A few years ago, I was asked to train a mixed group of a dozen or so new staff in an expanding claim office. About half were experienced adjusters hired from other insurance companies. Skilled negotiators and problem solvers, they needed only to learn the company’s IT systems and procedures.
The rest were promotions from within the company’s own “fast track” unit, handling straightforward fender benders. They were masters of procedures and technology, but needed to learn the nuances of coverage, liability and valuing things with no price tags, like arms and legs, time and companionship.
Throughout the week, I felt crushed by the fortress of the Claims Procedural Manual that hemmed in these young upstarts. They succeeded on the conveyor belt of claim handling because they steadfastly followed a scripted code of “if-then.” Within precisely metered scenarios, they knew exactly when to say yes and when to say no. They could rattle off the approved vendors for any city in the nation. The multiplier to depreciate a Toyota’s headlight sat ready at the tip of their tightly lashed tongues.
But they couldn’t stray from the prescription even when following it would prove disastrous. Loosed from their strict robotic tethers, they froze at the one thing a successful adjuster (or a successful anyone, for that matter) must be able to do: the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. As Anne Sexton wrote,
But suicides have a special language
Like carpenters they want to know which tools
They never ask why build.
They’d been squeezed through management’s portal of rigid procedures until the core claims principle — Pay what we owe: not a penny more, not a penny less — was less an undergirding philosophy than an exact dollar amount calculated by simple algebra.
In the final chapters of The Heart Aroused, David Whyte follows Coleridge’s haunting vision of a flock of starlings in our unending quest for order amid chaos.
The starlings drove along like smoke . . . misty . . . without volition — now a circular area inclined in an arc — now a globe, now . . . a complete orb into an ellipse . . . and still it expands and condenses, some moments glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening! (p. 216)
According to Whyte, the flock, “a powerful personality without a solid identity,” might describe the modern corporate workplace, always shifting and changing in the face of volatile markets, continuous improvement, and breakneck technology. Our kneejerk response to the chaos may be to yank and stretch it into clean linear order. But he calls us instead to embrace the vital intertwining of chaos and order, and more, to live in the boundary waters flowing between the two.
Computer modeling shows that scenes such as Coleridge’s glorious starlings do not appear from regulated efforts to “form a flock” but from accumulated individual action surging within a few simple parameters. This beautifully (un)orchestrated movement is the result of interrelated parts responding to the shifts of others.
Allowing the science of complexity — and the poetic tradition — to play out naturally in the maze of our cubicle floors is to “fold meaning into the simplest elements and allow complexity to emerge from their natural self-generation.”
Within our organizations, Whyte says, we strangle innovation and creativity, ordering complexity away through repressive rules and protocols.
It is astonishing to witness the human ability to . . . take on every possible kind of experience in an ordered, burdensome way, as if we could not countenance the possibility of standing upright for a single moment, freed from the extra weight of the structures we love to carry with us. A simple love for the purity of the piano becomes a schedule of lessons we can no longer fit into our schedule. A step toward a subject for which we have a passion becomes a costly exercise in college fees and course requirements . . .” (p. 254)
Whyte wants me to believe my trainees were not “herbivorous animals about to stampede out of control unless you are constantly riding the herd.” Given a clear set of boundaries coupled with freedom to adapt and imagine, perhaps they could look like a spectacular flock of starlings on the move. Wordsworth wrote,
There is a dark invisible workmanship
that reconciles discordant elements
and makes them move in one society.
I almost get the idea he wants us to trust folks.
Is such trust reasonable? Is it even possible? What do you think? We conclude our discussion of The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul today. Our new book club begins April 4th, featuring Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing. Come along?
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $2.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In March we’re exploring the theme Angels.