head-centered ways of being and doing. At first, the tension between the institution’s claims and my integrity produced creative productivity, but then it became pathological. My heart was overrun with institutional logic, which then became the logic of my own life.

This whole self-development “journey” I’ve been on has been my search for a new center for my life, though I didn’t know that when I started. I wouldn’t have called it that. I didn’t know that my center had become the institution and that I needed to re-center outside the institution and its demands.

For a long time, my brain was telling me I needed to physically leave the institution. But I actually just took a spiritual leave this past year. I was on campus, going through the motions, but my heart was elsewhere. I did the excavation, and I found solid ground to stand on outside the university. It was the ground of my own being.

And now I am equipped to resist the deformation that occurs when organizational values try to become the landscape of our inner lives.

This wasn’t a strategic or political move for me. I had no idea what I was getting into last August when I read a Pinterest pin about self-care. This has always been a deeply personal decision. That’s the way it always starts. It had nothing to do with the blame and resentment I used to level at the graduate program. It only had to do with me and my fundamental need for my own beliefs to govern and guide my life.

I have often been critical of the institution that institutionalized me. But then I realized that I had formed a silent conspiracy with the university and the program. I had allowed both to rule my life. And then I was able to begin the more productive work of being constructively critical of myself.

What I did at some point without realizing it was just decide to stop being my own worst enemy. And then I realized that I need to stay and work and teach from my values because I love and value the university too much to let it descend to its lowest form. Whatever small part I have to play in that, I feel compelled to do it. Importantly, it’s coming from a place of love, not hate.

When we return to the various institutions in our lives from a place of love, from wanting to preserve their highest aspirations through our own integrity, real good can occur. It might be on an incredibly small scale, but it matters.

I’ve mentioned before how I remembered the deep passion that first led me down this path – first for learning, then for teaching. Keeping these energies accessible enables me to not be a co-conspirator anymore. I am acting in a way that honors my own original commitment to the importance of learning and teaching. I honor my deepest values instead of fearfully conforming to every single institutional norm.

Some small examples of how I’ve tried to be heart-centered:

  • Two days ago, when I taught my students how to paraphrase, instead of just teaching paraphrase as a useful writing tool, I emphasized how it empowers them to choose what ideas they want to convey from a source and gives them the force and power of their own voice on the page. When the moment of realization of that power sunk in around the room, there was a palpable force of energy and some of the students’ eyes widened and one looked at me and said, “Oh, my god.” I was astonished and then humbled and then glad. It sounds cheesy, but I do believe in the power of writing, and if I can help my students feel that power, then I will have succeeded at my job.
  • Another example is me being open with my peers about my fears and vulnerability in a talk I gave in March, rather than hiding behind a wall of fake confidence and important-sounding research.
  • Another is being open and public about becoming a life coach in an environment that sort of poo-poos anything heart-centered or spiritual. Irony, cynicism, and a weird false objectivity rules what we do, and every time I’m earnest, passionate, and wholly conscious of the subjectivity of everything we as humans do, I honor my deepest values in the face of institutional norms.

Do you know how much courage I’ve had to gather along the way to do this? So much. But to bring my inner convictions to the surface of my actions without fear of rejection or ridicule, without fear of losing some kind of image or status, means that I am no longer collaborating with something that violated my own integrity. Whatever judgment comes will hurt infinitely less than what I inflicted on myself all those years I was a conspirator in my own diminishment.

This insight is enabling me to open doors within myself I didn’t even know existed and walk into new possibilities that honor the claims of my heart. I would wish this for anyone who feels divided from himself or herself within a particular institution.

(See pp. 173-178 of Palmer’s book for his explanation of what it means to live an undivided life. This post is structured after his logic and I borrow some of his vocabulary.)


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