Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dancing With Elephants, Part 2

Reason #2 For the Recent and Alarming Contemplation of Elephants:


The summer before my freshman year of high school, I did that of which all young teen-aged girls dream. I moved with my family to Shenyang, China. Who wants to play varsity soccer when you can move to one of the northernmost provinces of a country that's as far away from home as you can imagine? Who wants to spend hours chatting with friends on the phone about who might "go out" with you when you can live nestled between North Korea and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War? And really, who wants to start their adolescent individuation process anywhere but in a city of millions with only 40 or 50 expats in the whole city? As it turns out, I did, but more on that another time.

While we lived there, reading material in English was pretty scarce. We traded books and magazines around among the other expats and waited desperately to see what the diplomatic pouch brought. I used to read the telex (Remember telexes? No? Oh well.) updates from the consulate just to have something to read. I was so desperate that I read my parents' subscription to the international version of Time Magazine. (The international version is moderately better than the domestic version, but only moderately.) Of all the things I read in those magazines, I forgot them all except one and that was an advertisement for something. It was a beautiful watercolor picture of a fragmented elephant with four small figures standing before it. I have no idea what it was advertising, but it included the story of the Four Blind Men and the Elephant. I was young and naive and I'd never heard the story before and it kind of blew my mind. It goes something like this:

Four blind guys walk up to an elephant, each standing near a different part of it, and describe it.
The first blind guy has the trunk and says: "Dude, it's some kind of gnarly, hairy hose with nostrils. It must be a water delivery system."
The second blind guy has hold of the ear and he says: "You are so wrong. It's flappy and large and flat and leathery and would make a fetching pair of pants."
The third blind guy is fondling the leg: "Shut up, you nonce. It is obviously a tree with toenails of some sort. I'm feeling its wide and sturdy trunk right now."
The fourth blind guy is on the tail end and sadly says: "It's a kind of a rope and it reeks of poo."
And the elephant says: "I wish you imbeciles would quit groping me."

So, I may have paraphrased that a bit, but you get the general idea. We, like the blind men, often just have hold of what's directly in front of us. We can describe it and feel it and see it as the whole world, but it's only a part of a much larger whole. None of the blind guys were exactly wrong in their conclusions as far as they went, but they were missing the point.

There is the truth of the elephant. It is a large land mammal with a trunk and big floppy ears and sometimes tusks and a funny rope-like tail. Elephants are so many other things, too. They are amazing creatures with intelligence and memories. Aristotle said they were "the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind". They are strong as all get out and they have no natural predators. There is the truth of the elephant, and then there are the elements of truth of the elephant. They have a long trunk that spews water, so the Blind Guy 1 was right. And Blind Guy 2 was right about their ears being large and flappy and possibly about the pants. Ditto, Blind Guys 3 and 4 - large sturdy legs and a small tail and poo. But they were all wrong, too.

A few weeks ago, M at the M-Half of the M-n-J Show wrote a Thinky Thursday post about Truth. What is it? Is it absolute? How do we know when we've found it? Certainly a lot of thinky. It made me remember that old advertisement I cut out of a Time Magazine in my formative years and laminated and hung on the wall by my bed. (Hey, some people had Shaun Cassidy or Simon LeBon, I had a Time Magazine elephant. I never said I was cool.) I think we all grasp bits of truth. I think we read the braille of our lives and make the most sense of it that we can. But I also believe there's an elephant: the solid beast who is living just outside our field of vision. If you grasp the elephant's tail and feel its thin, rope-like qualities and then pronounce the beast in question a giraffe, you would be wrong. No amount of open mindedness in the world makes an elephant a giraffe. If you grasp a sturdy leg and declare the beast your Aunt Marge, you'd best run and hide because Marge will let you know just how wrong you are. There are consequences to pay for that kind of wrongness. Regardless of the similarities its parts may bear to other things, only an elephant is an elephant.

I believe in absolute truth. I believe it is the challenge of humanity to grasp these bits of truth, understand them and then step back out of ourselves to figure out how they all fit together as a whole. I believe this is achievable and knowable by anyone who cares to try. I believe in elephants.

20 comments:

  1. You are an amazing writer !!

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  2. Thank you, Judy. I really appreciate you saying that!

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  3. I believe in elephants too. So well written!

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  4. On January 10, 1972, I entered the military, forty yeas ago today. I served sixteen months in South Korea,The Land of the Morning Calm. I brought back a hand carved elephant, that stands about sixteen inches high. It is still on the book shelf in the pool room. Your observations are very accurate, and it's a long way from home. Thank you again for the posts.

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    1. You are welcome and thank you for your kind words. Perhaps your elephant has been at home these last 40 years and he, too, was a long way from home while in South Korea.

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  5. Wonderful post.
    I recently heard a quote that said, 'Just because you don't believe it, doesn't mean it isn't true'.

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    1. Thanks. That is a magnificent quote.

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  6. I have also been stewing on that Thinky Thursday post. I highly doubt anything I come up with can touch this. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. You are welcome for sharing. You flatter me, though. I would love to see what sort of stew you've made.

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  7. Have you read any Robert Anton Wilson?

    "Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don't even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality." – Robert Anton Wilson

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    1. I have to admit, I have not read any Robert Anton Wilson except in quote form. That is a great quote, too. I want to be quoted when I grow up.

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  8. Oh I love that story! My father uses it as an illustration for one of his sermons about truth. (:
    And in my book, this story with an elephant, would make a much cooler poster than Shaun Cassidy.

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    1. Thank you, I think so too. I always thought it was a little creepy to hang up pictures of cute boys. They look at you.
      I think that story is a mighty fine sermon illustration.

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  9. Grasping the truth is damn hard sometimes. And painful. Many people are not willing to see the truth b/c the struggle to get there is so challenging.

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    1. I completely agree on all counts. But I also believe that things that are challenging and painful are worth doing.

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  10. I'm honored to have my little ol' post mentioned on this, a *real* writer's blog! :-) Truth is truth. Elephants are elephants. I would go a step farther and question whether any of us ever really sees the whole elephant. We think we do. Then, 5 years down the road, we look back and realize we were hanging on to that tail for dear life. "Man, if only I'd known about this leg back then. Now at least I *really* know." 5 more years pass. "Whew, that tail and that leg were powerful stuff to me then. How naive was I to not realize this ear existed?! If only I'd know then what I know now. Surely I have the whole picture now." 5 years later, that trunk is amazing and HOLY CRAP it's part of the same animal that the tail from 15 years ago is!

    Now, I think I totally understand that I will never totally understand.

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    1. I think I mostly agree with you there. Certain truths take on new meaning as you grow and change, but I'm not sure the truth itself has changed, just your capacity to understand it and apply it. I think we will never COMPLETELY understand everything because that would be boring.
      And you're welcome for the mention and I don't know what you mean by "real" writer's blog. Silly.

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  11. @MM, please come by and share your thinky thoughts!

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    1. Yes, please do. They will be nothing if not extremely well considered and enviable and entertaining all at once.

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Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!