Friday, November 19, 2010
Viewing the Elephant
An Indian story is often told about several blind folks trying to describe an elephant to each other. One is feeling the elephant's leg, and says "the elephant is like a tree". Another is holding the elephant's tail and describing it as a rope. A third is touching the trunk, telling the others it is like a snake. And so on. I imagine that many have heard the story. And I have often heard it told in the context of the limitations any of us have grasping the Truth, or God. That is, God is so big, so vast, that any one of us will only ever comprehend a small portion of who/what is the divine.
I was reminded of this story the other day when I was listening to interview with religion scholar Stephen Prothero (author of God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter). In the course of the interview, he pointed out that whether we are faith-full people (i.e., believers), or people of no faith (i.e., atheists), we spend way too much time trying to convince the other of our position. He pointed out that both religious folks and atheists ought to agree on one thing: religions matter. And the question arose for me: "What if we simply granted that, and went forward?" Fire-and-brimstone preachers will not convince the (so-called) "New Atheists" to repent and attend church any more than the "New Atheists" will convince the preachers to give up their flocks and start dancing, drinking and playing cards on Sunday. So much hot air trying to convince the other of our view of the elephant!
So, to return to that elephant. As I mentioned, the story is often told to highlight our limited view of the divine. I'd like to turn it around a bit. Each of those folks touching the elephant had his or her own experience of the elephant. For example, the one who was holding the leg, thinking it a tree, may have found security; the one at the trunk/snake may have been frightened. How could one convince the other that their experience was definitive? I recall at this point, the factoid that clowns are often scary to some small children (despite Ronald McDonald's happy meals!). Although MY experience with clowns may be that they are funny and harmless, I cannot change a frightened child's experience through debate and argument. It would probably be much better for the child if I simply listened to his or her story.
Many of us, I suppose, have had the experience of trying to retell the story of a vacation. In the middle of my recounting what we could see from the hotel room, one of the others who were there would interrupt, with "No, that's not what was outside the window. It was a BIRD, not a mountain!" Or my sense of the Rocket Coaster ride may have been stomach-turning, while my friend's might have been exhilharation. Well, it may have been both, but we certainly experienced the situation differently. And, if we could cease arguing over who's experience was right, our listener might have a richer understanding of our vacation.
Golly, do I expend a lot of energy trying to convince others I'm right. The only thing about which I'm right is my experience-it's mine, and will probably never be anyone else's. There are other experiences out there that will never be mine, but I'd certainly like to hear about them. My world will certainly be richer.
The elephant is there. Let's talk about how we experience it. And learn-and celebrate-how complex our experiences might be.