UNLIMITED LIABILITY. . .

Greenleaf writes: Love…begins with one absolute condition: unlimited liability!  As soon as one’s liability for another is qualified to any degree, love is diminished by that much.  …Institutions are designed to limit liability.  …any human service where he who is served should be loved in the process, requires community, a face-to-face group in which the liability of each for the other and all for one is unlimited, or as close to it as it is possible to get.  Trust and respect are highest in this circumstance and an accepted ethic that gives strength to all is reinforced.  Where there is not community, trust, respect, ethical behavior are difficult for the young to learn and for the old to maintain. 

In his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that ‘love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.’  Rilke’s definition gets me as close as I can to Greenleaf’s concept of ‘unlimited liability.’  As I sit here this morning reflecting upon Rilke’s definition of ‘love’ and Greenleaf’s concept of ‘unlimited liability’ I shudder.  Talk about a challenge!  For me, the term ‘daunting’ does not begin to capture the immensity of the two challenges these two men invite me to engage. 

Greenleaf indicates the depth of the challenge when he continues with ‘Institutions are designed to limit liability.’  If this is so, then how can love emerge and flourish?  Greenleaf’s response is contained within the concept of ‘community.’  If an institution is committed to becoming a ‘working-learning-serving-loving-spirit filled’ community rooted in ‘trust and respect’ then perhaps ‘unlimited liability’ is within reach.  As if this were not enough, Greenleaf sneaks in another challenge: ‘ethical behavior.’ 

The metaphors that an institution has integrated will greatly determine whether Greenleaf’s idea is feasible – and possible.  If an institution has integrated a mechanical metaphor – that is, ‘We are the great machine and people are the cogs in the machine!’ then it seems to me that love and community are not possible – at best people are cyborgs, they are not fully human beings.  There are institutions today that have integrated the mechanical metaphor (a left-over metaphor from our industrial age).  More likely, today’s institutions have integrated a ‘banking metaphor.’  People are commodities, assets and resources to be used.  Just as in the Mechanical Metaphor, in the Banking Metaphor, people are not fully human beings. Consider, gentle reader, that the statement: ‘People are our most important resource or asset or commodity’ is a contradiction for resources, assets and commodities are not human elements and hence they cannot be fully human beings.   

It is crucial for us to remember that the metaphors we use, plus the words we infuse, plus the questions we muse will, together, determine the paths we choose. 

If an institution seeks to choose a path of love, of community, of ethical behavior then the integrated metaphors, plus the words chosen plus the questions framed become crucial.  Where these three are in alignment, congruency resides, as does ‘being authentic’ and ‘being consistent.’  How many institutions intentionally and purposefully discern, emerge and name their integrated metaphors (and the words and questions they use to support them)?  How many consciously decide that these are the metaphors, the words and the questions that best serve us?  

What does ‘best serve us’ mean?  Does it mean what Greenleaf means: Do those served grow as persons?  How many organizations have, as their bottom line the growth of persons? 

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