Describing an elephant

8:27 PM





A story is told about a group of blind men who happen to cross paths with an elephant, and of course, they attempt to answer the question, what is it? Appropriately engaging the senses they possess, the men begin a scratch-n-sniff research style, essentially feeling their way to a definition for "elephant." It isn't a surprise when they come up with entirely different ideas about their subject because they are each bound by a limited and unique perspective. While the truth of the elephant exists, the definitions given by each of these men are subjective and limited by their proximity to a specific element of the animal's physical composition. In other words, alone, each man's version of the elephant can only be partly true. Combined, the men would surely get closer to the whole truth as they discuss and compile their findings.

No one has to be lying, ignorant or unenlightened for everyone in the room to see the world from a completely different perspective. In fact, this is inevitable. We are, every one of us, human information processors, each with our own inner workings, and data that is specialized. If I have always lived in a desert environment surrounded by a variety of snakes, and if I have never seen an elephant before, then it stands to reason that touching an elephant's tail would bring up images of the snakes with which I am familiar. I can only make inferences based on available information and experience. If I have no awareness or background that would allow me to imagine an elephant, then describing an elephant as it truly is would be out of reach.

I used to believe that I was responsible to know and impart absolute objective spiritual truth, feeling guilty for having faith that seemed to wax, wane and differ from others within my faith tradition. I've loosened my grip on that idea, happily. Don't get me wrong, I do believe that absolute objective truth exists. I just don't believe that I am able to see it, understand it or digest it...much less teach it to others. In fact, even though there are teachers I respect and trust, I remain unconvinced that anyone can see the whole picture. The parable depicted above conveys this idea perfectly.

Another study on spiritual perspective can be found in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye, a poor milkman and student of the "good book" listens to acquaintances arguing in his village. One man makes his point, and Tevye admits he may be right. But when another man challenges the first with an equally sound argument, Tevye agrees with the second man, too. A neutral observer asserts that they can't both be right, at which point the frustratingly flexible Tevye finishes his commentary with, "You are also right."

As I approach sixty, I have come to believe that I am only capable of seeing part of the truth from the perspective I have, given my experience and viewpoint. The Bible puts it beautifully: "For now we see through a glass, darkly (like blind men describing an elephant)...now, I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known" 1 Corinthians 13:12. Given this scriptural analysis, how could I possibly believe that I fully understand God or even myself?

We have to accept, and this is terrifying, that we don't know everything. Why is this so uncomfortable especially for those of us who grew up in the framework of spiritual dogma? When we realize that we don't have the whole map in our hands, we can't really continue believing that we're still in control of the journey.

Seriously. I don't believe truth is relative. I believe that from where I sit, and with the limited ability I have to interpret what I see, universal truth is like one of those 5000 piece puzzles, and I'm holding only one or two pieces. In my world, if two people are disagreeing or experiencing conflict over anything, but especially religion or politics, it can't automatically be assumed that one of us is fully wrong, and one of us is fully right. 

Most importantly, how does this belief make a difference in the way I live my life?

  • First, I am released from the notion that fully defining right and wrong is a thing in terms of my access to truth. This acceptance frees me from self-judgement and fear, and and builds faith and surrender into my spiritual practice. If I simply don't know all of the possible answers and outcomes, I have no recourse but to ask for help, and trust in the God I believe in, the one who loves creation at least as much as I love those in my inner circle. 
  • Furthermore, I choose to be skeptical of my own assumptions (conceptual credit to Don Miguel Ruiz and his Fifth Agreement.) I see only in part, like those blind men feeling their way around an elephant. I am experiencing my way through this life, and the only way I can get smarter than my own experience is to talk to others and listen deeply about what they are discovering on their journey. 
  • Finally, my acceptance that I can only see "through a glass darkly" builds openness and empathy into the conversations I have with others, allowing me to lighten my grip on confrontational arrogance and instead, shoot for a stance of humility and respect for the specialized data I can only receive from those outside of my limited perspective

The weird thing about truth is that you just don't see it 'till you see it. In the meantime, humility, faith and cooperation may help. 

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