In this week’s episode, Jimmy and Alanna tackle the difficult topic of whether or not institutions (governments, churches, schools, families) can be fully trusted. What is the root of institutional disease, and how does a member cope with disillusionment? What parts do loyalty, skepticism, and hope have to play? Our hosts each bring a slightly different perspective to the table –  but as always, they find plenty of common ground when digging into this painfully relevant topic.

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Jimmy & Alanna begin by discussing their caffeine intake (a not infrequent occurence). Alanna poses the rhetorical question: if coffee is especially good, should you leave it be (sans cream)? IPAs also come up – “[My first taste of IPA] reminded me of sucking on a penny the first time I had it,” Alanna says (and then hastily assures listeners she doesn’t suck on spare change as a pastime); “But I’ve come to really enjoy it. I had some grapefruit IPA from the tap at a festival in the summertime, and it was great. Bourbon straight, neat, is my favorite.”

“I like Scotch,” says Jimmy, who prefers less-sweet drinks. Alanna shares about her limited experience with scotch: the kind she tried was an especially peaty Talisker. “What is peat?” she asks. “A bog? What is a bog?” (Jimmy has no answers; just laughing.) “To me, it just tasted like liquid smoke,” she describes. “It was very bitey, smokey…To the point it felt like my face was collapsing.”

“I’m stuck on your face collapsing,” Jimmy says.

“All of our faces are collapsing in the sands of time,” Alanna replies. 

The conversation moves to Benedict Cumberbatch’s inability to pronounce the word “Penguin.” This might not be a fair estimation: Brits just pronounce certain words differently than Americans. UK listeners, send in a voice memo of yourself saying the word “Penguin.” We need an answer to this riddle.

Jimmy then segues, pivoting off of the topic of Brits to dive into the topic of institutions. As Americans, many of our country institutions are quite young. However, as a Catholic, Jimmy is also aware of himself as being part of a very ancient, more universally poised institution. He shares a bit about the friction he sometimes feels in relation to institutions: “I don’t know if it’s an age thing, a generation thing, and artist thing – I just sometimes struggle knowing if I can trust institutions, or institutional realities. I’ve gotten in more trouble as an adult than I ever did as a child – meaning, I stopped fitting into boxes. I experienced this in college, I navigated it when I ran for public office in Nashville: all of these institutional realities that, if you didn’t know how to traverse, you’re probably going to get stuck along the way. Is that just me, whining about institutions? I love the institutions I am a part of: but at times I feel a lack of personalism.”

Alanna agrees. “I don’t think it’s just you – I think it’s very common. While each of us probably have slightly different angles on why the body politic bothers us, I think the feeling is frequent. For my part I have always had some struggle with authority – perhaps because i feel it doesn’t give due credit to my ability to have agency, my ability to make choices. My own agency is very important to me: the power of choice is ennobling. But it can easily run awry – this idea we have an infinite number of options.” She states how, left to our own devices, many of us would likely make decisions that wouldn’t uphold the common good: and so, in this regard, institutions are extremely helpful in maintaining order and harmony (to some degree), such that there ends up being more freedom for everyone involved.

But what causes them to become sick? Alanna wonders aloud at certain possibilities- power struggles, nepotism, the wrong people being in positions of leadership. Regardless of the origin of the disease, when an institution that people have predicated their lives and sense of safety on proves to not be everything it promised to be, the thing felt most deeply is betrayal. “I don’t know the psychology behind the sense of betrayal,” she says, “I don’t know how it’s resolved, or if it’s just sort of a constant, cyclical thing that happens [as part of human nature].”

Jimmy brings up the recent scandals that have broken out in the Catholic Church – it’s a difficult thing to work through, because of how deep the need for safety and belonging goes within the human mind and heart. “I have to say I still have this stubborn love for the Church. A stubborn love for the constitution of our country. Something in me wants to fight through the chaos. Certain people have helped me understand why I love institutions.” He brings up G.K. Chesterton’s analogy of the fenced-in playground. The fence delineates where a child can run – it allows them a feeling of safety, so that their imagination can run wild. (He mentions how art needs some kind of form and structure for it to be worthy of the name: Alanna challenges him on this point, saying it’s fair to acknowledge that many people would say otherwise. Some modern impressionism is considered valuable because it depicts chaos and riot, and this is part of the human experience.) Alanna agrees, however, with G.K.’s point: “You do have to delineate to make sense of things. Even with language. Every day we use the rules of syntax to make sense of what we say. We bend to the rules we’ve been taught because they help us to communicate, they help us to flourish.

She goes back to the analogy of the playground. It’s helpful, but in the wake of something like the sex abuse scandal in the Church, the whole thing gets turned on it’s head. It would almost be like looking back on what seemed to be a happy, safe childhood in a happy, safe playground only to find out you’d been monitored by unseen cameras the whole time: things were not as they seemed.

“I tend more toward skepticism,” she says, “Trusting is tricky for me. This is the kind of situation that makes me want to dismantle the whole thing, and leads me to ask hard questions: has this helped or harmed more people in the long-run?” While there is no easy silver-lining to this kind of tragedy, she continues to find comfort in the words of a friend who once told her that “any God worth His salt can handle your doubt.” Right now she says she feels a bit obliterated – just sitting in the ashes.

It’s good to grieve,” Jimmy says – “It’s way more honest. I’m quick to want to bounce back in as a hopeful romantic, a hopeful warrior, and make a difference. But I hope that when we see abuse, something in us doesn’t want to run, but instead wants to enter in and be part of the reformation.”

Alanna asks: “In concrete terms, what do you think leads an institution to become diseased?

Jimmy: “Lack of transparency. I think that’s the disease of any human soul. As soon as we’re living a double life we become trapped. I myself lack transparency. I see all the light, I see all the shadows – the capacity for goodness and triumph, as well as the effect of the darkness. As much as i buck up against institutions naturally, at the end of the day, I think there’s an opportunity for me to be humbled. To sit in the ashes, grieve, and then – to fight. To fight for the abused, for those who have been stolen from in horrible ways.”

Alanna responds, expressing appreciation for Jimmy’s commitment. “Your commitment inspires me. For my part, when something deeply troubles me, I try to compensate for the sadness it causes by becoming hyper-rational about it. Sometimes this rationalism is more like cynicism, though: and, for me, cynicism often hides a broken heart. It feels strong, and it feels practical;  but underneath it there’s crippling disappointment. I recognize this as a mechanism that isn’t always super helpful.” She goes on – “When you’re talking about an institution – whether it’s the Church, politics, or even a family – sometimes it is necessary for a person to step away in order to heal, to make boundaries, to reassess. I think it would be naive and tone-deaf to not acknowledge that that is part of the healing process for some people. If you’ve been traumatized or abused, you might need to step away – and that’s okay.

She reiterates her appreciation for Jimmy’s optimism, which reminds her of the fact that there are other perspectives she can lean into when she finds herself feeling bogged down by the temptation to shrug in resignation at the ugliness of humanity.

In closing, Jimmy affirms the importance of asking the hard questions, as well as being honest as to where one is at in their own healing process. Alanna invites listeners not to isolate themselves as they work through the disillusionment of institutional failure, and to reach out and email her even if just to bounce ideas back and forth.

Listen to Scott Mulvahill’s song “Begin Againers” and Alanna Boudreau‘s song “Young Man (Clear Eyes)” on Love Good’s Exclusive Fall Sampler!


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