The Wisdom Page 


A Review of Cliff Havener's book MEANING
by Copthorne Macdonald

Especially interesting to us human beings are those systems of which we ourselves are components. I refer to social systems — societies, organizations, corporations, etc. A fascinating book that focuses on the relationship between people and this type of system is MEANING: The Secret of Being Alive (Edina, MN: Beaver's Pond Press, 1999).

Havener writes about the life-cycle of social systems. He notes that there is always a purpose behind the creation of a social system, and that during the system's formative phase, a materially-grounded system is configured to satisfy the original "spiritual" purpose. Once the system is up and running, it moves into the normative phase, and most established corporations, organizations, and political institutions are currently in this phase of their life cycle. Havener notes that when this shift occurs, there is also a shift in goals: "The goal of the formative phase was to figure out how to materialize the system's intent. The goal of the normative phase is to maximize the efficiency of the forms and processes it created to do that, whatever they were." In the normative phase, the system no longer welcomes change — even change that would better fulfill the original purpose. In this phase the system becomes both resistant to change and increasingly distant from the original purpose that brought it into existence. Havener gives many examples (most from business) of how this plays out in the lives of organizations and their human components. It is not a pretty picture.

If the normative phase continues to its usual conclusion, the system eventually declines and dies. But Havener talks about another possibility, the possibility of moving a system out of its normative phase and into a phase of renewal that he calls the integrative phase. In his words: "The integrative phase means unifying the fragments of the normative phase by recognizing both the spiritual and material states of the system, both its principle complements and its original purpose. It doesn't mean throwing away what exists. It means discovering the meaning behind it. It often means redesigning the system, based on its original intent, to fit current conditions."

MEANING: The Secret of Being Alive is an insightful, thought-provoking book — must reading for anyone interested in bring wisdom and renewal to societal institutions. It can be ordered through the author's web site,

Since the book's publication, Havener and Margaret Thorpe, the book's editor, have written several online articles that apply to the principles outlined in the book to other-than-business situations, including education, psychology, conflict, and communication.