A group of blind men lived together in a remote village. One day an elephant came to town, and since this had never happened before, the blind men decided to go experience the elephant.
The first blind man approached the side of the elephant and announced that an elephant was like a wall. The next blind man grabbed a leg and declared the first man a fool, that an elephant was like a tree trunk. Another blind man grabbed the trunk and emphatically stated the first two were imbeciles (did I mention this was a quarrelsome group?), that an elephant was like a snake. So it went with the group, one touching the tail, another the tusk, and another the massive ear.
They all were “right,” but they all were wrong, too.
Each had grasped a small portion of the truth, understood a minor portion of the reality, and so thought they had mastered the totality. None had any interest in exploring the points of view of the others.
None of them wondered why another intelligent being would hold a different opinion nor demonstrated any curiosity, any desire, to investigate the reality of others, the reasons for the divergence. Each became immediately and totally ego invested in defending and promoting his point of view.
The lesson is easy to see in a parable. The challenge I give you, dear reader, is to keep an open mind when dealing with your personal absolutes, your emotional hot buttons, your sensitive areas. Can you take the time, make the effort, to at least understand different perspectives?
In large measure, we are the sum of our experiences, or at least our interpretation of them. A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. We are strongly shaped by our experiences. You might be a lot closer to being another person if you had lived his life, internalized his experiences in lieu of your own.
Understanding is not agreeing. You can seek to understand another without committing to agreeing with her. That is a separate choice.
This is a classic from the NSC Blog archive. Originally posted February 20, 2008.