Elephant Story

Crossing Divides

Blind Men and the Elephant

A Poem by John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean;

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen

Point of View

Does the parable sound more trite with every retelling? Does humorous verse help the story, or trivialize it further?

Everyone knows that one part of something is not the same as all the parts together. The parable teaches what is already obvious.

This is a reasonable point of view. As long as it doesn’t preclude other points of view. Other points of view that might also be worth considering.

Maybe not all points of view are worth considering. What if someone pretends to be describing part of an elephant, but is making it up? Or what if someone believes what she is saying, but is simply wrong? Or what if she isn’t wrong, but is touching elephant food rather than an actual elephant?

That’s another reasonable point of view. Keep it in mind. But don’t discount other points of view because of it.

Conflicting ideas aren’t good ideas conflicting with bad ideas. Like parts of an elephant, all ideas are good in their place.

Frame Size

If including all parts of the elephant sounds like a good idea, is there a way to make it more of a habit?

The answer is frame size. Too small a frame cuts out whatever doesn’t fit. A precise elephant frame, for example, limits your understanding of other mammals. What’s that little knob where a trunk should be? Too large a frame includes too many distracting irrelevancies. A general mammal frame, for example, leaves you guessing whether to feed your elephant nectarines or a steak.

To Cross Divides, expand the frame until all ideas fit—while keeping it small enough to maintain focus. For example, to resolve conflicts between hot and cold, expand the frame to temperature—which comfortably accommodates both.

To put ideas into practice, shrink the frame as much as possible. Just don’t shrink it too much.