There is an ancient parable called The Blind Men And The Elephant. If you’re not familiar with it, the basic story is as follows… Some blind men (maybe five or six) come across an elephant. Each of them encounters the animal in a different and equally narrow way:
- The one who encounters the tusks, thinks he has found a spear
- The one who encounters the trunk thinks he has found a snake
- The one who encounters the tail thinks he has found a rope
- The one who encounters the ear thinks he has found a piece of canvas
- The one who encounters the leg thinks he has found a tree
- The one who encounters the side thinks he has found a wall
Given the out of context experience of each, combined with their inability to see the “bigger picture,” it is easy to comprehend their collective misunderstanding. The point of the parable isn’t to illustrate the idea of a group of blind men (or women) getting something as large as an elephant all wrong.
The blindness in the story is a metaphor for the human shortcoming that leads to seeing only what we see, without regard (or even knowledge) of the bigger picture, or at least a different point of view on the same data.
I’m not about to tell you I have an answer for this problem, but I do have two stories that should give you some things on which you can chew a bit.
The company I work for is about seventy miles from my house. Fortunately my job only requires me to make that drive, on average, once a week. Most of the time I work from my home office, where my commute takes about ten seconds, five of which I use to put on my slippers.
However, on those days I do drive the 140-mile round trip I like to listen to podcasts. For years I have enjoyed listening to several podcasts from NPR, including This American Life, Radiolab, CarTalk and if you’re a regular reader of this blog you know I love Freakonomics.
Back in October, the folks from This American Life,
spun off a new podcast called Serial.
Serial quickly became one of the most popular podcasts around, with the Wall Street Journal reporting the program was being downloaded more than 1.2 million times per episode.
If you like mysteries you really should give it a listen. The whole series is now complete, so you can binge-listen to all twelve episodes with no waiting, click here to get started.
The series follows a murder case from the 1990s in Baltimore Maryland. Basically a teenaged girl was murdered, and her ex boyfriend was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He has maintained his innocence from the very beginning, making the twelve-episode examination of “what really happened” absolutely fascinating.
I don’t want to tell you more than that, but I will share one small section of one episode that really stood out for me.
The first trial of the ex boyfriend ended in a mistrial (the reason why is not important for this story). When the jury was polled after the mistrial was declared, it was clear that they were on their way to acquitting the defendant. However, the second trial, which was a functionally identical presentation of facts, and witness testimony, resulted in a conviction.
Two different juries, from the same community, selected using the same process, were presented with the same evidence, yet they produced very different outcomes.
That is heavy stuff to ponder,
especially if you’re the one going to prison for life.
So, after spending twelve hours of my life listening to the entire podcast, all I can tell you is that individual, but equally intelligent people can see the very same things in a very different way. This came as no real surprise to me, but it did get my mental wheels spinning.
When I was in seventh grade, I was placed in an honors English class. Although I was good with words, I was ill prepared for what this class expected of me, and I struggled throughout the whole year. Because of this struggle, many moments of that year have remained as clear memories for me over the thirty plus years since they occurred. The teacher was a strict woman named Mrs. Couture who was friendly enough, despite the fact that her class was kicking my ass. Struggles aside, I liked and respected her.
On June 4th 1982 the movie Poltergeist was released, and my family went to see it in the first week or two that it was in the theaters.
The plot is a simple one… a developer built a bazillion houses right on top of what was once a burial ground, but instead of relocating the bodies, he opted to simply removed the headstones and in doing so, really angered the spirits who had been resting comfortably in their graves.
Paranormal and supernatural mayhem ensues.
It is one scary movie, and for my generation there is one scene that is probably responsible for cementing (what I consider) everyone’s natural fear of clowns. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about.
Early in the movie, when the parents in the “haunted” house are still trying to figure out what the heck is going on, there is a scene that takes place in their bedroom late one night. The husband and wife are sitting on their bed discussing the events of the day, and while doing so, they roll a joint and proceed to smoke it together.
As a seventh grader, this scene was curious to be sure sure, but being a good boy, I had no real interest in the marijuana component of it all. The “just say no to drugs” culture was in its infancy, and people smoking pot in a movie will get the attention of any seventh grader, no matter how straight-laced. In my opinion it didn’t contribute to the plot, but I did remember it clearly.
Afterward, I don’t recall too much family discussion beyond how piss-your-pants scary it was. This however would not be the end of the story.
The following weekend, my family traveled to New Jersey
to visit my dad’s mother and brother.
My Uncle Barry is my father’s only sibling and since my mother is an only child, he is my only actual uncle. Uncle Barry has lived his life by a list of rules and standards that are quite a bit different than those of the house in which I was raised. This is a fact the he will not dispute. Of course this is nothing unusual for any family, and I need not say more than family is family – we don’t get to choose them, we get who we get.
So there we were, all sitting around Uncle Barry’s living room talking about all kinds of things and someone mentioned the Poltergeist movie. Uncle Barry had seen the film and had a bit to say about it.
Despite his different approach to things, my father’s brother is an exceptionally smart and clever fellow. He also happens to be a good writer. So good in fact that at the time of this discussion, he had published a fairly popular novel and he was working on several others. In things literary, Uncle Barry actually walked the talk.
The conversation started out highlighting the parts of the film that made us scream or avert our eyes, but it didn’t take too long to wander into the more subtle components of the story.
It was at this point that Uncle Barry started talking about the “pot smoking on the bed scene.” After reminding us all of the specific moment, he bellowed something like, “that was the most real scene in the movie, I mean what couple hasn’t chewed away at the issues of the day over a joint before bed. After that scene I really believed these characters were legit.”
As I sat in my chair listening to my uncle share his perspective to those gathered in his home, it occurred to me that perhaps I had misjudged the scene. It was a scenario with which I was not familiar, but to my uncle, a man I loved and respected this was significant.
The weekend in New Jersey ended, as they all did, with a six-hour drive home in the back seat of a station wagon with an AM radio and no air conditioning.
Since we were in the final weeks of school before finals, classes were a combination of review and casual discussion. One day in the last five minutes of Mrs. Couture’s English class, she asked if anyone had seen any good movies. The topic quickly turned to Poltergeist since it was a popular choice among the seventh-grade set.
The conversation was remarkably similar to the one that had taken place in my uncle’s living room just days before until…
Mrs. Couture, after listening to the thoughts of the honors English twelve-year-olds, chimed in by saying, “I thought the movie was well done, except for that scene in the bedroom where the parents smoked pot. That to me was both completely unrealistic and entirely unnecessary to the plot. It was so out of place that I found it distracting.”
The bell rang with my middle school head in knots.
A single, three-minute scene from a stupid horror film had somehow managed to grow into my own personal morality play.
Fortunately for me, I was able to take the input from my Uncle Barry and Mrs. Couture, and temper it with what I knew to be true about drug use, marital relationships and character development. In the end I took from that scene what I wanted to take from it, setting aside the other opinions as exactly what they were… opinions.
This ten-day chapter from my life in 1982 really had no impact on me one way or another, but more than three decades later, the parent in me finds it more disturbing than the Poltergeist clown.
Other than taking me to the movie and being present in Uncle Barry’s living room, my parents knew nothing of the “dueling influences” my partially developed brain was trying to manage. Lucky for all of us all I came out of that mental quagmire unscathed, but think about this…
How often are your kids subjected to completely contradictory information from sources of equal trust and stature?
If I had to venture a guess I would have to say, ALL THE TIME.
Of course there is no way to be present to translate every detail and nuance your children are taking in, and as they get older it only gets worse.
Luckily for me, that thing:
- I thought was a harmless wall
- Uncle Barry proclaimed to be a very real rope
- And Mrs. Couture insisted was a dangerous snake
I eventually figured out was nothing but a friendly elephant. I only hope I can prepare my children as well for similar situations.
Copyright © 2015 - Stephen S. Nazarian - All rights reserved. (No, It’s An Elephant!)