Skirting the comfy couch of complacency

Following years of mainstreaming, you don’t hear the word “institutionalization” much any more. That’s not to say it doesn’t go on, including in new and different ways. Just be careful not to call it that.

Nobody wants to be institutionalized. You know, forced to live where you are subject to someone else’s rules and whims because you are either incapable of taking care of yourself or have a colorful history of coloring so far outside of societal lines you can no longer be trusted to hold a crayon unsupervised.

Re-watching The Shawshank Redemption over Christmas break, I noted what happened to the long-time prisoner, Brooks, following his release. During decades in prison, he’d had so much taken care of for him that upon his release, he had lost the ability to function as a free man. 

I’ve seen parolees do the same thing in real life, setting up their apartments to mimic confinement and feeling so out of step with the rhythm of real life they ended up accidentally on purpose re-offending just to get back to the familiarity of lock-up.

Knowing what to expect is a powerful allure, even when you don’t really like it. Years ago, our friend Steve Walker gave us a stray cat he’d found. So we named the cat Walker. Walker Kitty lived for opportunities to escape from the institution we called our home. True to his vagabond nature, Walker was always lurking alongside the sliding door when I carried in groceries, or attempting to break out as I hustled kids in the side door from the car.

Although it didn’t happen overnight, Walker slowly became complacent with the conditions of his captivity. Curling up on a comfy couch trumped sleeping in alleys and cat chow beat the more primitive kill-to-eat instinct. We witnessed the cat’s internal struggle when the slider was open at feeding time. He would walk briskly toward the opening, pause, then head in the direction of his dietary destiny.

Eventually, the cat no longer bothered to eye the exit, let alone gaze at independence. Walker wanderlust waned, replaced by clueless contentment, freedom forfeited for Little Friskies. Mousing grew passé, prowling pre-empted by preferred prissdom. As a slave to sloth, he tolerated us, his captors, as necessary (although not necessarily evil) passports to the good life: Mr. Walker, the kept kitty.

Among humans, we refer to this Stockholm Syndrome as “wearing the golden handcuffs,” the gradual bonding with (and often bondage to) formerly unacceptable jobs and relationships. We slowly become beholden to security and familiarity. Boring, but better than the alternative. We create our own institutionalized set-ups, sans the bars and razor wire.

Losing the desire and/or ability to think outside of the box is another form of self-institutionalization. No longer questioning the “why,” going blindly through the paces; doing more wandering than wondering; making excuses more often than informed decisions; spinning pencils versus putting a spin on our fast ball; following the crowd instead of our instincts; letting luck determine our legacy. They’re all default settings on the same continuum of complacency.

Having fairly recently re-entered the institution of marriage, I worry about complacency’s powerful, blind pull. As philosophers have long observed, love is blind, which renders marriage an institution for the blind. Over time, I’ve watched seemingly normal couples inadvertently start looking, sounding and acting alike. Pampered pussycats no longer recalling the sliding door that opens to other options.

Domestication or institutionalization? They both end with “tion,” as does the word “gumption.” In time, will my husband and I turn into those “partners in the plastic bubble” who have completely lost touch with the outside world? To be safe, we try to not take one another and couplehood for granted. I’m not to regularly do his laundry, and outside of thoughtful gestures, he is not to perform overly responsible acts for me that might foster a slackerlike spousal dependence within me.

We’re a team. While there’s no “I” in TEAM, there is a “ME.” May we continue to remember our pre-marital “mousing” behavior and allow that ability to keep us appreciative and respectful of the big comfy couch of couplehood.


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