“It is not what you look at that matters. It is what you see.” Thoreau
As I observe the events of the day, I’m reminded of the old parable describing several blind men from India who encounter an elephant. So the story goes, each man experienced a different part of the elephant’s anatomy. One sightless observer, feeling the animal’s tusk, proclaims to the others, “An elephant is like a spear.” His companion, who is feeling the breadth of the creature’s body from the side, retorts, “No, an elephant is like a wall.” A third blind commentator, wrapping his arms around a hind leg, corrects the others be asserting, “You are both wrong. This beast is like a huge tree.” As the tale continues, men who feel a tail or a trunk or an ear, maintain that an elephant is like a rope, or a hose or a giant fan.
As we read the story, let’s consider the message. Obviously, the creator of the parable’s point had to do with how we consider input from others. Each of the blind men was correct, but only partially. Each was convinced of the rectitude of their experience and resulting point of view. Had lie detectors been invented at the time of storyteller’s life, each blind man would have passed the polygraph. Certainly, the author’s message is a valid and instructive one.
But let’s go a little further. Let’s add to the original parable and assume that there was one additional blind man on the elephant scene. The added character does not touch or encounter the elephant in any direct way. Instead, this man simply listened to the input of the others. Intuiting the apparent sincerity of his fellow commentators, this man simply gathers information and accepts the subjective input of his fellow blind colleagues. As each insistently pleads for the accuracy of his point of view, the added man strives to picture the totality of the elephant, based upon the data he received from each reporter. We must assume that the “added man” ends up with a more complete understanding of the elephant than any single observer provided.
A professional football player kneels, rather than stands, during the playing of the National Anthem while a VFW member is appalled by his actions. A woman asserts her right for control and decision over her own body while another seeks to defend unborn lives. And political candidates hurl verbal hand grenades at each other over cyberspace. Each of the above can lay claim to knowledge of some portion of the truth; to some understanding of a section of a pachyderm’s anatomy. But what is missing from each?
In teaching psychiatric diagnosis, I often caution my students to “be slow to diagnose.” The point is that, once we form a diagnosis, that is, an opinion, our natural human tendency is to stick to that opinion and shut out any information that may contradict our original diagnosis or point of view. Instead, like the “added blind man” we should be open to all useful data regarding the situation or circumstance we are addressing. Shutting down makes us, if you will, blind to further and greater understanding.
But before I conclude this missive, let me extend a word of caution. While we hear a plea for more dialogue on the various social issues that present themselves in the news each day (and in our daily lives), we too often see little tolerance for the other observer’s opinion and experience. We cannot have a dialogue without dialogue. And the missing piece or ingredient that enables dialog?
Respect. The blind man holding the tail has a point too.
‘It is obvious which is so difficult to see most go the time. People say, “It’s as plain as the nose on your face.” But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone is holding up a mirror to you? – Asimov
John V. Farrar Ed.D., LPC
Anita M. Farrar Ed.S., LPC