Seeing the Elephant
by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith
It’s natural to protect ourselves from information we perceive as threatening. But it can be a big monkey wrench in seeing the elephant and recognizing God.
Four blind men encounter an elephant. One grabs the leg and concludes it is a tree trunk. One holds the tail thinking it is a whip. Another touches the elephant’s trunk and decides it’s a hose and the fourth man pats the side concluding it’s a wall.
The wise man tells them, “All of you are right.”
The first time I heard this parable, I thought it was illustrating that truth is relative. Here are four different people, each one coming away with very different conclusions.
Years later I realized the story conveys exactly the opposite: truth is objective. After all, is there an elephant? Of course an elephant is there! That is the objective reality, independent of anyone’s viewpoint.
Truth is complex, multi-faceted, and at times very difficult to fully grasp. But it’s not relative. There is truth out there; we just need to figure out what piece of the puzzle we’re holding onto.
The four blind men fell prey to a common mistake: reaching conclusions without sufficient information. Based on an elephant’s trunk alone, it is unlikely anyone will come to an accurate conclusion.
The four blind men should talk to each other and share their information. By putting all the pieces together, a clearer picture will begin to emerge and some initial conclusions could be made: this is not a piece of furniture, it’s definitely a large four-legged animal. With more and more information the picture will eventually sharpen, revealing the identity of the elephant.
The Hebrew word for truth, emet, is comprised of three letters, the first, the middle and the last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, because truth is a composite of the whole — the beginning, the middle and the end. In order to come to a just verdict, a judge tries to get as complete a picture as possible.
Seeing the elephant is by no means easy. It requires an openness to challenge our axioms, assumptions and beliefs. A genuinely open mind can be daunting.
Let’s take for example the blind man who mistakenly thought he was grasping a hose, not a trunk of an elephant. We’ll call him Mr. Gray. Based on his discovery, Mr. Gray goes on to write best-selling books on the nature of “hose,” becoming a famous, successful author and frequent guest on the talk-show circuit. He establishes a chair in a prestigious university dedicated to researching the nature and benefits of “hose.”
One day there is a knock on his door. “Pardon me, sir. Are you Mr. Gray, the author of The 7 Secrets of Hose?”
“Yes I am,” he proudly answers.
“Well I have some very important information for you, Mr. Gray. I don’t know exactly how to tell you this but … you got it all wrong! You weren’t holding a hose. You were holding a trunk of an elephant!!”
How does Mr. Gray react to this information? Does he say: “You mean to tell me I’ve been making a mistake all these years? Gosh, it’s a good thing you told me! How can I ever thank you?!”
More likely Mr. Gray slams the door on the guy’s face. It is a natural reaction. We want to protect ourselves from information we perceive as threatening, especially when we sense it may be true. Mr. Gray instinctively throws up a defensive barrier attempting to shut out the truth that has come to tarnish his reputation and career.
Only computers assess data devoid of all emotion. Our volatile emotional world often clashes with our rational intellect. When faced with consequences we perceive to be potentially painful, whether it’s a wounded ego or a difficult change, the heart struggles with the mind. It doesn’t matter if those negative consequences have nothing to do with reality. When feeling threatened, our knee-jerk reaction is to shut all systems down, reject the data and override our desire for truth.
NO ONE IS IMMUNE TO COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
This is called cognitive dissonance. It is the major monkey wrench in seeking the truth — and no one is immune.
The discovery that the earth is round was initially rejected, even in the 17th century when Galileo presented undeniable proof through the usage of new telescopes. Without understanding gravity, people could not comprehend why they were not falling off the earth. Accepting this bizarre notion was too unsettling, and besides, who likes to admit that they’re wrong? It was much easier for people to just ignore the facts.
The Torah recognizes that everyone is prone to bias:
You shall not pervert justice, you shall not display favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and distorts words that are just. (Deut. 16:19)
The Torah is addressing all of us. Anytime we make a decision we are in the position of being a judge, and we need to check the subtle and not so subtle bribes that cloud our thinking.
COGNITIVE DISSONANCE AND GOD
When it comes to recognizing the existence of God, cognitive dissonance can be a tremendous obstacle. Rightly or wrongly, many of us view God in ways that can make Him a real turn-off. Some of the more common negative associations people may have with God are:
- God, the Killjoy.
The existence of God presents an unbearably high standard of morality which snuffs out freedom and unadulterated fun.
- God, the Tyrant.
With so much pain and suffering in the world, it seems that God sure has a lot of explaining to do. War, starvation, domestic violence, natural disasters -– what kind of God is this?
- God, the Unknowable.
There’s something out there that I can’t understand!? I’m supposed to relate to a dimension that is beyond me? We have free will and yet God knows everything? How can I live with paradox? I give up.
- God, the Unfashionable.
Take a leap of faith and have everyone think I flipped my lid? Actually pray and take this religion stuff seriously? No, thank you. Religion is outdated and not for me.
Since cognitive dissonance can be so strong when dealing with the issue of God’s existence, it is important to be aware of its influence.
It’s a struggle to attain objectivity. How do we overcome internal bias? Are we hopelessly lost within our own subjectivity?
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes:
… bias never entirely obscures the truth. Even after the desires of one’s heart have persuaded him to accept the false way as true, he still knows in his heart of hearts that the true path is “truer” than the other one. He accepts falsehood as a substitute for the truth, not as truth itself … Every human being thus has the faculty of determining in his own heart where the real truth lies. (“Strive for Truth: The Truth Perspective”)
We never lose the objective part of ourselves. Even in the midst of an argument when our emotions flair, we know that if we really wanted to we could force ourselves to be objective and hear the other side. We could even admit we’re wrong.
In spite of the fog, we can still be honest. It’s not easy, but when we decide that truth is always in our best interest, we are motivated to rise above the emotions and to work hard at ensuring that our mind is out in front leading our decisions.
Let’s go find that elephant.
This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/sp/ph/48917627.html