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The Problem With Parables

The problem with parables is that they are less like stories to be told and more like canvasses to be painted. The parable I will repeat below is not from any sacred text, nor any collection of ancient wisdom. Rather it is a modern parable, a parable for our times. It is The Parable of the Green Iguana.

First though, some scene setting...

I arrive at the house near Bodega Bay mid afternoon on the final day of the Group 4 Verger Retreat*. The Vergers had completed their "performance" the day before in which they presented themselves to their community, and made some powerful declarations about how they would be different - more decisive, more impactful, more present - than perhaps they had been before joining On The Verge the year before. So, the question on everyone's minds was: Now what?

The group had invited me to join them on this last part of their journey, and I was charged with helping the staff craft a powerful culminating activity for that evening. So, off we went for a walk on the beach at about five in the afternoon to design the activity that would begin at about seven. Just in time planning.

As the four of us - Roger, Leslie, Diana and myself - walked along the edge of the surf, I raised questions about initial intent. What was/is the purpose of the On The Verge (OTV) program? Why did they begin this process of bringing together emerging young leaders in the not-for-profit world to experience an intense year of self-discovery and community building? What intention did they hold for each "Verger" as they completed this phase of OTV? A valuable conversation ensued from that.

Each reminded the other about the "leadership gap" that is looming in the field. How many of us boomers will be aging out of this particular system and aging into retirement, or post retirement, sometime within the next fifteen to twenty years. We spoke of the need for these young leaders to be ready to take over the reins of these organizations, to continue the work that benefits so many people in the world. And then the conversation shifted.

It is not enough to merely develop new leaders for these organizations. It is essential that the leaders be much more creative in their approach to the work; that they create the unimaginable, not just sustain the already imagined. They will be inheriting a world where thinking inside a box will be like thinking inside a coffin. And that is when the parable came into the conversation.

As a way of focusing everyone's attention on this new paradigm, I told them the story of the Brown Iguana. It goes something like this...

There came a time not so many years ago when a boy decided to have a pet iguana. He brought the iguana home and took excellent care of it. He fed it regularly. Made sure the iguana had water. He did all the things that a boy should do when caring for an iguana. Since iguanas are carnivores, he was careful to feed his pet lots of meat along with some veggies. And he did such a fine job of it that his iguana had a beautiful brownish patina to it. Very distinctive.

As it happened, the boy was moving to a new city and could not take his iguana with him. So, he took the brown iguana to an animal preserve to see if they would take it in and care for it. They did of course, but were very curious about the brown color. They had never seen such an iguana. It was when the boy remarked that he fed his iguana meat along with some vbegitables every day that the manager of the preserve told him that iguanas were herbivores and not carnivores. And so the brown iguana joined the other iguanas in the preserve's terrarium. Its green patina even more distinctive along side the brood of green iguanas already there.

A few months later the boy returned to town and went off to the preserve to visit his iguana. When he got there, he looked everywhere for his iguana, but to no avail. There were no brown iguanas there now. They were all green iguanas, and he could no longer identify which one was his. To him all the iguanas looked exactly alike.

It is, as the Italians say, a good story, even if it is true. Well, true more or less.

Now here is the problem with parables. When I completed the story, I thought I had made such an impactful point that the entire design for the evening would flow like a waterfall, and all we would need do is cup our hands and capture the most important bits, and we would be well on our way. Except for one thing, that is - not all of us heard the same story.

My version of the story went something like this:

Before the boy had raised his iguana as a carnivore, the idea of a brown iguana was unimaginable. This brown iguana was the result of, albeit naïve, but still out of the box thinking. The brown iguana is a symbol of this new kind of leader, a leader the likes of which the world has never seen. And then, tragically, the iguana returns to the "real world" of iguanas. He becomes like all the other iguanas, indistinguishable, business as usual. You get the idea.

It turned out that there was another story being told at the same time. The other story went something like this:

There once was this iguana who had been raised a carnivore, and was deprived of some of its essential nutrients for some time. This was done innocently, but nonetheless the brown iguana was forced to live in a state of deprivation, at least as far as nutrition was concerned. Fortunately for the brown iguana, the boy brought his pet to a skilled professional who knew what iguanas needed to thrive. The iguana, now in a culture that would support its iguana-ness, became a herbivire, a vegitarian, who could become the powerful iguana it was meant to be.

There was a stunned silence when the three of us (matters not who the other two were) who held fast to the "truth" of the first version encountered another way to hear the story. So, just what were we up to with these Vergers? Were we interested in creating brown iguanas, who would be in and of themselves manifestations of unimagined possibilities? Or were we more focused on finding a way for each of these Vergers to find their authentic "inner iguana", and become passionate vegitarians in the world?

By this time in our walk it was getting near the dinner hour, and we had still not come to an agreement on the design for the evening. Yet, strangely we had. We each had the experience of being positioned into looking at the parable in one particular way - the right way. The parable allowed us to break that frame, and enter into a conversation about being the change we wanted to see in the world by being the change we wanted to see in the Vergers.

When the evening activity began, we set the frame for what we hoped to accomplish and a structure for how we thought we might proceed. To be sure, given our experience on the beach, no mention was made of iguanas, neither green nor brown. After we made our design proposal, the Vergers had other ideas - better ones actually. They entered into a deep dialogue about both their fears and aspirations, as they were about to reenter a culture that is not primed in the least to receive them. They made specific requests of each other. And by articulating what they needed to sustain themselves in this new Verger culture, they became even more aware that they were in fact building on the very culture that they began creating almost exactly a year before.

As the evening progressed, it became clear to me that some of the Vergers were brown iguanas and some were green iguanas. The important insight I left the evening with was that most all of the Vergers were passionate iguanas eager to change the terrarium.

So, perhaps the parable was not so troublesome after all.

* If you don't know about Vergers, keep reading. It will be a bit clearer in a paragraph or two. And if you want to learn more about On The Verge, you can find it here.


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Edd, I love this story. It reminds me that I can never know or assume to know what someone else is thinking.

Edd, I second Rachel's post. The story's also a good reminder about the value of asking if there's another way of looking at something, of flipping the perspective. And it's a question that's so easily forgotten a lot of the time. A line that stuck with me was "inheriting a world where thinking inside a box will be like thinking inside a coffin." Think for a change indeed.

I also couldn't help flashing on my first year of college when my roommate had a small, green pet iguana. But that's another story....


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