My Piece of the Elephant

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Michele Morin -Piece of the Elephant3

Long ago and far away there were six men, wise indeed, but, alas, they were all without sight. An opinionated lot, every one, in the course of their wanderings, they happened to meet an elephant standing squarely in the center of their path.

Feeling duty-bound to report on his discovery, the first wise man gripped one of the massive beast’s sharp tusks and declared, “It is stunning how much an elephant resembles a spear.”

The second wise man, equally confident, reached out until his hands connected with one large and floppy ear. “Nay,” he retorted, “you are mistaken, for ‘tis clear to me that elephantine nature is like that of a fan. Already I feel the cooling of air around me as this fine elephant sweeps back and forth.”

The third wise man could no longer hold his peace, for he had meandered off to the rear and found the elephant’s tail. “Neither a spear nor a fan, my brothers, could take this shape or form. Obviously, an elephant is like a rope.”

And so the story proceeds with one sightless hypothesis revolving around the muscular snake-like trunk, another enthusiastic theory about its tree-trunk legs, and a final proclamation that the body mass was surely a broad and impassable wall.

Each was partially right, but all were in the wrong.

Underneath this ancient story’s observation about human nature lies a chilling truth about the perils of logic. To save time and energy in its quest for certainty, the brain will hide its own biases from itself. Believing in the thoroughness of our research, we immerse ourselves in evidence that does nothing but confirm our preconceptions.

The six wise men had all they needed to correct their narrow perspective: the observations of the other five. A move to the right or to the left, a hand extended to a broader reach, or a question posed to a nearby brother: “What do you mean, it feels like a rope? Here, put your hand on THIS and see what you think!”

Any of these would have changed the whole story.

Research indicates diverse groups have the ability to reveal hidden biases. What this looks like here on the ground is that if I share my piece of the elephant, while also listening to my sister’s thoughts on elephant morphology, we both get a more accurate view of the beast in question.

Diversity is rare in rural Maine, so I have to go looking for it.

My daughters-in-law hail from a different generation and other family cultures, so their gift to me is a fresh outlook on the world. As a mother-in-law in training, it’s crucial for me to remember I’m not the only one who knows how to make a meal, clean a house, weed a garden, or care for a baby.

I worship with women who have lived and served in contexts beyond my own and can keep me from confusing efficiency with innovation. Am I getting better and better at doing something that is no longer relevant or useful? If so, somebody please speak up!

Online communities, authors, and fellow bloggers from around the world enrich my life with their diverse contexts and their views on issues that differ from my own. They remind me that a snapshot of a ball in the air is not the entire trajectory. There’s not a one of us who sees ends, but only middles. The input of others, the influence of time, and the grace of God introduces a kind of humility appropriate to a time-bound creature like me.

Prone to the blindness of seeing singularly and worshiping busily at the altar of our own rightness, we reenact the elephant story in our own time.

“I’ll tell you the nature of racism,” says the well-meaning soul, touching the elephant’s razor sharp tusk.

“Certainly mental illness is a matter of spiritual lack,” gushes the sweet, sheltered sister with the naturally upbeat disposition.

“Addiction? Well, it’s all tied to poverty, of course,” snaps the expert with the clipboard.

“When we stop singing hymns, we’ve stopped worshiping God,” grouses the gray- haired church member, hiking up her panty hose.

When the issue in the room is wide, gray and heavy, when it trumpets its voice and silences everything else within hearing distance, what is my right response? Like the six wise men in our story, will I lay confident hands on one aspect of the issue and announce that I’ve discovered its essence based on my own precious piece of the elephant?

Wisdom is the joyful admission that we don’t know all the answers.

We can’t always tell what is sin, what is good, what is wise, or even what is essentially beautiful, but if we love God and stay close to His Truth, if we have ears to hear each other’s voices and a willingness to reach outside our own safe and cherished verdict, we have begun to learn.

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Michele Morin
I am wife to a patient husband, Mum to four young men and a daughter-in-love, and, now, Gram to one adorable grandboy. My days are spent homeschooling, reading piles of books, and, in the summer, tending our beautiful (but messy) garden and canning the vegetables. I love to teach the Bible, and am privileged to gather weekly around a table with the women of my church and to blog at Living Our Days about the grace I am receiving and the lessons from God’s Word that I am trusting.
Michele Morin

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Michele Morin
  • Amen.

    • Blessings to you, Idelette. And thanks for yesterday’s words.

  • Justine Hwang

    Love this Michele. I noticed my tendency to want to unfollow people on social media that have a view i’m opposed to. Now that I’m aware, I try to lean in, and seek out perspectives that are different than mine, even the ones that make me uncomfortable. As soon as I get too certain, too black and white, about anything, I know I am on a slippery road because I know my view can’t be always and only right. Growing wisdom indeed admits we don’t have all the answers.

    • Saskia Wishart

      OH yes, being conscious to keep others in my social network and my world who are different than I am. That is so hard sometimes, but also, very important.

      • I’m always thankful, Saskia, for the fruit of this in your life as it shows up in your words here.

      • Justine Hwang

        Yes Saskia! Leaning into the uncomfortable is so hard, but so necessary and good.

    • This is why I began listening to NPR a few years ago. I realized that I was surrounded by voices that sounded exactly like my own. Life in an echo chamber is pretty dull. And it’s amazing how often I find myself being thankful for those dissenting voices.

      • Justine Hwang

        With a media studies background, it is concerning to me to see how social media and “news” these days, along with that confirmation bias, is all too easy to surround ourselves with voices exactly like our own, and that’s dull indeed as you pointed out. I’m not sure i’ve gotten to the place of being thankful for those dissenting voices, but you pave the way with your example to me. Thank you.

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  • bethwillismiller

    WOW, Michele, THIS is so GOOD! It reminded me of this excerpt from one of my posts…”Forgiveness expands our horizons, invites us to retrieve the positive, and work through the negative. Is the glass of water half-full or half-empty? The answer depends entirely on how you see it. “How you see it” is called “perception.” There is the story about the blind men and the elephant. Each man named and described the animal according to his experience of touching only one part of the elephant’s body. The man who held the trunk “perceived” the elephant to be a large snake; the man who held the leg “perceived” the elephant to be a sturdy tree. In the same way, we “perceive” life—depending on what our experience is. Our experiences generate our expectations and our perceptions. We interpret life experiences, and we form expectations and perceptions, attitudes and assumptions. All of this activity is the work of the imagination. It is likewise the work of the imagination to reinterpret and reform repeated assumptions and expectations.” https://bethwillismiller.blogspot.com/2014/10/blind-spots-and-imagination.html Many blessings to you, friend!

    • Imagination! Beth, thanks for adding this element to the conversation. I think the church has an uneasy relationship with this God-given attribute, but the truth is that we are made in the image of a creative Creator-God, and it’s this ability to perceive something beyond our immediate experience that saves us — if we let it!

  • Beautiful, Michele! As the years have passed, it gets easier and easier for me to admit that I do not have all the answers. I am learning more now than ever. May we learn from one another and grow in His grace and love.

    • Yes, Joanne, I cringe sometimes when I remember a younger me who was so sure — and so arrogant. I guess one of the fringe benefits of growing older is that widening perspective and willingness to learn from others. Joining you in that spoken prayer for more grace, more love.

  • Vicky Jachimczyk

    It is so comforting, in a sense, to “grab on” to our piece of the elephant, using all the wrong motivations to tell others what it is and how it is to be used. We do this because we become overwhelmed taking in the whole elephant. We become sure that our “known” part can do all we need. This is where God meets us. God has His way of making us “need” to know what the other parts are for because our situations develop and become too complicated to traverse, while holding on to a known that simply can’t help us, anymore.
    We fear letting go and seeking to learn about the other parts because we don’t want to be viewed as unknowledable or narrow minded, but the truth is we do become narrow minded due to our protection of ” self” and how we want to be perceived by others. We become imbedded in our roles to our detriment. But… by the grace of God, He forces us to let go of our “known” and seek to learn how the unknowns are waiting to be known. God gave us the entire elephant for a reason and we must let go of our pride and ask others to teach us about the part they have been blessed to understand. We will be amazed at how, while learning we become teachers! Thank you, Michele for teaching me much this morning.

    • Vicky, I SO appreciate your insights here, and the way you have called us out on our faithless fear. What a gift to know that God is able to meet us in that place of need and to add grace (like a fire hose!) to enable us to venture into the unknown.

      And I think if we discover that we are standing beside others who are also vulnerable and asking questions and wanting to see “the whole elephant,” we are surprised and can enter into our questions with greater joy.

  • Lisa Tindal

    This is absolutely the most beautiful piece I’ve read in a very long time. I wrote a piece similar to this for our local paper about our response to suicide. It was called “The Tragedy of Speculation” and spoke of our biases as a way to shield ourselves form hardship or shame. Thank you!

    • When I read that research on biases, and the deceitfulness of our own brains, I was stopped in my tracks. But then — the offering of a solution in diverse groups is so delightful. I just love a table surrounded by women, all talking, all sharing their thoughts. And, Lisa, I love that you’re here adding your unique insights to this conversation.

      • Justine Hwang

        Ah, the bias of the brain is indeed deceitful. Oh how we need humility to pursue what is good and true.

        • A couple of Scripture verses that address this come to mind:
          Jeremiah describes the heart as “deceitfully wicked” and asks, “Who can know it?”
          And then the writer of Psalm 19 addresses “hidden faults” and asks that God would help him not to be ruled by them.
          Sounds to me as if we all need help from an outside Source who knows us by name — inside and out.

          • Justine Hwang

            Amen Michele, Amen. The new age movement is all about finding everything within… that always makes me gasp for my Jesus, and the holy “otherness” of God 🙂

  • I’ve read this elephant parable before, and it’s funny that I came across it again twice today in the space of 3 hours. Ha! The first this morning was in a book about understanding the Bible, saying that some people use this approach to say we can’t understand the Bible, it’s too “mysterious.” But the author made many points to illustrate that God gave it in order to clearly communicate with us what He wants us to know, and though we won’t understand all of it til we get to heaven (if even then), there’s plenty that is clear enough to understand, believe, and act on. And this parable would apply here in the sense of needing to read the whole Bible and not just camp out in Psalm 23 all the time.

    But aside from Biblical truth, I’ve been learning that there are so many more ways to do a thing than my one, or so many different ways of looking at things than my own experience. Sometimes, like you mentioned with listening to NPR in another comment, we still won’t agree, but it helps us to look at things from others’ points of view. And so many times our own experience and understanding is broadened. I’m a relatively new m-i-l, too, and it’s interesting to see what a new d-i-l brings to the family in so many areas.

    • Welcome to the m-i-l club, Barbara. So far, it’s been a delight for me, and good practice in the discipline of holding my ideas loosely. Thanks for sharing your previous encounter with our six misguided elephant handlers. We need our eyes opened in so many contexts, don’t we?

  • pastordt

    Yes, yes, and yes, again!!! Beautifully said, my friend. Thank you!!!

    • Thanks for reading, Diana (and for yessing!).
      I’m always blessed by your voice of reason.

  • Julie Loos

    Nodding my head in agreement! Truly wise people admit they don’t have all the answers. I’m so glad I have the Bible and the blessing of approaching God himself when I’m not sure how to respond!

    • And so often God brings people into our lives to speak wisdom to us, to challenge us to stay close to Truth with our words and our lives. I know this is your heart as well, Julie, and appreciate your input here.

  • Well said, Michele! It’s easy to get caught up in our perspective based on the testimony of our own experiences. Yet humility will speak louder when we embrace the voices of others. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to listen to your voice of wisdom. xo

    • And it’s so much easier to just stay safely within our perspective. My hope is that in re-telling that old story, we’ll be reminded of how much we miss when we fail to “embrace the voices of others.” (Such a great way to say it, Kelly!) Thanks for your encouragement.

  • Bev @ Walking Well With God

    Michele,
    Love this. I could especially relate to the perspective that said that mental illness must surely be due to spiritual lack (I’ve been hit with that arrow plenty of times). Admitting we don’t know it all takes humility and God loves a humble and contrite heart. Thank you for encouraging us all to share (and listen to) all pieces of the elephant. Wisely said.
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

    • We do seem to have a tendency to reduce what we don’t understand to the lowest common denominator — or to the tiny piece that we think we grasp. I’ve appreciated your wise words on the topic of depression, and the perspective you bring to that elephant in the room.

  • Oh Michele! I love your humble stance when it comes to your daughters-in-law (or any other, younger women who do things differently from you.) Oh, I need to learn from you, friend, for I can get stuck in the land of “My Way is Best and Let Me Tell You All About It.” No one but me wants to go there. 🙂 Yes to this: “The input of others, the influence of time, and the grace of God introduces a kind of humility appropriate to a time-bound creature like me.”

    • Ha! I’m grateful for the young women God is grafting into our family. And, believe me, I’m still a mother-in-law in training, but my heart truly is wanting to learn from them and not to overwhelm them with a bossy stance that sucks all the air out of the room.

  • Michele, I love how you show our need to be open to others and what they have to offer us. It is much too easy to stay locked in my comfort zone and shake my head at others who do things differently than me instead of being open to listen and learn. To allow God’s community to help me grow.

    • Yes, and the older I get, the more I see the danger of this. It would just be easier to stay in my rut, but then, I know that God wants us to be growing and encouraging others. This won’t happen unless we risk openness and flexibility.

  • Beautiful reminder that we are called to love one another as Christ loved us. I am currently reading, 5 Leadership Essentials for Women: Developing Your Ability to Make Things Happen by Linda Clark. In the book, our relationships are compared to a tapestry and the question is asked, are we adding texture to our tapestry through our relationships? As I learn about the tapestry of relationships, I think of my sisters-in-Christ. Individually, we are much weaker but when we are woven together, we are much stronger. The threads, hundreds and hundreds of distinct individual threads, are woven together to create a beautiful tapestry just as we were woven together by our Father’s creation. Thank you for sharing! (Yes, this is the topic for my next blog post!)

    • Thanks for the book recommendation — and for the synopsis of your next post! As I read, I thought of the variety of my own sisters in Christ. Some would be bright threads, maybe even sparkling. Others would be plain, but sturdy, adding strength and resiliency to the overall fabric.

      I appreciate this metaphor, Robin. Thanks for taking time to share it.

  • Thank you for bringing new perspective to this tale. I need this reminder as I am confronted with my own sheltered biases.

    • Thanks, Annie, for reading, and for the beauty and bravery of your voice here.

  • Shari Erdmann

    Beautifully written. Thank you.

  • Jerri Miller

    I joyfully admit I don’t have all the answers … or even very many of them …

    I’m in training in a lot of areas in my life – the mother-in-law area, too. My s-i-l just got out of the Army and has moved back home so I will get to sharpen my skills! – Jerralea

    • Yes, that is m-i-l training up close and intense!
      But I think your idea that we are in training in a lot of areas of life is pretty accurate, and to live in an awareness of that is to be both humble AND always growing.
      Blessings, Jerralea!

  • I wonder at our (my) pride that gives us gall to call our way, the way. I could whine at the injustice of a gray elephant rather than one black and white. Clearly a better idea, right? said the (proud) and blind old redheaded woman.
    Excellent article, Michele. Will share after some time for confession.

    • I see that you may be familiar with my old strategy: framing my critical spirit and Eeyore-ish tendencies as “an eye for improvement.” As you have ended your day with confession, I will begin mine the same.

  • This was written like a song with an ever building crescendo that culminated in what we all need to face and hear, Michele. Love this, my friend! You are an insightful woman and talented writer!

    • And you have the heart of an encourager, Beth. Thanks for kind words and for taking time to read and to comment.

  • Susan

    “When we stop singing hymns, we’ve stopped worshiping God,” grouses the gray- haired church member, hiking up her panty hose. Of course, this made me smile and makes me glad we are friends!

    • Smiling, too, Susan, but I have to confess there’s a little too much autobiography in that sentence for me to smile without wincing. I just really don’t want to become THAT lady . . .

  • Wonderfully wise words, Michele. Thankful for you and your perspective, friend…always. ((xoxo))

  • I love this piece, Michele! Our experiences influence our perspective, but they don’t have to define them. We can be intentional in expanding our views and admitting our limits.

  • This is a great post, Michele! It’s so important to acknowledge that we don’t know it all and to be open to hear other people’s perspectives with a willingness to learn from them and have our perspective challenged and expanded.

    • Community is one of the beautiful places in which we see Christ and His life put on display. If it were not for our tendency to bump into each other and wear each other’s rough edges and sharp corners off, we would not need the fruit of the Spirit, would we?

  • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Here from InspireMeMonday, Michele, and this is a GREAT post.

    I guess I’ve seen the elephant, in the original context of that archaic slang phrase, and here’s what I know:

    Words can’t replace hate. Only love can do that.

    https://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com/2017/08/your-dying-spouse-351-this-will-all-be.html

    • There is wisdom in those two sentences, Andrew.
      Thanks for showing up here to share it.

  • Kathleen – Bloggers Lifestyle

    Wow a lot to think about here. a very wise post indeed. Having lived in other cultures was a good place to realize there can be more than one right way to do something. Truth is truth and it does not change, my concept and learning about the truth can and does change. Like you say we can learn so much from each other. I like what Andrew says about love and hate. They are such big subjects in themselves. What is love? How to practice it. What is tough love, the list could go on. If the elephant is ‘love’ then I need some help to understand it and rightly discern how to use it and receive it.
    The Blogger’s Pit Stop will feature this post.

    • You’re so right about exposure to other cultures giving a much needed breadth of vision. And I think we spend our whole lives living our way into an understanding of what love is and how to put it on display in a way that is meaningful and can be received by others. You’ve certainly raised some good questions, Kathleen.

  • Oh yes! I’ve always loved the story of the six men and the elephant, especially the poem. But you’ve applied it here so beautifully. Thank you for this. A wonderful post!

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  • I guess as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more narrow-minded and certain that my way is the best way. This post was a gentle reminder for me to keep my mind, ears, eyes and heart open to other perspectives and points of view. Beautifully, thoughtfully written. Thank you.

    • I see the same tendency here, Leslie, so I guess I wrote this from a place of declaration and prayer: “God, protect me from my satisfied and certain self!” Wouldn’t it be lovely to grow older, wiser, and more curious all at the same time?
      So glad that you’ve been challenged along with me to a life of open eyes and hearts.

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  • I’ve never heard this story Michele. I’d like to think of myself as someone who is open to other opinions. This is a good reminder though to be more in tune to other’s feelings, knowledge and different perspective. There was a time in my life, I was wrongly judged, unsolicited opinions were offered and discussed by people who had no idea of my circumstances. That situation made me not want to ever be part of finger pointing and judging another. Thanks for sharing this. May God bless you and your family as you minister to others. ~ Abby

    • Thanks, Abby. I’m sorry that you had to endure the sadness of having been “weighed in the balance and found wanting.” But what a gift came in your broadened perspective and heart of mercy you gained from it all! And thanks for the encouragement you are to me.