Some men were born to be Freemasons. A subset of them actually become Freemasons. A subset of those remain Freemasons. Why is that?
We all know men whom we know would make great Freemasons, and would enjoy the fraternity and craft on a deep and satisfying level, and yet they have no interest in joining. Some have never heard of Freemasonry. Some vaguely recollect that such a thing exists, but it has never registered to them as something worth considering. Some know what it is, but have not met a Freemason whom they'd like to be like (and the Fraternity usually ends up molding men into certain forms, the deeper they commit themselves to the moral and symbolic practice of the Craft). Some know Freemasons whom they admire and whom they know to be Freemasons, but have not overcome the inertia that comes with starting a new endeavor. Some want very much to be Freemasons someday, but not yet.
Some men become Freemasons, but never find any kinship within their lodge, and eventually stop attending, and later stop paying dues. Some men dive in deep, volunteer for everything, join every appendant and concordant body they discover, and burn themselves out. Some rise up the chairs, and do the duties of each office with great integrity, and discover a deficit between what other brothers' commitments are and their own, and grow resentful, and leave. Some run smack into a wall.
Sometimes that wall is a lodge's resistance to changing structures that might not be working effectively anymore. Sometimes that wall is a cabal of grumpy Past Masters who refuse to relinquish control even when they are no longer serving the lodge well. Sometimes that wall is a series of procedures and protocols that seem to exist to impose arbitrary authority rather than to help men practice Freemasonry.
I was born to do mathematics, and yet I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. Why?
I was an ace in mathematics in high school, and majored in math during my freshman year of college, but my math department was too small, and they couldn't teach me the kind of math I wanted to learn, so I dropped out of school. When I went back to college, it was as an English major because I know I could find the kinds of teachers I wanted in English.
Years later, I went to graduate school to get a teaching certificate. On the first day of school, the administrators told me that the schools were glutted with English teachers, but had a bad shortage of math teachers, and if I were willing to change my subject matter, they would give me financial aid incentives. I switched to math, and started taking math classes on the side. One math teacher told me that with my aptitude for math, I should consider doing work in mathematics. I took all the classes required for a major in pure mathematics in five quarters, and then entered a Master's degree program in math.
In my Master's program, I had brilliant, inspiring teachers who helped me reach a significant level of mathematical maturity. When I entered my Ph.D. program, I ran smack into a wall.
I was 32. Everyone else in the first year of my program was 22, and had come directly from a Bachelor's program. My school had no idea how to teach me math, and had no idea how to allow me to do math on my own. There were a series of comprehensive exams on various subjects, with exam questions that were very, very difficult but not always very relevant to the kind of math we were actually going to do. The entire focus of the first two years was to get the students through those comprehensive exams.
I was treated as if I didn't know any mathematics except what my professors taught me at that school. My intellectual curiosity was irrelevant. My previous experiences were irrelevant. My purpose for studying mathematics was irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was passing the exams.
Also, socially, the 22-year-olds I encountered had never had any social interactions with people not their own age. I would have conversations with classmates, and in the middle of the conversation realize that they were flailing because they didn't know how to talk to a grownup. The age gap of ten years, while irrelevant to me, was a big deal to most of them, a gap they couldn't really cross.
I got lonely and frustrated and deeply depressed. Although I had a profound aptitude for doing mathematics, I never felt I belonged the whole time I was working on my Ph.D. I was in the strange situation of having the stated purpose, doing mathematics, which I felt and still feel I was born to do, be irrelevant to my survival at the school. Once that divorce became too explicit, I dropped out.
Freemasonry should be about doing Freemasonry. Freemasonry is a powerful psychological and spiritual system that uses symbolism, memorization, ritual and introspection to transform men's lives for the better. It inculcates true brotherhood, a profound reverence for Deity, a feeling of charity, and makes good men better by its technique. But it is a hazard of the fraternity that extenuating circumstances that have nothing to do with doing Freemasonry often drive men out of the Fraternity.
This can happen at the lodge level, at the Grand Lodge level, or even through an appendant or concordant body. Conversely, any one of these bodies can bring a Mason back to the practice of Freemasonry, and remind him why he joined.
I read about Grand Lodges piling up edicts, rulings, requirements, and prohibitions that really have nothing to do with doing Freemasonry. I see lodges where men are more obsessed with minutiae than with character or brotherhood. We all know lodges where the inclusion of a new 25-year-old Mason would change the culture of the lodge too dramatically. I see lodges where one corrupt Master or secretary chokes the life out of the lodge, and makes each meeting about knuckling under to them rather than doing Freemasonry. We all know men who have been Masons for decades without ever doing any Freemasonry.
Lightfoot rightly warned us that lodges often make it impossible to do Freemasonry within the lodge. We have other structures, like research lodges and lodges of instruction or exemplification, wherein it might be harder to do Freemasonry. We have rules and requirements that might on paper look like they are helping, but in practice alienate men from the actual Craft of Freemasonry. If men feel bullied or pressured or coerced into attendance or participation, why would they continue to volunteer? If you squeeze the Freemasonry out of their Freemasonry, what have you given them?
If you don't give brothers sufficient opportunities to do Freemasonry, you will alienate them and they will leave.
Often with a broken heart, because they were born to do Freemasonry.
New in the Forward: an essay on midlife and Elul
44 minutes ago