The Elephant in Our Midst

A simple story can teach so much.

I love this one …

A group of blind folk heard that a strange animal had come to town. None of them were aware that this particular animal existed and they were excited to learn about it. So, upon encountering this new marvel, they began to inspect it by touch — a way of knowing that came easily to them. Each blind person began to touch the part of the elephant closest to them.

When asked to describe this strange animal, each referenced the part they were touching. One said an elephant is long and squirmy like a thick snake — his hands were on the trunk. Another was certain that an elephant is like a fan: broad, soft, and a bit floppy — describing the elephant’s ear. And so on.

Each blind person was convinced they knew what the elephant was based upon their personal experience of it, despite what any of the others claimed.

From here, the parable could go in a number of directions.

The blind folks could dig into their individual certainties and argue about what an elephant is — to the point of essentially tearing the elephant into pieces.

Traditionally, the parable ends here, to be used as a metaphor for the errors of moral relativism and religious intolerance — errors the world has in abundance right now.

A more open and curious alternative could be this: the blind folks share their points of view with one another, agree to disagree about what an elephant is, and go on their merry ways to create any number of varying stories about the creature — without making one another wrong or tearing the elephant apart. Not ideal. But shows a bit of progress.

There is one other option.

What if the blind folks were to know up front that they were touching different parts of one whole animal? What if they were invited to explore a way to coordinate their perspectives into an integrated view — a view that describes the elephant in its wholeness and its parts?

I prefer this third option. Among other things, it evokes the possibility for curiosity to be sparked in the participants. And I wonder what this story would need in order to make such an ending possible.

I imagine weaving into the tale a sighted person — a kind and gentle sort who would assure the blind that they were touching something bigger than any one of them could ever capture with one set of hands.

Would this be too simple a solution — nice on paper but unbelievable in real life?

After all, the blind ones would have to become aware of the sighted one, consider the input, and learn to trust a perspective they could never have on their own.

Imagine yourself watching seven-plus billion people grope an elephant, each either believing they know what it is, dying to know what it is, needing to know what it is, knowing they don’t know but pretending they do, or aware that their view is limited but are scared to open to a bigger view.

Imagine them pushing and shoving, tugging and tearing, screaming and shouting — as you stand aside and watch.

Now imagine that the elephant represents the human story.

What if you were able to see what’s happening to the human story in real time? What if you could then share this perspective with all the gropers?

Let’s be honest.

In any given moment, you and I are neither blind nor sighted. We are both. There is no “other” to blame, and no savior with enhanced vision coming to rescue us.

It’s unlikely that the blind would wake up and change their behavior all at once. Seven billion is a lot of people. But the more we’re willing to take the time to consider our groping and reorient our intentions, the more likely our story would change.

Instead of attempting to control the future or pin it down, we could begin to share with one another what we are experiencing in the present and how it is impacting us.

Let’s face it, we are confused about what it means to be a global human family, how to be with one another, how to collectively weave a story that future generations might thrive in.

Ironically, technology has created the ideal tools for us to step back and witness all that is happening. But technology is also tearing us apart — promulgating false data, instigating factions and violence, opening avenues for unbridled harassment, and usurping our amygdalas so that we can’t even think straight.

Technology is our modern means of ripping the elephant to shreds, but it’s not the tool that is the problem. It is our impulse to shred. Our bare hands would do.

We’re living on a crowded planet, contending with a global pandemic, confronted with climate changes, facing extreme resource depletion, struggling with drastic wealth inequality and grave social injustices.

Can we find a way to agree that things are anything but okay, normal, or “getting back to normal” anytime soon?

Can we slow down and step back to get perspective on everything that’s happening?

Can we create the conditions for passionate respectful dialogue and shared inquiry and curiosity?

These are all possible, even happening.

However…

It’s more likely we’ll be able to enact these strategies if we apply them to our personal selves as well.

Our internal landscape is also made of a bunch of blind folk in the form of ideas, beliefs, desires, trauma, genetics … all battling for control and supremacy over our lives and the choices we make — each claiming that their view is the clearest and the one we should act on.

Here’s the good news — there is a sighted one inside of us, too.

This aware self is capable of coordinating the numerous desires. This one can help us open to a bigger picture — relax into the reality that even we ourselves are too big for ourselves to grasp.

Some traditions call this internal sighted one the soul. Other names for it are the still small voice, the whisper of God, or the guidance of angels. In science, it’s simply a neural pathway or a developed brain function.

Whatever your name for it, see if you can tap into it right now — the you inside yourself that can see yourself.

Then …

See if you can engage a meaningful dialogue with the parts inside of you that are antagonistic to one another.

For example, maybe you have one inside who wants to help the underprivileged, and one who’s scared and wants to hold on to all that you have worked for in your life in the form of power, influence, and possessions. Or maybe you have one inside who wants to negotiate social justice, but there’s also one who is rageful and wants revenge. Likely you have a self who demands ice cream over the one who knows your body would like some broccoli.

You get the picture.

These competing selves exist inside all of us.

All of us.

Many personal development programs claim that we must clean up our internal act and then the world will change. I disagree. Our individual internal chaos is not the cause of the external mayhem. It is simply one part of it. The community work must be done simultaneously with the personal work.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

The complexity of these factors — internal and external, alongside the pace and uncertainty of life in 2020, is overwhelming the majority of us.
When considering personal life changes or being of service to a better life for all, we often don’t know where to start or how to tend to the underlying anxiety we feel.

I myself often feel stuck these days — not sure what to do, who to talk to, how to engage, what cause to support, or which tweet to denounce.

But I remain frozen only when I presume I’m the blind person and it’s up to me to grasp the entire elephant. I can see my tendency to believe that if only I could grasp the entire elephant then I would know where to go, what to do, and how to help. I can see this through the eyes of the sighted one.

Maybe for you immobility is rooted in lack of self worth, debilitating physical or psychological challenges, or plain old exhaustion.

No matter the root of our angst, truth is, the only way to comprehend the entire elephant is for each of us to engage the blind person next to us and ask them what they are experiencing. Then to really listen. Then to imagine their story and to wonder about how it relates to ours … how our stories might be woven into one another’s.

I know I must also do this courageous act internally — to become aware of the many conflicting internal drives and judgements within me. To allow these parts to talk to one another. To awaken my personal internal non-judgemental witness … the self that can see all my internal voices and help guide me to right action.

It is through a sincere and dedicated — and possibly structured — process of internal and external inquiry that our human story will write itself anew. Without such an inquiry, the odds are less than 50/50 that we will survive as a species. Our story might end.

There were periods in human history when a crossroads was encountered — when so much was at stake for those alive at the time. When we study history well, we can see that those times were not “resolved” — managed through grasping onto what had been or trying to control what was to come. The Renaissance comes to mind, specifically the resurgence of the Neoplatonic worldview and it’s expansive perspective on what it means to be human. Those times were galvanized by the courageous people who were willing to let go of what had been driving progress up to that point, and to look again.

This is one of those times.

Facing our mortality as an individual forces us to examine our life. Facing our potential extinction as a species just might help us examine the future of our human story.

We must consider what is driving us and where we are headed. We must explore those considerations individually and with one another.

Business as usual is not an option. It’s equivalent to the first ending in the traditional elephant parable.

To mix metaphors … the real elephant in the room is that the second ending of our parable is also not an option — the one where each blind man goes off to grow their own faction. Many believe that we can get through this moment in human history by agreeing to disagree and running off to build our own little empire based upon our interpretation of what an elephant is.

Well, we can’t.

It won’t work.

Only the third option will see us through.

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