Thick and Thin

The title for my inspirational reflection comes from a recent column by David Brooks.  I very much like how Brooks thinks about things.  He has a way of choosing something that is timely, reflecting on it and eventually making his thoughts seem timeless.  Even if you don’t agree with him, his thought process is engaging and helps you reach more clarity about how you would articulate a subject.  As a rule, whenever I see something Brooks has written, I read it.  I don’t try to judge beforehand whether I will like it or whether it will be “good.”  He always makes me think and learn.
And so I began his recent piece that was entitled, “How to Leave a Mark on People.”  I should think anyone with an ounce of curiosity would want to read that one.  I jumped right in.  The first sentence identified an old friend of Brooks, Joe Toscano, who worked in the same summer camp in Connecticut that Brooks did, namely, the Incarnation summer camp. Joe was a firefighter in Watertown, MA, interestingly a town in which I once lived.  Joe died some days ago fighting a fire.  Brooks clearly felt the loss and wanted to reflect on it.
The first descriptive phrase Brooks uses about Joe is to call him a “community-building guy.”  Since I like to think I am, too, I pushed quickly on into the article.  Apparently, Joe was a special guy in his community, although there was nothing really special about a firefighter from a Boston suburb.  What was special?  Brooks uses the Incarnation summer camp to illustrate.
Brooks uses Joe’s story to identify two kinds of organizations.  He says, “Some organizations are thick, and some are thin.  Some leave a mark on you, and some you pass through with scarcely a memory.”  Incarnation was a thick community.  It left a mark on Joe.  And when he died, it was obvious that he was a key in that thick community and the heartfelt response to his death demonstrated a thick community in action.
Of course, this leads Brooks to describe the nature of a thick organization.  I followed his description with interest.  Brooks says, “A thick institution is not one that people use instrumentally, to get a degree or to earn a salary.  A thick institution becomes part of a person’s identity and engages the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul.”  That distinction makes sense to me.  And of course, it provokes me to think about the organizations to which I have belonged and which ones I might judge to be thick.
Brooks offers more hints about how to judge your experience of an institution---thick or thin?  Interestingly, he says thick organizations usually have a physical location.  That makes the whole issue of virtual reality a fascinating thing to ponder.  Brooks goes deeper.  He says those thick institutions have “a set of collective rituals.”  Furthermore, they “have shared tasks.”  He cites sports teams as an example here.  These organizations also typically have some kind of origin story---how we began and got here kind of story.
The last descriptive characteristic Brooks identifies really intrigued me.  He said thick organizations tend to “see themselves on a vertical axis.  People are members so they can collectively serve the same higher good.”  This is opposite of thin organizations which are horizontal, where “people are members for mutual benefit.”  This distinction speaks volumes and is probably a pretty good way to judge the various organizations to which we belong. 
Is the organization to which I belong there to benefit me or am I in it in order to serve a higher purpose?  Using this standard, there are not too many thick organizations in my little world.  As I am thinking about it, my mind readily goes to the spiritual communities of which I have been a part---and still am.  They may come the closest to the thick communities Brooks describe.  In my case they are Christian communities.
There is no question in my mind Jesus did have in mind forming thick communities with the disciples he called.  If you go back over the list of characteristics, most apply, except perhaps the “place” for the community.  The other thing to notice is I have shifted the language from “organization” to “community.”  I do think communities can be thick---and not, therefore, limited to a single place.
My spiritual community is the place to which I give myself.  And in turn, others have also given themselves.  I like the way Brooks talks about this.  In such communities, “there’s an intimacy and identity borne out of common love.”  I am tempted to say in such communities, who I am turns out to be who “they” are, too.  Easily, the language of “I’ turns into the language of “we.”  I am not worried about what I might get out of it.  Instead, we all are into what can we give the higher purpose.  In the case of my spiritual community, the higher purpose is to help everyone live a rich and full live (which in our interpretation is spiritual).  And we want to make the world a better place---peace, justice and mercy.
Jesus called this the Kingdom.  I am ok with that term, but realize others are not comfortable with a political metaphor.  It might be called heaven, but I am convinced we can have that before we are dead.  Maybe with Brooks’ thoughts, I have found a new, contemporary way of describing my spiritual community.  It is thick!

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