A Japanese understanding of Zen Buddhism describes the universe as a web, and at each node in the web is a bright diamond that reflects the sparkle of every diamond set around it.
I am an individual diamond in the web, and so are you. Yet, we are not ‘individual’ in the rustic American sense of the word, because we impinge upon each other.
Inevitably, I reflect you, and you reflect me.
This is true even if you are the last man on Earth. If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody (or nothing) hears it, does it make a sound? Of course it makes no sound. The tree requires your ears to absorb the sound, just as much as you require the tree to send vibrations through the air to your strangely-shaped listening receptacles.
A single man alone in the world would simply become a powerful reflection of a man-less world. Not merely psychologically, but biologically, physiologically, and in all other ways: his skin would be filthier like the bed of a forest, more rugged like the hide of an oak. He would stalk his prey less like a man, and more like a beast. Medieval men used to wear the same clothes till they fell off.
The forest where the lone man lives is the institution that surrounds him. If he lives on a small, barren island, he is himself barren, stripped to his bones, crusted in sea salt, and burnt by the high sun. The sea is a separate institution from the forest and applies different outputs on the man.
We do not live with these prehistoric institutions, though. Most of us, that is to say Americans or Westerners more broadly, live under the influence of highly cosmopolitan institutions. We change out clothes at least daily. Even if you reside in rural areas, rapid information flow condenses and delivers this cosmopolitan world to your doorstep, a neat little package from wonder land.
You are becoming more a man of the world every single day. In spite of your best efforts, you are everything else, and everything else is you.
Who would you be if you grew up in pre-Revolutionary France? A devout Catholic, most likely. Who would you be if you grew up in 1990s Miami? How about 1960s Oklahoma? You are what you are because of where you are.
What institutions today surround us and shape our being? There are a few big ones that need mentioning:
Entertainment: Netflix, Amazon, cable television, New York Times Best Sellers, televised sports.
Media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the legacy corporate cable cabals, the legacy corporate print and web outfits.
Education: Universities, pop science articles, blogs, podcasts.
Humans: other people who are also walking reflections of these same institutions.
When young people say, “I need to take a year off work and move away so I can find myself,” what they mean to say is: “I need to shut off these extraneous inputs to find who I am, in my core. Who I was before social modifications. Who I was born as, before I had a body, when I was still a detached soul.” So they go off to Argentina and hike the Patagonia and drink little cups of steaming coffee on quaint resort patios.
Often, they come back feeling relaxed, even accomplished, with supple skin, but they feel no more closer to themselves once they have reintegrated – once they have returned to the cubicle and reinstalled the Tinder app.
So here we are, getting jerked back and forth like a fly on a fisherman’s rod: “Here is peace, finally. No, that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Let’s try over here.”
After every new stop on the train, we climb back on, “All Aboard!” and eventually after doing this for so many years – maybe 20, maybe 30 – we realize we will be back here again.
What we are looking for, without saying as much, is not some deep revelation of our true untampered soul, which cannot be achieved.
We are looking for the right institutions to nourish the soul and infuse it. Nothing else will. We want to be surrounded by so many beautiful diamonds.
This is why institutions matter. If they are ugly, we are dull. If they are bright, we are beautiful.
And if I could break these grotesque and unhappy institutions we now have, I would. The corporate media would be swallowed up by troubadours, the cubicle farms traded in for unkempt libraries, the tech-giant trusts shattered each into a billion pieces (one smithereen for every dollar BezosGatesZuckerberg have), and gleaming fresh cathedrals carved out of every ghastly facade of modern architecture.
Lastly, there would be a magnificent courtyard of flagstones and fountains set beneath the open window of every home, where people would converge and talk and smoke on indian summer nights.
Together, we would flow in a single stream, bound by the hard banks of our new, attentive institutions.