Rearranging the Furniture: A Parable

A certain woman received a letter saying that she had inherited a house from a distant relative.

The house was in a nearby town and, from the pictures included with the letter, was much nicer than the woman’s current home.

According to the letter, there was only one condition for accepting the inheritance.

“The house has five pieces of furniture,” the letter said. “You may position and rearrange these five pieces of furniture any way you like. You may not, however, add any new furniture or alter the existing furniture in any way. To do so will result in the forfeiture of your inheritance.”

The letter went on to assure the woman that, in spite of this condition, she should find the house perfectly to her suiting. “The five pieces of furniture should prove sufficient for your every need.”

Having no family or professional responsibilities, the woman decided to accept the inheritance and moved to her new home the following month. And, just as the letter had promised, she found the house comfortable and well suited to her needs.

For the first year, the woman was content and left the furniture exactly where it had been when she moved in. Eventually, however, she moved the chair in the living room to the kitchen and the bookshelf from her bedroom to the living room. She allowed the furniture to remain this way for six months and then repositioned the bed to the other side of her bedroom. Three months later she moved the lamp. A month after that, she adjusted the position of the table.

At this point, the woman noticed that the newest arrangement had improved her mood slightly. She said to herself, “If this particular arrangement makes me feel a little happier, surely there is some ideal configuration of the furniture that will bring me perfect satisfaction and bliss.”

With that thought, the woman began a determined search for the perfect arrangement of the furniture in her home. Certain that she would soon find the configuration that would bring her perfect happiness, she experimented daily with new placements for the five pieces. A year without noticeable improvements only motivated her to intensify her efforts.

Over the next ten years, the woman continued her search for the perfect arrangement. She dedicated every spare moment to her quest for happiness through the ideal configuration of her five pieces of furniture. She moved, she adjusted, and she stacked. She explored every option she could conceive, but still could not find an arrangement that would bring her perfect bliss.

After those ten years had passed, the woman finally abandoned her pursuit. “I still believe there is some configuration of this furniture that will bring me bliss,” she said, “but I cannot find it.”
With this admission, she moved the chair next to the table and sat down. She took paper and pen and wrote a letter to a nephew who lived in the town where she had formerly resided.
“Dear nephew,” she wrote. “I have decided to give my house to you as an early inheritance. It is a beautiful home and I know it will prove sufficient to your every need. There is, however, one condition to this gift. You see, the house has five pieces of furniture…”

The Lesson

Successful teaching often begins with a constraint exercise that leads us beyond apparent external limitations to the deeper source of learning and fulfillment. For teachers, this requires honest reflection and a genuine, inner connection. It is only through this connection that we can know who we are, what we need, and what we have to offer others. Until we have made this inner connection, there is no amount of rearranging our external connections (our furniture), that will bring satisfying or successful results.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director, TEL Library

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