Tales of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Essential Truth Requires Assembly
The sharpest picture we have of how humans relate to others is the familiar parable of the six blind men and the elephant.
Generations of us learned from the imagery of the blind men. The meanings of it remain vivid today. One blind man touched a side and said an elephant is like a wall. One felt the tail and said an elephant is a rope. One felt a tusk and said an elephant is a spear. A leg made one say an elephant is a pillar. One felt an ear and said an elephant is a canvas butterfly and a man at the trunk said an elephant is a thick snake. Each image is sharp and clear. And all are based on facts.
The conversation of the blind men was a teaching tool at least as far back as 1200 BC. The wisdom sprang up on the ancient subcontinent of India and spread widely. The parable’s second essential lesson is how the blind men react to each other’s patchwork of truth. Over time, the parable took on various endings. Human reactions are all-important and all varieties of reaction appear daily in the news.
The usual instinct for resolving contrasting truths is to reject all but one’s own partial experience. By reflex, each man takes to reciting his partial experience and arguing that all other partial experiences are wholly false. The noise level rises. Each man suspects the problem is that others can’t see very well or others are being dishonest. Noise levels climb. In some versions of the parable, the six blind men come to blows.
A different ending has the six blind men figure out among themselves what an elephant looks like. Another version has a sighted person describe an elephant to them. Each man sees to what extent he was right and where he was wrong. These versions are all real on occasion.
Human nature may stir feelings that the elephant parable does not fit. Some will say the six blind men should feel a crocodile or a jackal. (“Elephants help us; whereas, crocodiles and jackals kill what is fine and good for us.”) Yet, such a revision also proves the timeless truths. The wisdom of the parable is verified if each of us assumes he sees all effects from one part of the beast he touched on.
A timely test of the parable is to see how well it portrays a current issue. Party politics keep arguing whether people and countries need more competition, or more diversity or more interdependence. Nature’s whole ecosystem is a model of these behaviors.
Some see in a flash that nature runs by the law of the jungle. Eat and be eaten. Species work tirelessly to control each other. “Fight like cats and dogs” is an old saying for a reason. As Charles Darwin observed, the fittest survive the struggle, and are the fitter for it. Creativity blooms, skills sharpen, and each species is healthier for its acts of striving and surviving.
Others see in a flash that nature runs by diversity … varied tasks call for different combinations of parts. Still others see where various parts depend on each other. Without bees, flowers struggle to propagate. All are true. What if most people saw the vital role that competition plays in nature, combined with the vital features of diversity and interdependence that persist? All are absolute keys to nature’s long-term stability and success. These contrasts trouble us the way that nature does.
The polemics over the conflicts conform well with the story of the blind men and the elephant, whose insights were assembled long ago and far away among Buddhists and Hindus.