Thoughts on Starting Over – Questions

Image borrowed from the World Wildlife Fund. Hope they won’t mind.

Despite the fact of a pandemic, and that I’m home a great deal and should have “time on my hands”, life still feels very hectic. For every social interaction and and public activity canceled, a new and most urgent task at home has surfaced and muscled its way on to the “to do” list. I’m beginning to think that tasks, like the stuff we own, expand to fill the time or space made available to it. Small house? Stuff expands to fill the space you have. Big house? You think there’d be extra space around! But no, somehow more stuff comes into the picture and sets itself down in every spare corner and empty shelf in the garage and linen closet. Is it some kind of universal axiom? I’m a bit baffled by it.

All of that, just to convey that I DO see and read your comments and VERY MUCH appreciate your responses. I’m just not great at responding to them. Sometimes I’m able, right that moment. But other times I see your comments as a message on my phone’s screen, as they come in, while simultaneously engaged in something very different. I think to myself “I’ll respond to that in a bit.” Then a bit becomes hours, hours become days, and responding gets moved further and further down the ever-shuffling list of things that need doing.

But that’s not to say they aren’t important to me! And please don’t think they aren’t seen and considered, despite my limited or non-existent response.

Case in point: I received a lovely comment just after that first post about a Masterclass in Starting Over. The comment included this: A successful reboot probably involves eliciting some change in some other folks. How does one do that? And how do we overcome feelings that are deeply rooted?

My initial response was that we can’t hope to change other people and shouldn’t bother trying. And that I’d consider the question about deeply rooted feelings and give a response soon. Both questions have been swimming around just below the surface of my consciousness. It’s probably a good thing I gave them a few days. This morning, I have a bit more clarity around them both. I don’t know the situation from which the questions arise. But when I consider the questions, an answer comes into my mind. I hope it is relevant to the original query.

Do you know the story about the elephant and the (let’s say five) blind men? It goes something like this. After being led up to an elephant, five blind men were asked to answer the question, “What is an elephant?” The first, touching its trunk, stated “An elephant is a long, skinny, flexible beast, much like a snake.” The second, with hands on a leg, said “ No, no. An elephant is stout and upright, like the trunk of a tree!” The third chimed in to say, “ An elephant resembles a great stone!” His hands had been running across the elephant’s flank and rounded side. The fourth blind man snorted, “I don’t know what you all are talking about. The elephant is clearly shaped like a bullwhip.” Both his hands grasped the animal’s tail. “Seems to me”, said the fifth, with hands on the elephant’s ear, “that this creature is much like a bird, with great wings. It could take flight at any time.”

Each blind man’s answer was true, yes? You have to give them all credit. From where each stood, given his direct experience, each man offered up a true answer. At the same time, we know that none of them were correct. We know because we can see the full picture. They can’t. But are they wrong, then? Answer: no, not wrong. Just… incomplete in their knowledge.

I think of this story often.

It offers a great deal of food for thought. It’s applicable to many, many situations – including to those implied in these recent questions.

First, on eliciting change in some other folks… I still believe that trying to bring about change in other people is a waste of time. It rarely works. Ha! In my experience, it never works. Push on someone else and you’re likely to cause them to dig their heels more firmly into the ground. Hope they’ll change – wish it with all your might, pray for it, think about it night and day – you’ll spend a lot of your own precious time concerned with something over which you have no control and still won’t get the desired outcome. (Don’t you have something better to do? Like maybe sitting down to look experience a few moments of joy?) But here’s the crux of the matter, and it comes out of the story above. Are you certain that you have the full picture and therefore know what’s best for someone else? Seriously. What part of the elephant are you holding? Your view is accurate. Believe it firmly, go right ahead. How could you not? But be willing to consider that it may also be incomplete. When I contemplate how someone else can look at the very same thing I’m viewing and get a completely different read on it, I’m always brought back to this story.

In fact, the story of the elephant and the. blind men prevents me from going insane in this particular era of divisive politics. I absolutely believe my views are correct, based on my experience, my intellect and my heart. But if others, no less thoughtful or caring (despite how we like to demonize each other) see the same circumstances but come up with a very different picture… well I must believe they’re as convinced in their beliefs as I am in mind. And it follows that if we both have such strong perceptions (though diametrically opposed), one or both of us has an incomplete understanding. I’m not so hubristic as to believe the incomplete understanding is all on the other person’s side.

So, my response to the question of how to elicit change in others is still the same (i.e. don’t bother). But the why is different. Instead of refraining from the effort because it won’t actually work, I now think to myself “Don’t try to change someone else and their beliefs. Who am I to say they are wrong? Do I have the whole picture? Probably not.”

The story also applies to that question of feelings that are deeply rooted. As I see it, and backed up by the scenario with the elephant, the things we believe and about which we feel passionately are based on what we’ve seen, heard and felt. We can’t undo them just because they are uncomfortable. Or inconvenient. I have a deep aversion for bullies. My stomach clenches at the sight and sound of any single person bulldozing their way across the humanity of another soul. But lots of people are convinced that bullying is effective – and that the ends justify the means. I wouldn’t change my feelings on the subject for anything. But the story keeps reminding me that even though I totally, passionately, self-righteously disagree with those other folks, I cannot disregard the possibility that there’s more to the picture than I can see. I accept that we disagree. Further, I accept that disagreement will have to stand. At least until such time as one or both of us has a more complete view. And (gulp), I also have to accept the possibility that the disagreement might always stand.

A religious perspective here would be that only God is aware of the full picture. We, as finite beings, cannot comprehend all that is in play and shouldn’t even try. (See bible, Book of Job, plus other miscellaneous admonitions to keep our nose to our own business and not to God’s.) I don’t know about all that. I’m pretty agnostic in my general approach to the greater scheme of things. However, God or no God, Universal meddling or non-meddling, karma or no karma, it seems wise to approach things with a good dose of humility.

So, changing others? Hoping that strong feelings – yours or someone else’s – could and should change? Worried that your starting again requires or will be affected by others’ changing or immovable views? Tuck the story of the elephant and the blind men into that backpack of yours. Remember that backpack? We threw some other things in there already, to help us along the way. Add in this story. Keep hold of an understanding that all individuals, with their individual experiences and beliefs, are right. But not wholely right. And each person’s right, being incomplete, may be completely off base. An elephant is neither a snake, stone, tree trunk, whip or bird. But it does, in some parts, resemble each of them. Individual, varying assessments are going to exist simultaneously. Probably always will. Whatever! Just get on with what you were doing.

Adieu.

5 comments

  1. this latest blog reminds me of one of my father’s favorite poems by a German poet named christian morgenstern. daddy was also an architect and city planner:

    “The Picket Fence”

    There used to be a picket fence
    with space to gaze from hence to thence.

    An architect who saw this sight
    approached it suddenly one night,

    removed the spaces from the fence,
    and built from them a residence

    The picket fence stood there dumbfounded
    with pickets wholly unsurrounded,

    a view so naked and obscene,
    the Senate had to intervene.

    The architect, however, flew
    to Arfi- or Americoo.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I so agree on how wasteful it is to engage in trying to change others. Somehow, that doesn’t stop me fro trying occasionally, however. It’s difficult to watch someone floundering in their beliefs and perceptions when I “know I’m right” regarding whatever it is. And it’s sure true about the other (and me) digging in the heels.

    Like

  3. I am in concurrence on this mostly as well. Limiting my self to things I can change, or work on like myself. The only caveat I see here is in raising and forming humans from scratch and there we do have a window of influence be it short lived.

    Like

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