Tana’s recent post on “unbinding” reminded me of some reflections I had made in a paper I wrote a few years ago. In a section that was actually called “The Unbinding,” I was thinking about how difficult it can be to recognize exactly what it is that binds us. For someone like Tana (disciplined, orderly, timely) it might be her inner bureaucracy. For someone like me (um . . . let’s just say not so disciplined, orderly, or timely) it might be my inner anarchist commune. That is, the “rule” that binds Tana might just be the rule that unbinds me. I’ve reprinted a small part of the paper below.
“Everything that can be broken should be broken.”
That is how the literary critic Harold Bloom describes the shared stance underlying American poetry after Emerson. Bloom admiringly calls this stance “Gnostic,” which I take to involve not just suspicion of but disbelief in anything material, worldly, transitory. The powerful ‘should’ in the sentence tells us that we are being distracted from what is true by all of the various breakable forms that populate the world. And so the breaking becomes a sacred effort. The broken thing becomes a revelation.
In my work with engaging organizations, the thing that has become most clear to me is that one can’t create engagement, one can only release it. The question we need to ask ourselves is not “What should we do?” but “What should we undo?” The call is to discover what binds us.
This call is more slippery than it sounds. I recently spent some time in Boston with an organization called The Food Project. The Food Project brings urban and suburban youth together to grow and distribute organic produce. The project operates a 30-acre farm half an hour outside of Boston and two unlikely urban gardens contentedly flourishing in Dorchester, one of Boston’s most distressed neighborhoods. One rainy Saturday morning, I went to visit the largest urban lot, where I found two dozen teenagers happily pulling weeds from the mud, giving the October tomatoes and cabbages new room to breathe. Mid-morning, I had a long conversation with a 16-year-old whom I will call Jamal.
I had heard about Jamal the day before from some of the project staff. They described him as a tough but charming natural leader who had grown up roaming the streets of Dorchester, if not in trouble then frequently at trouble’s edge. When he first joined The Food Project, he had a difficult time. He was used to navigating relationships with challenge and bravado, a rhythm that did not suit the respectful, gentle culture cultivated by the organization. He later said that where he came from, you had to “act like a lion” if you wanted to survive. The Food Project was apparently uninterested in lions. They kicked him out. After a few months he decided to reapply, putting himself under even more scrutiny. This time something took. When I met him he had moved through the summer program and was now one of a select group interning with the project during the school year.
He shook my hand with some hesitation but flashed a warm and peculiar smile that made me think the only thing he was shy about was revealing how confident he actually felt. Throughout the conversation he seemed at ease but slightly bemused, as if his own sureness surprised him. We talked about many things, but Jamal kept returning to the effect that his engagement with The Food Project had had on him. He described the organization as “an open circle” and used the word ‘safety’ frequently. (My experiences with organizations like these are leading me to believe that there is no safer structure in the world than “an open circle,” despite our anxieties to the contrary.) He said that if you come to the project with “the right mind,” you can discover “the positive you,” and he contrasted the old aggressive, “nagging” version of himself, with the new kinder, more peaceful version. He said that the new version felt real.
One of Jamal’s issues the first time through the project was that he had little patience for rules or direction. He told me, “I don’t really like people dictating to me. I’m a leader, not a follower.” During the first weeks he frequently received “violations” for things like lateness and talking to people disrespectfully. He was unhappy. The organization was too strict. Someone was always “on his neck,” and he told himself, “This has to stop.” This was right before he was kicked out.
Frankly, I was sympathetic to the “old” Jamal. Despite the contented air of the place, one of the things that first struck me about The Food Project was the apparent rigidity of the rules and principles, not just for the teenagers, but for the staff, who in almost every conversation turned ‘accountability’ and ‘hard work’ into twin mantras. After my experience with Santropol Roulant, I was somewhat confused. The Food Project did have a vibrancy all its own. It felt alive and authentic, but not in the way that I was used to, and certainly not with the forms I was used to. Jamal continued: “Now the rules are nothing. I don’t think about them. We’re all equal. No one is watching me. We’re all out here getting dirty.” He studied the soil under his fingernails then resumed pulling weeds.
It is natural for us to think of stern organizational policies as constrictions: things that keep us from being authentic with ourselves and each other. Often they are. The work of unbinding our organization may typically involve relaxing or revoking various policies rules and procedures. Jamal, however, was bound by a much stricter code than The Food Project’s. Before coming there, he was subject to a very narrow set of behavioral rules involving distance, sarcasm, aggression. Perhaps one of his rules was, “Don’t be on time.” Perhaps being on time was a weakness, a capitulation. If so, Jamal’s inner “don’t be on time” rule was what was binding him. If poetry is the art of making the world strange so that we can see it anew, “be on time” was poetry for Jamal. Being on time allowed him to be more authentic, not less. It allowed him to be freer.
Don’t mistake this idea for cheap apologetics. It does not imply that all rules, or even most, are liberating. To an accountant who has been on time every day of his life for the last 30 years, “be on time” may well be what binds him. “Don’t be on time” is what will unbind him. Any form – any role, group, rule, procedure, etc. – can be binding. Any form can be poetry. And what is poetry one day might become cliché the next. The work of unbinding involves constant attentiveness toward what is in our way. To unbind an organization (or yourself) you must think like a poet.