The men are in disagreement about what they “saw.” The first, having touched an elephant’s side thinks the elephant is a wall. The second touches the trunk and thinks the elephant is a snake. The third and the fourth touch the tusk and the leg, and think the animal is a spear or a tree, respectively. The fifth touches the ear and thinks it’s a fan, while the last is certain the elephant is a rope, having touched its tail. Only with the help of the wise prince, who comes to help resolve the argument, are the men able to recognize the full truth – that the elephant is really a combination of all the parts they touched.
There are many different interpretations to the story, but the one I keep coming across and that resonates the most, is the idea that our personal experiences are inherently limited to our own viewpoints, but that the objective truth can be discovered or understood if we open up our worldview to include the perspectives of others.
At the time my daughter received the book, I thought it was a bit pre-mature. After all, what 5 year-old is able to grasp the complexity of this moral? 5 year-olds are fundamentally self-focused in their perceptions of the world around them. It is difficult for them to see things from another’s point of view. Sure enough, after she and I read the book a couple of times, it was discarded to the back of her bookcase. My daughter moved on to more exciting literature like “Captain Underpants” and “Beezus and Ramona”.
I, on the other hand, have come back to it a few times over the past year, and as this season of graduations just rolled past us, I found myself thinking of it again, and starting to appreciate the foresight of the pre-school gift.
These turning points remind me of the deep feelings of excitement and uncertainty as one life chapter ends and another begins. What is around the corner? What new experiences and lessons will the new chapter bring? What challenges will we need to overcome? As we move on to new life phases, from early age to adulthood, we build and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We do it by slowly opening up our worldview to encompass that of others.
My 5 year-old, who today is sure she has all the answers, will realize soon that having an inflexible, rigid approach can only weaken her ability to solve problems, and to experience life in all of its richness and diversity.
Today, she has many blind spots. She has to travel a long way to see the many dimensions of life. Today, when problems and misunderstandings arise, she insists she alone is right. Today, when she has not yet faced any real life challenges, her thinking is at best cute, at worst a bit frustrating.
Tomorrow, it will be profoundly limiting. Tomorrow, I hope she discovers that although she may never have all of the answers, if she learns to listen and accept others’ diverse viewpoints, she will be closer to the wisdom and truth that many of us seek to attain. And perhaps if all of us learned to do that, in our collective wisdom, we would be so much better equipped to consider life’s many clear and hidden problems, those elusive elephants in the room.