Do you know the story of the blind men and the elephant? If you don’t (or to refresh your memory, in case it’s been awhile), here’s the story:
Six blind men touch an elephant in order to learn what it’s like. They each touch a different part of the elephant and draw different conclusions.
- The first man touches the elephant’s side and concludes that an elephant is like a wall.
- The second one touches a tusk and concludes that an elephant is like a spear.
- The third touches the trunk and concludes that an elephant is like a snake.
- The fourth touches a leg and concludes that an elephant is like a tree.
- The fifth touches an ear and concludes that an elephant is like a fan.
- The sixth touches the tail and concludes that an elephant is like a rope.
Understandably, disagreements ensue.
This story has been interpreted in different ways (which seems fitting, given the subject matter), but here’s what I think is the central message:
Everyone is right from his or her own point of view, but everyone’s point of view is limited and incomplete.
It’s a lesson in humility—a reminder that no single person can see the whole picture. It also cautions us against making universal generalizations based on our limited experience. And it drives home the fact that other people’s perceptions and experiences can be completely valid, even if they’re very different from our own.
The key is how you choose to see those differences.
- You can see them as threatening—challenges to your absolute and total rightness.
- You can see them as enlightening—ways to learn about ideas, perspectives, and events that you wouldn’t necessarily experience first-hand.
- You can also see them as options—possibilities that you may or may not explore at some point in your life.
Although it’s easy to fall into the first reaction (feeling threatened), when you can see differences as teachers or possibilities, your world expands.
Moving from “no but” to “yes and”
Like an elephant, the world is bigger than any single viewpoint or description can encompass. So, to approach a fuller understanding of reality, we have to become more inclusive of seemingly opposing viewpoints. We have to move from a “no-but” mentality to a “yes-and” mentality.
The dispute with the blind men (like so many others) could have been avoided by simply changing the words “no but” to “yes and.”
Consider the difference: “No, you’re wrong—an elephant is not like a rope, but it is like a fan!” vs. “Yes, an elephant is like a rope, and it’s also like a fan.” The first approach arrogantly assumes that you possess the entire truth and that anything not aligned with your perspective is thereby false, whereas the second approach humbly concedes that other people’s viewpoints can be valid without dismissing or invalidating your own.
The Elephant in the Room
So, the next time you encounter a person whose perspective is very different from your own, instead of giving in to the knee-jerk temptation to dismiss or criticize them, consider that they may be offering you a very valuable piece of life’s puzzle. They’re also presenting you with an option—a viewpoint that you can choose to explore or not, but at least you’re now aware of. At the very least, a differing perspective can serve as a reminder that life is bigger, more varied, and more amazing than you’d previously realized.
What a wonderful gift that is!
When have you encountered someone whose viewpoint was extremely different—possibly even at odds with your own? Is there a chance that their belief might be just as valid (from their point of view) as yours? Even if you continue to see things differently, what is something that you can learn from their viewpoint? I’d love to hear YOUR point of view about this story and subject!
(elephant photo by Roy Costello)