There is a very popular ancient parable and a folk tale from India about six blind men and an elephant. It has several different versions, so I decided to put my own spin on it. Here’s how it goes:
Six blind men were walking down the road in a small village in India. They were thirsty so they decided to stop at a nearby river to quench their thirst. As they came near the river, they bumped into an elephant that was also drinking from the river. They were surprised and confused as to what they had bumped into.
One of the blind men touched the elephant’s trunk and told the others, “This is something soft, thick and long like a snake”.
Second man touched the elephant’s tusks and said, “No way, it’s hard, long, smooth and sharp like a spear.”
Third man touched the elephant’s feet and said, “You are both wrong. The object is hard, wide and rough like the trunk of a tree”.
Fourth man touched the elephant’s ears and said, “Actually, all three of you are wrong. The object is thin and flat, like a hand fan.”
Fifth man touched the tail and said, “It’s definitely not all of that. The object is actually thin and delicate like a rope.”
Sixth men touched the body of the elephant and said, “You must all be out of your minds. It’s some kind of a wall, hard and wide”.
Now they were even more confused. “What could it be?”, they all wondered. What could possibly be like a wall, a fan, rope, spear, tree trunk and snake? They were unable to make sense of what they had come across, so they decided to ask a passerby, “Excuse me, brother, could you please tell us what is this object right in front of us?”
“It’s an elephant”, said the passerby.
Everything made sense now.
This is such a powerful metaphor that beautifully illustrates human behavior. We can interpret it in many different ways. Here’s how I interpret it:
- We see the world through different lenses. Each of us is wearing a differently colored lens and everything that we see in the external world is tainted by the lens we are wearing. If you wear a red lens, you will see everything red. If you wear green, you’ll see everything green. For example, if you have a positive attitude towards life, you’d focus on the positive aspects of everything, life would be beautiful and meaningful to you and the world a safe haven. If you have a negative attitude towards life, you’d focus on the negative aspects of everything, life would be worthless and the world would be a dangerous place to live.
- The lens that we are wearing also works like a filter. Information is filtered through this lens when it enters our eyes and brain. Some things get in. Other things are filtered out. What gets in and what is left out depends upon a person’s experiences, attitudes, etc. For instance, two people are looking at the moon. One sees beauty, feels love and wonders how blissful it would be to lay under the moonlight with the love of his life. The other sees it as a piece of dead rock, feels nothing and wonders why the hell he is looking at it.
- This lens is made up of our unique learning, knowledge, life experiences, social conditioning, values, beliefs, assumptions, etc. In other words, how we perceive and interpret the world is directly related to things we have experienced, things we have learned, people we have met, places we have lived, our culture, books we read, media we consume, languages we speak, values we uphold, religions or belief systems we adhere to, circumstances we have been exposed to, problems we have faced, challenges we have dealt with, opportunities we have been presented with, etc. All of these things condition us i.e. they shape our unique perspective, which results in us seeing the world with a different and unique perspective or world-view compared to others because we have unique knowledge acquired from our unique experiences.
- The lens not only affects how we perceive and understand the world, but also how we think, how we comprehend and interpret information, how we learn, how we remember things, how we communicate, how we interpret what other people say to us, how we behave, how we make decisions, how we treat other people, etc.
- Our emotional state has the ability to more or less temporarily tamper with our lens and impact our perspective in significant ways. When we are sad or overcome with grief, the weather seems gloomy, the world looks colorless and we do not find joy in things that we used to enjoy. But has the weather really changed? Has the world changed? Have those activities that you used to enjoy changed? Everything is the same. It’s you who has changed. Grief or sadness is an emotion, just like anger, hatred, anxiety, fear, excitement, joy, disgust, envy, love, shame, awe, etc. and emotions affect our thinking, perception, interpretation of information, learning, memory, communication, behavior and decision making.
- The difference of perspective and opinion doesn’t necessarily mean we are right and the other person is wrong. We can all have a different perspective and see the same thing differently and still be right. For example, some people see life as mostly fair and believe in Karma, some see it as mostly unfair and do not believe in Karma, while others see it as a blend of both. They are all seeing the same thing differently and they are all right because they are judging life as fair or unfair based on their personal life experiences and circumstances which may have been largely fair/fortunate or largely unfair/unfortunate or a mix of both.
- The opposite is also true. We can all see the same thing in the same way and still be wrong. For example, in ancient times, it was a common belief that the earth is flat. (By the way, some of these ancient people still exist and still believe the earth is flat). But just because the whole world believed the earth to be flat, it didn’t make it true, as it later turned out that the earth is not flat; it’s closer to a sphere. Actually, not a perfect sphere either, more of an oblate spheroid or ellipsoid. But you get the point i.e. consensus is just agreement; it’s not proof that something is true or false, right or wrong, existent or non-existent, good or bad, etc.
- We understand and interpret everything according to our limited knowledge and unique experiences. So we can never really see the reality objectively and our perspectives and opinions are always subjective in nature. Our subjective experience, our perspective and our opinions can be true, but they are almost always limited or incomplete because of our limited knowledge and understanding.
- Sometimes we understand certain parts of the truth or reality, but fail to understand the truth as a whole. For example, our understanding of the universe. Scientists have figured out (almost) everything about our planet earth, and a lot about the Sun, Moon and Mars, but the rest of the planets in our solar system, all the galaxies and the universe as a whole will probably always remain a mystery.
- Again, the opposite can also be true i.e. sometimes we understand the truth as a whole, but fail to understand certain parts of it. For example, our understanding of the human body. Scientists have managed to improve their understanding of the overall mechanics and inner working of the human body, but there are still things we don’t understand, such as why we dream, why we have different types of blood, why we have a dominant hand, why we have fingerprints, etc.
- Most of the times, however, we are only able to see the tip of the iceberg i.e. only a small percentage of the truth or reality. For example, when we say we know a person very well, we in fact only know a small part of his personality, because that’s all that is visible to us. Most of the iceberg is underwater i.e. most of human personality is hidden from us. A person’s thinking, motivations, biases, desires, beliefs, values, ideas, fears, insecurities, etc. are all unknown to us. What we know is what a person chooses to tell us or reveal to us.
- Conflicts arise when people have different views of the same reality but fail to consider and understand the perspectives of others. Think of politics, religion, science, etc. We insist that our opinions and views are correct and others are wrong. We try to defend our views, but never try to see the world from the perspective of others. We never try to take off our own lens and see the world through the lens other people are wearing. If we did that, we would realize that their view is not wrong, just different, because they are seeing the world through a different lens than us.
- Can we ever take off our lens and look at the world objectively? Not really. Just like eyes are a part of our body, permanently affixed to the eye socket, this metaphorical lens is also a permanent part of our existence and our consciousness. While we cannot take off our lens permanently and look at the world with the naked eye, we sure can take it off temporarily and take a glimpse through other people’s lens i.e. through other people’s perspective.
- We can glimpse through other people’s lens by reading books and articles, interacting and engaging in discussions with people who hold different beliefs, watching documentaries, talk shows and movies, listening to podcasts, etc.
- When we take a glimpse through other people’s lens, we not only gain a better understanding of the truth (the big picture), but also become more aware of our own lens i.e. we understand our own perspective better. We become aware of the flaws in our own understanding. We become aware of our limitations, weaknesses, hidden biases, assumptions and blind spots. We understand other people better; we might not agree with them, but we learn to appreciate them, value them and empathize with them.
- When we look at the world through other people’s lens, sometimes we realize that our vision is sharper, the world is more beautiful, colors are more vibrant and we can see the truth more clearly, as compared to our own lens. That’s when we know it’s time to get rid of our old lens and replace it with a new one. Sometimes the lens is replaced unconsciously; sometimes we have to do it consciously.
- We can replace our old lens with a new lens by exposing ourselves to the perspectives of other people, people who are different than us in any way, including people from other cultures, religions, races, etc. By genuinely trying to understand their perspective and opinions and see where they’re coming from. By examining our own beliefs, attitudes and opinions. By identifying our own biases, assumptions and blind spots. By accepting our limitations and weaknesses. And by reconsidering and DISCARDING our old beliefs, attitudes and opinions, in favor of new and better ones.
- Sometimes, however, the lens doesn’t need to be replaced. It just needs to be cleaned and fixed. We can clean and fix our lens by considering alternative beliefs, ideas and opinions and reconsidering, adjusting and correcting our existing beliefs, attitudes and opinions.
You might have interpreted this parable in a different way, depending upon your own unique experiences and perspective. But the gist of the parable remains the same for all i.e. we see the truth through different lenses. That’s why we shouldn’t be so quick to judge others as wrong. Instead, we should try to understand the perspective of others and then try to see the truth from their perspective. We should be flexible and willing to consider alternative beliefs, ideas and opinions and be willing to reconsider and revise our views when the change is warranted. By doing so, we can see the truth in a new light and learn a thing or two about the truth, something we were oblivious to before because it was filtered out of our lens or clouded by our own biases, assumptions and blind spots.
Images by Rida Tahir – All Rights Reserved
First Published at Second Quadrant Living
Guest Author Bio
Rida Tahir is an Instructional Designer by profession and a freelance writer by passion, based in Germany and currently pursuing her Masters in Psychology at the University of Sunderland (UK). She writes about personal growth, psychology and mental health. You can read more about her on her website Second Quadrant Living and follow her on Instagram.