07 April 2011

Elephants and Other Things

Today, in a much needed literary nepenthe, I stumbled across an old Indian parable (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) about an elephant and some sightless men.  It is an old tale indeed, begetting many versions and many more interpretations, but the basic story goes something like this:

A group of blind men were shown an elephant and asked to identify it.  They touched it with their hands to determine what the creature was.  One man felt the trunk and claimed that an elephant was like a snake. Another touched its leg and claimed that an elephant must be like a tree.  A third man touched its tail and claimed that the elephant was like a slender rope…
All of them were right.  And all of them were wrong. 
Now, the original intent of this allegorical gem may simply have been to acknowledge the validity and existence of multiple truths or even to promote harmony among people with different belief systems.  But for me, the parable serves as a reminder that we each approach this world, our “elephant” as it were, with a different frame of reference, a unique set of assumptions, standards, and experiences that navigates our thinking, influences our perceptions, and inspires our reactions. Upbringing, family, birthplace, educational experience…it all matters.  My frame of reference paints the BIG PICTURE of what it means to be a human being and what it means, essentially, to be Me.

Teachers are especially aware of this concept.  Late in August, every year, I am greeted with 150 new students, shiny faces looking to me (good gracious!) for wisdom and guidance. What a remarkable challenge! How can I possibly lead them somewhere new if I don’t first know where they have been?

One of the greatest get-to-know-you activities I’ve seen teachers use is the “Me Box” assignment.  On the first day of school, the teacher brings in a shoe box filled with items and pictures that represent her. She shares these with the students and explains why each item is important or significant. The students are then assigned to bring their own “Me Box” to school the next day and the items are shared as part of a class discussion to help facilitate compassion for and understanding of each other’s frames of reference. 

What would you put in yours?

I am a woman.
I am a daughter.
I am a sister.
I am a lover.
I am a friend.
I am a teacher.
I am 34 years old.
I am 5’4” tall.
I am blonde.
I am Caucasian.
I am American.
I am Californian.
I am college educated.
I am middle class.
Such are the ingredients in my reference recipe.  The list goes on and on-- each element like an epidermal ridge of the fingerprint that is me.  Remove any one of them and I would not be the same person, my frame would undoubtedly alter.

Someone once said that “because life is short, it’s wise to make it broad.”  I believe this to be true.  If we are lucky we will meet many people from many walks of life.  They will each have a perception of the world, a point of view, a mindset, a frame of reference…a different part of the elephant.

All of them are right.  And all of them are wrong.  And it's all okay!
And isn’t that the big picture, after all?

Many Smiles,

Today's Gratitude List:
  • the homedics foot spa for my much-abused feet
  • my sweetheart who picked up Chinese food on his way home
  • my colleague Sharon, who saved my agenda (and my sanity) today
  • a cozy house and cuddly cat
  • the promise of Friday and a week of Spring Break!


  1. Niki,

    I love your Charlie Brown post! It's unfortunate that acceptance of others is a difficult concept these days.

    When I was in school we had a "Week of". A wodnerful teacher had us bring in photos and write a story about ourselves and he created this wonderful display that stayed up for a whole week! I still have mine.

  2. Niki, this is one of your best and deserves more blog love.

    I love the Me Box. I'm going to start one.

    You also should add to your box, "I have the ability to lift others just with my words."


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