What Does the Elephant Look Like?
An elephant was brought into a small town. The townspeople, who had never seen an elephant before, gathered outside the place where the animal was housed, curious as to what the beast was like. The night had fallen, and it was pitch dark, but they insisted on entering to find out as much as they could. The next day, when those who had been unable to go in asked the lucky observers, “So, what is an elephant like?” the answers were intriguing. Those who had touched the elephant's foot said, “O, the animal is like a big, thick column!” while those who had felt the trunk insisted that it was more like a drain pipe. The few who had reached up and touched the ear objected to both descriptions. “In fact,” they said, “an elephant is very much the shape of a large fan.”
Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, related this tale in theiktenavi,his major book on mystical thought. He concluded it simply to drive his point home: “If they each had a candle, they would all be looking at the same beast.” The story itself is much older than Rumi. It has traveled through many cultures, each of which has created its own variation on the theme of the dangers of partial or distorted vision. It is time for us to retell the story in the twenty-first century in the United States of America to articulate one of the biggest challenges of our time. The challenge is to see each other's humanity, and the question is: where are the candles?
A cursory look around suggests ample opportunities to learn about each other. Our globe gets smaller by the day. We can now physically visit the most reticent of cultures. And new electronic means of contact develop daily: satellite images, Web logs, virtual chat rooms, text messaging, and more. E-mail is already looking outmoded and old-fashioned. And we have—proudly—chosen to name this the information age. Yet we know, deep down, that there are important gaps in what our information sources tell us about the world. This is particularly true of places such as the Muslim Middle East from which we perceive a sense of threat, though how much of a threat, and how to deal with it, we know not.