How simplifying a story can limit one’s thinking and the way we perceive truth
The Indian parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant is a perennial favourite in education circles, used to teach perception and recognising different perspectives.
To simplify for our purposes, an original telling had three blind men touch different parts of the elephant, only to have them report the leg as a ‘tree with no branches,' the trunk as a ‘snake,’ and the tail as a ‘fly whisk.’
There are several problems with the story. The first is that it assumes blind or visually impaired people only perceive with their hands, when in fact, humans rely on multiple senses (including smell and sound) and intuition in perceiving truth. Indeed, for blind people, these other senses can often be more finely attuned. Would there not have been other signals that the leg wasn’t a tree nor the trunk a snake?
Second, elephants are relational creatures. They live in herds and have strong protective instincts. Narrow perceptions of the elephant as an ‘object’ fails to consider how it is relating.
Third, perception is often shaped by context. An elephant isn’t just an elephant. Its ways of being and moving in the world are shaped by the environment it is in. And elephant in captivity walks and moves differently to those in the wild. As it moves, so too does its attention.
The fourth layer asks, who is doing the perceiving? The original parable had blind men doing the perceiving. I can’t help but wonder whether blind women would touch the elephant and ‘see’ it exactly as it is. (My ‘gendering’ was simply to make a point. Indeed, the ability to perceive the whole is available to all of us.)
With these layers, the parable of the elephant has richer potential in understanding others and the world.
Reframing it as an educational story
I was recently working with a group of community leaders in a region affected by devastating floods. Part of our process was to consult members of the community to expand our understanding of the complex issues people face.
I shared the elephant story by inviting an exploration of the different layers of perception:
Perceiving using multiple senses and intuition.
Perceiving the relational dimension.
Perception as shaped by context (‘object’ in space and time).
Being aware who is doing the perceiving.
The community leaders were invited, in small groups, to ‘touch the elephant’ in the community and report back with their discoveries. Each group was to conduct one interview and report back with their perceptions.
When the group of community leaders returned to tell the stories of what they perceived, the stories were multi-dimensional.
One story revolved around the local Chamber of Commerce and its president 'Helen.' Helen told of the devastating impact of the flood on the businesses she represents. As the interview rolled on, deeper layers were perceived.
The first layer was very factual, including statistics to back up each fact. Below that was the relational layer of what it takes to represent and advocate for others in a time of loss. And then the third layer asked, how did the flood impact you?
Helen reported that in the eight months since the floods, no one had asked her how it impacted her. One of the interviewers watched in silence and observed physical changes in Helen as she told her story. Changes to posture, breathing, and pace of speech.
The process helped to reveal deeper perspectives that made the parable richer as a tool for community leadership, learning and development.
The most difficult layer is often being aware of who is doing the perceiving. In post-disaster recovery work, it is easy to perceive through a lens of trauma.
We also each occupy different roles in the systems we work within. These can be influenced by positional power, gender, culture, educational background, profession, financial position, language, political views, religious beliefs, and more.
Earlier that morning we were welcomed to country by local First Nations Elder Uncle Roy Gordon. Through his own artful telling of the history of his people pre- and during-colonisation, we discovered deeper layers of his peoples’ experience.
Uncle Roy’s storytelling invited us to step outside of our own worldviews and look at the world from an Indigenous perspective. This is easier said than done, as contemplating another’s perspective will invariably be filtered through one’s own worldview.
Notwithstanding the nuanced and complex challenges of doing this, the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant served as a great tool when traversing the layers of perception.
Yet perhaps the biggest learning for me resides in the need to go on a journey with the elephant. It is not enough to simply perceive them at a single point in time. As the elephant journeys across its landscape, its cadence and attention changes. And so it is true in communities, just as it is in each of us.
Shout out to the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation for the important work they do in communities across the country. It is a privilege to work with them.