Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rows? Circles? It Hardly Matters

Here's a truly random topic for this pre-Christmas week: hierarchy, particularly of the corporate variety. What prompted this is a passage in a book by Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, which was published by one of my favorite publishers in the whole wide world, Jossey-Bass. Not that I'm sucking up or anything. (They really are a great group of people.)

Palmer tells about a corporation that tried to be more egalitarian by removing hierarchical power charts from the walls and rearranging chairs from rows to circles for interdepartmental meetings. The goal was to send the message that everyone's input and place in the company was valuable. But company executives soon discovered that the circles made little difference; employees carried within themselves a clear understanding of their place in the pecking order, regardless of how the chairs were arranged. Palmer wrote:

We can put the chairs in a circle, but as long as they are occupied by people who have an inner hierarchy, the circle will have a divided life, one more form of "living within the lie": a false community.

That this sense of inner hierarchy extends to our personal lives is without question. We often manifest it -- whether knowingly or not -- when we come into contact with those we know to be above or below us in some unspoken pecking order. I wonder: Can we ever truly let go of this inner hierarchy? If so, how? I don't mean in specific circumstances; most of us can recall times when we were humbled by the wisdom of someone less educated or the generosity of someone less prosperous or the compassion of someone less religious. I mean in a more universal, integrated sense of reaching a point of not even knowing that there is a pecking order. If this isn't achievable, does that mean we are doomed to living within the lie and never experiencing true community?

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