Struggling In The Dark To Describe An Elephant, Or Dig An Afghan Well

Published 4:23 pm Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Beauty may be, and is, in the eye of the beholder. Truth, however, suffers from such subjectivity. Those on the receiving end of decisions made by those who assume themselves in full possession of the truth, moreover, receive both the slings and the arrows of outrageous fortune.

Wars, in fact, have started because two nations, tribes, or factions misperceive reality because they gaze through one lens only. Their own.

The Indian subcontinent has produced the story that emphatically illustrates the truth about the truths we see as self-evident when we close our eyes or willingly blind ourselves.

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The story of the blind men and the elephant, centuries old, is a parable that will resonate as long as humans walk the Earth. A group of blind men come upon an elephant. They know it is an elephant. They have heard of elephants. But they have no idea what an elephant looks like. Each, then, comes to a conclusion, believed to be the truth, based upon what he feels.

One man, feeling the animal's side, believes the elephant to be very much like a wall.

Another man, feeling the trunk, is certain it must be a snake.

The man with his hands on the tusks concludes the beast is somehow spear-like.

Feeling the elephant's knee, a man concludes the elephant resembles a tree.

The one holding on to a great, flapping ear has no doubt the elephant is like a giant fan.

And the man holding onto the tail, of course, concludes the creature is rope-like in its appearance.

Only by “seeing” the piece of fact felt by their companions can they come to learn the truth. They must share their “vision” and their individual fact-finding. Feeling the elephant through all of their touching lenses.

Life is full of moments when we, as individuals or nations, are like those blind men, assuming we see the whole picture through our one lens. And so life is full of moments when our assumption of what is true is nothing like the truth.

And there are often consequences to pay. Serious consequences at times.

Retired Navy admiral Eric T. Olson spoke directly to this truth during his commencement address at Hampden-Sydney College. Olson, who served as Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and was the first Navy SEAL ever appointed to the three-star and four-star ranks, noted the importance of nuance and context in life.

They are two endangered species, thanks to our reliance on social media “that compress and abbreviate information and on bulletized slide presentations for decision-making” which “have caused a distillation of almost everything into simple and decidedly un-nuanced concepts and phrases. But real life is quite nuanced. Everything and everybody have complexity, subtlety, and depth that defy our attempts to simplify them. By quickly examining a problem through a single lens we miss so much of what is really important. Sometimes the 'why' of things is more critical than the who, what, when or where,” he explained.

Each of the blind men describing, they believed, the whole elephant were actually broadcasting the equivalent of tweets trying to sum up a great novel.

The retired admiral told H-SC's graduating class a true story to illustrate the need for subtlety and context if, to refer again to the Indian parable, we are to see and understand the whole elephant.

Our front-page coverage of the Admiral's speech purposely omitted this vignette so it could be used in this editorial:

“A male Army civil affairs officer in a remote area of Afghanistan a few years ago asked the male village elders what infrastructure project would bring them the most value: a school, a well, a culvert.

“They told them that because the women of the village had to walk 10 kilometers each way, every day, to bring water from the river a well would be of greatest value.

“Misunderstanding the motives of the elders, believing they were trying to improve the life of the women, he organized and funded the digging of a great well, which was celebrated by the elders with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the eating of much goat.

“Six months later, on a follow-up visit to the village to check on the well, the Army team brought a couple of female soldiers with them. The female soldiers had the opportunity to ask the women of the village about how things were for them.

“And the response was that things had been fine until the Americans dug the well and stole away their most precious time of every day. The time when they had walked-slowly-to the river, talking about life, talking about their children, talking about their reality in the village. And then they walked slowly back, enjoying their limited freedom away from their duties among the men in the village.

“We missed, we missed the nuance and the context. We were unable to accurately predict the impact of our actions. We didn't look at the problem through enough lenses. We didn't understand.”

Whatever time “you spend seeking the nuance and perspective, the overlooked fact or factor,” Olson told the H-SC class of 2013, and all of us if we are wise enough to listen, “will be time well spent.”