Elephant Story

Crossing Divides

Blind Men and the Elephant

A Poem by John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

A Story So Trite

If you’re going to spew Ancient Wisdom, couldn’t you at least choose a version that isn’t written in humorous verse? How about a version that is actually ancient? A version closer to the original?

Well, no. That’s the point. There isn’t a right way to tell a story. This version is well known, says what we need—and it’s amusing.

But why tell such an overused story at all? We know that one part of something is not all the parts. We know that the sum of parts adds up to a greater whole. Both ideas are very simplistic.

This is a perfectly reasonable point of view. The problem is that it excludes other points of view. Other points of view that might be worth considering.

Yeah, yeah. But not all points of view are worth considering. What if someone pretends to be describing part of an elephant, but is making it up? Or what if someone believes what she is saying, but is simply wrong? Or what if she isn’t wrong, but is touching elephant food rather than an actual elephant?

Good point. That’s another view. Keep it in mind. But don’t discount other views because of it.

Conflicting ideas aren’t good ideas conflicting with bad ideas. All ideas are good in their place.

Frame Size

Including all parts of the elephant sounds like a good idea in an Ancient Wisdom sort of way. It is also something everyone does from time to time. How can you go about doing it better?

The answer is frame size. Too small a frame cuts out whatever doesn’t fit. An elephant frame, for example, precludes understanding other mammals. What’s that little knob where the trunk should be? Too large a frame includes too many irrelevancies. A mammal frame, for example, allows elephants to eat steak.

To Cross Divides, expand the frame until all ideas fit—while keeping it small enough to maintain focus. For example, to resolve a conflict between hot and cold, expand the frame to temperature.

To put ideas into practice, shrink the frame as much as possible. Just don’t shrink it too much.