In an ancient Hindu fable, six blind men encounter an elephant for the first time. Each man touches a different part of the elephant’s body with vastly different conclusions. The version of this story in poetic form was a beloved children’s picture book I remember fondly. As I contemplated our tenet this month on seeking knowledge and wisdom, I found this ancient story still a timely source of both these virtues. Here are a few verses from the complete poem by John Godfrey Saxe:
THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
We too will inevitably be “in the wrong” when we insist that the complete truth of an issue resides exclusively in our own perspective. This stubborn blindness prevents us from gaining greater knowledge, and ultimately wisdom, earned by considering alternative viewpoints and insights.
I have found it so useful to let go of my “tusk” view, calm down, take a breath, and really listen to someone else’s experience and perspective. I often start by listening to someone I genuinely admire who holds different views from mine and work out from there. This helps me not only understand their viewpoint better, but I also acknowledge their worth, conclusions, and opinions. I can add their “wall” view to my “tusk” view and come closer to more complete wisdom regarding the issue.
Another piece of wisdom I recently acquired is one word which also originated in India: “Namaste.” We bring our hands together with a slight bow and gently conclude our yoga class with this expression that roughly translates to, “I honor the Diety within you.” If we really want to capture the panoramic view of the “elephant” issues we are grappling with, we must see the innate worth of every person we encounter and consider each perspective as a means to enhance ours. It’s a sure prescription to prevent and treat acquired blindness. Let “Namaste” open your eyes and your heart.