Long Spoons, culture and change

The allegory of the long spoons is a parable that shows the difference between heaven and hell. Read how it might just apply to the modern workplace for many of us.

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Have you heard the story of the long spoons? It goes a little something like this.

A man was taken on a tour of Hell and was surprised by what he observed. Everyone sat at long tables in a dining room full of an abundance of delicious, fantastic smelling food on the tables.

All the diner’s arms were tied with slats of wood that kept their arms extended so they were unable to bend their arms and feed themselves. Hell was filled with the hungry. Their life was torturous by the fact the food was so close, smelt great and yet they could not eat it.

Then the man visited Heaven and found the same scenario. Long tables, great food and people unable to bend their arms and so put their hands to their mouth to feed.

And yet there was a profound difference.

The people in heaven sat across from each other, focused on feeding the person opposite rather than trying to feed themselves. They were full, content and co-operative.

Many cultures have a variation of this story. In Europe the food is a bowl of stew, in some cultures it’s chopsticks and bowls of rice but the message remains the same. The difference between Heaven and Hell is that the inhabitants of Hell have become only concerned with themselves. In Heaven the focus is on serving each other and so everyone prospers. An extension of the story is that the man returns to Hell to tell the people what he has seen in Heaven. The response he receives is “I’d rather starve than help that other person, I hate them.”

The story serves as a reminder that some people will take whatever they are given and treat each other well despite the circumstances, working to create a pleasant environment. Others, given the same tools to work with create unpleasant conditions for everyone simply by how they treat each other. It’s a simple truth, easily forgotten when we are lonely and it’s easy to feel lonely when circumstances are challenging, stressful and uncertain. We can change our environment simply by extending the best of ourselves to others.

Some of us work in environments that we would describe as Hell whilst others would say their work is Heaven.

The difference between the two may just be our own willingness to forget ourselves long enough to turn our attention to the needs of others. How would you describe your culture at work? Is it full of people extending a little bit of Heaven? Or is it full of people extending and perpetuating Hell?

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