The Ancient Wisdom of Thick Institutions

David Brooks latest op-ed, titled “How to Leave a Mark on People,” brought up a question that I explored during my Judaism month: what makes a strong institution?

An old friend of Brooks’ recently died and Brooks describes Joe as “a community-building guy — serving his town, organizing events like fishing derbies for bevies of kids, radiating infectious and neighborly joy.” Joe was beloved by his family, friends, and community. It was not a one-directional love either. He gave just as much as he received.

Joe and Brooks met each other several decades ago while working at an Incarnation summer camp, a place that Brooks calls a “thick institution,” one that “becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person:  head, hands, heart and soul.”

He goes on to describe some characteristics of the thick institution:

  • Shared collective rituals where members can see another side of each other
  • A shared physical space (gym or dinner table)
  • A sacred origin story about the group
  • A distinct local culture (think the military vs office life)
  • A strong moral ecology with emphasis on right and wrong, virtue and vice

The most important trait however, is that thick institutions help members serve a higher purpose.

In a thick organization selfishness and selflessness marry. It fulfills your purpose to help others have a good day.

I realized during my Judaism month is that if you didn’t grow up in thick institutions, it’s not intuitive where to find them and it is difficult to distinguish thick from thin.

Many companies try to masquerade as thick institutions. They certainly have a shared physical space and some collective rituals, but they have to make up corporate values and mission statements that don’t particularly resonate with anyone. But many of us continue to look for purpose and meaning inside these corporate institutions.

Or let’s take some extracurricular groups. I’m in a running club and while I love being a member, there isn’t a distinct emphasis on virtue and vice or a sacred origin story, nor would I expect there to be. But for many that join these clubs, they will have found the wrong answers to the right questions. They will have found a fun group of people with whom they can share their long runs, but what they were really looking for is some shared sense of moral direction and purpose.

Many companies, clubs, and professional groups will successfully demonstrate some of the characteristics of a thick institution, but they ultimately lack a coherent moral language and a higher purpose that can truly make a person whole.

I’m afraid the institutions that are obviously “thick” are becoming less attractive to many of my contemporaries. It is strange, particularly if you’re a secular person, to go to a church or synagogue or mosque, and doubly strange if you haven’t had any experiences with those religions. But I hope my experiments with these ancient thick institutions have shown that they have much to offer, even if you simply do a 30-day cursory exploration of them.

If you are adamant about not participating in a religious institution, I’ll offer some criteria that might be useful for identifying thick institutions. A thick institution:

  • Has been around for a long time (a 50 year old club is probably better than a brand new one)
  • Does not exist solely for your benefit (networking clubs, business clubs, skills based clubs, etc.)
  • Encourages frequent and consistent participation (once per week is better than once per month)
  • External facing purpose. The group should seek to make an impact outside of its own members

Modern secular culture, with the help of distraction technology like social media and smartphones, increases isolation. Without a deliberate effort to seek out and participate in thick institutions and communities, I’m afraid we’ll all end up lonely and morally adrift.

The one who loves all intensely
begins perceiving in all living beings
a part of himself.
He becomes a lover of all,
a part and parcel of the Universal Joy.
He flows with the stream of happiness,
and is enriched by each soul.
-Yajur Veda