An Elephantine Misunderstanding

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Image courtesy of GraphicCave.com

This election cycle has brought to mind a classic parable. I’ll share a version from the poet Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.

No one here has ever seen an elephant.

They bring it in at night to a dark room.

One by one, we go in the dark and come out

Saying how we experience the animal.

One of us happens to touch the trunk

A water-pipe kind of creature.

Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving

Back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg.

I find it still, like a column on a temple.

Another touches the curved back,

A leathery throne. Another, the cleverest,

Feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain.

He is proud of his description.

Each of us touches one place

And understands the whole in that way.

The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark

Are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there

And if we went in together, we could see it.

Politics is always about the part of the elephant you’re touching, but Rumi’s description is particularly apt this election season. A friend commented on my last blog: “We know what we know. We know what we don’t know. The problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know.” We may be humble enough to admit a lack of expertise in a few areas,  but we generally can’t imagine the vast expanse of our own ignorance.

We get ourselves into trouble when we believe our own frame of reference is the only one and fill in the blanks with our own assumptions instead of using our collective knowledge to get a bigger picture. He pointed out the trouble, but like the rest of us, he isn’t exempt. We all do it – in our politics and personal lives. Listening and empathizing with another person’s perspective and pain is one of the most courageous and difficult actions we can take as human beings.

Sometimes, our part of the elephant is the only one we’re willing to touch. And that’s okay – for a while, maybe even a long while – but eventually, if we want to make progress as a family, community, or nation, we’re going to have to enter the darkness with our shared light. Think of it as “group enlightenment.” Entering that space together, we’ll no longer be 100% right, but we will have fuller understanding of reality.

Another friend posed the question: “Will America stop listening to the media and start listening to each other?” I don’t know. I hope so, since it’s the only way forward, but I think it’s way too soon for a lot of people who are deeply wounded and defended on both sides. If a respectful conversation isn’t possible this holiday season, maybe it’s okay to take a year off. So much still needs to come to light, from within and without.

Where are you finding light these days and how are you manifesting that light in the world?

Some people are really good at being spotlights, pointing out what needs to be seen. Some are blowtorches, using their heat to skillfully craft something new. Unfortunately, too many of us are still forest fires, burning out of control, destroying everything in our path. But all is not lost! Even forest fires make way for new life in the spring.

I don’t know what kind of light I am. I just know I am called to return again and again to the source of Divine Light. I found one call to action from a wisdom teacher Matthew Wright especially helpful.

Listen deeply, friends. I am no fan of militaristic metaphors used for the spiritual life. Nevertheless, a battle is coming, and is now here. Our weapons are light (sharp, clear-seeing), love (non-judging, compassionate awareness), resistance (refusing to fall backwards into complacency, instead joining the forward movement of evolution on its messy way through struggle and pain), and relationship (holding our hearts open–within our capacity–so as to allow for authentic connection, born of deep and vulnerable listening). As Jesus constantly says in the Gospels – be sober, be vigilant, be watchful. But do not fear.

 

Light.

Love.

Resistance.

Relationship.

Courage.

Pick up your “weapons,” friends and enemies alike, because if we commit to fight with these in our arsenal, we will find ourselves on the same side of the battle more often than not.

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Poetry is a constant source of light these days. This quote is from Ranier Maria Rilke and is currently up on our family quote wall.  

 

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6 thoughts on “An Elephantine Misunderstanding

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. Matthew’s call to action was so helpful’. I have tried unsuccessfully to shake my feelings of dread and Matthew’s words of wisdom helped lift me up. I intend to share with others I know are feeling just like me. Thank you Alison.

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  2. I wish I could “like” this multiple times. Thank you, thank you. Good food for thought and thanksgiving. We do need to hear each other…I’m especially thinking of this as I wonder what will happen at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving table….

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    1. Thanks Shirin. I was definitely hoping that it might help some people right before the holiday, to either give themselves permission to back out, or to try to listen. But I didn’t want it to sounds like we need to listen to hate speech, or demonization. I loved Matthew’s words about Resistance – in some ways that’s the easiest part right now. The Light and Love will be much harder at some dinner tables.

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