Friday, August 27, 2010

The elephant in the room . . .

. . . is a phenomenon we've all experienced. It's that unspoken "difficulty" that pretty much everyone knows is present, but that everyone tacitly agrees NOT to bring up. On the other hand, its presence affects the conversation mightily, often derailing discussions, or preventing resolution of problems.

Couples may dance delicately around issues of finances. Members of organizations may recognize morale problems, but never address them. Families may recognize that beloved Uncle Lodovich sees pink elephants, but no one wants to upset the apple cart by calling him on his drinking problem. The problem is, of course, as long as the elephant remains unrecognized, unnamed, "invisible", it cannot be corralled, tamed, disciplined, domesticated -- or even the source of learning. So the status quo is preserved, perhaps prevnting healing, perpetuating injustices, or creating disasters.

Those who were charged with discovering what happened in the horrendous explosions of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia discovered that there was a culture in NASA that effectively prevented "red flags" the engineers discovered prior to launch from ever making their way up the hierarchical management chain. What, at one time, was a proud history of achievement became dominated by a mantra of "faster, better, cheaper." Delays--those pesky "red flags"-- slowed things down, and ended up costing more . . . so keep them hidden! Many folks within NASA recognized this cultural shift, but were afraid to bring it to light. The effects: disastrous.

This whole issue arose for me earlier this week when I was reading a passage from the gospel of John in which the story is told of people in a crowd disagreeing over whether Jesus was a good man or a menace (John 7.10-13). And while they disagreed with one another, the story reports that no one spoke openly about it for fear of the authorities. For fear of the authorities?! Fear of shaking things up? Even discussing something on which there was no consensus. The only consensus was "don't talk about it publicly."

And then a few days later I was in a meeting where organizational health was in peril because of one rather difficult individual. Pretty much everyone knew that he was inhibiting progress but, since he'd been so influential for so long, no one wanted to call him on his behavior and tactics. The future of the organization was being inhibited for fear of stating the obvious.

Of course, we're all in these kinds of situations all the time. It may be at home, or work. I know that I have been guilty of ignoring the elephant in the room of my own self because naming it might mean that I'd have to make a change. Yet change is the one thing that almost all of us want. Who doesn't say "I wish I were better at . . . " And so we read lots of books ABOUT changing our fitness patterns, or diet, or time management practices. And so we substitute the reading for the doing-- partly because we're still not naming the real elephant. I know I often find external excuses for not dealing with internal issues -- the elephant isn't in MY room!

I understand from talking with my Muslim friends that Ramadan (the month of fasting -- its happening right now!) often brings to light issues that have lain hidden (or ignored) at other times of the year. Some other religious traditions have regular rituals for exposing these hidden, personal, "elephants" in order that they may be addressed (the rite of confession in the liturgical branches of Christianity is an example; the asking of forgiveness during the Jewish High Holy Days is another). Opportunities for growth.

Elephants are big. They take up a lot of room. They can be frightening. On the other hand, they can also be made to be allies in changing things. There's a reason why the Hindu god Ganesha (the elephant-headed god) is the "overcomer of obstacles".

I wonder . . . can we name our elephants, domesticate them, and make change for the better?



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