There is the old saw about two blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling it with their hands — one standing in the front, the other at the rear end — and how by their descriptions both would think they were examining a completely different animal! To stretch that analogy, I think that each of us, in a very real way, are only able to describe the part of the “elephant” of life that we are touching, in that each of our lives is so very specific in circumstance, opportunity, and geography that our perception of reality is destined to be incomplete: we can never hope to have the complete picture, as it were. And yet the blind men at different ends of the elephant — though one may be feeling a trunk and another a…tail — will still be describing some elements that are common to both ends of a single animal. This is why we can, for instance, enjoy art and literature from people who are living lives very different from our own: we are each having our own unique experience of a universal experience: life.
I’ll stretch the analogy a bit further, and describe science as the attempt to “see” every part of the “elephant” by examining the tiniest bits of it — and then adding all of those bits together with the most distant perspectives we can get — to form a complete picture. I think this is a noble thing. I think the problem comes in when people who are touching only their square inches of the great cosmic pachyderm think that they are touching the entire thing, and dismiss the very idea that there are different perspectives.
I’ve noticed that when I write opinion pieces for the local newspaper, I write to a different audience. I write more like a missionary — as if I’m talking to the uninformed. Here, I write more like I’m writing to colleagues, companions on this journey that have joined themselves into a loosely-organized caravan headed in roughly the same direction. When I write for the paper, I get a load of comments from those that think their square inch of elephant is the whole thing. They are clearly annoyed at me for wanting them to think otherwise.
But i happen to be the kind of person that derives pleasure from the way I’ve grown to think about things. I enjoy ideas, and the way my brain has turned out to be a curious one, moving from thought to thought like a bumble bee from flower to flower, gathering pollen as it goes.
For instance, while eating some strawberries, my mind wandered to the following subjects: a recognition that the golf ball sized berries I was eating were most certainly the product of unnatural selection by human breeders; that there were millions of people on this earth who would give just about anything to be able to sit and eat the berries I was eating in quiet and safety; a pang of guilt over my excesses of consumption (treating myself to an entire pint of strawberries); a musing over the question of human compassion, all while still managing to fully enjoy those berries.
I am an extremely lucky human, by any historical measure. I may be low-income by contemporary American standards, but the fact that I have a comfortable place to lay my head in peace each night and a pretty high degree of freedom from fear instantly separates me from most of my ancestors and many humans alive today.
My Ice Age brain struggles with the demands of modern knowledge. How do I adjust my naturally-evolved sense of blood-relation compassion to an entire human family? How do I satisfy my social-animal need to see myself as a good person when that is always in tension with my inherently selfish survival instinct? How do I enjoy the ripe strawberry in front of me knowing that I could give up some of what I own and make lives much worse than mine exponentially better, or — to take it further — give up everything I own and not put a dent in the human suffering on the planet? How do I pay attention to the part of the elephant I can touch without being overwhelmed by the other parts of the vast animal that I hear about, but can never completely explore myself?
This is the condition of the modern human, complicated by the technology and science-aided awareness of our time.
There is no complete answer to it. I donate a enough money Heifer International (it’s not much) to buy a goat a year for someone I’ll never meet. Why? To lessen feelings of selfishness generated by my sense of good fortune and abiding happiness. And I endeavor to blend the work that satisfies me with work that brings pleasure and solace to my fellow humans. In short, I practice a sort of reciprocal altruism that we humans have developed over the millennia. I don’t give because I expect something back from those to whom I give (such as a shipment of home-made goat cheese from Indonesia or wherever), but I do give because I know that it will make me a happier person. For we learn from experience that the satisfying of a craving or lust is not what creates a state of happiness (for the consummation of a craving is much more about alleviating the extreme discomfort of the craving). No: we learn that the more abiding sense of happiness comes from what we call “generous” or “kind” behavior, in that it waters the seeds of warm social relationships (and we humans are wired to be all about social relationships).
In practical terms, to be quite honest, I find myself testing the limits of how far I can go in getting what I want while maintaining my cherished place in my social family — my community. The paradox being that if I give more than others, I am held in higher esteem, and may then have more opportunity for getting what I want. But if I want something that carries a high social risk, I am faced with getting right back to where I started if I actually take advantage of my opportunities. Interesting this (and, it turns out, one of the main arguments against human morality being a Heavenly mandate — the entire dynamic that keeps the non-sociopathic in line is right here in our human troop).
This is what life is like: a mix of competing needs, desires, pressures and satisfactions that takes a massive, calorie-consuming brain such as ours to keep track of. But there I am again, talking about the whole elephant.
There is a certain comfort in recognizing the reality that we live in. At least to me there is (even if understanding just how complex our social interactions are does nothing to make them less complicated!)
Thanks to science, we now understand a great deal about how our individual lives fit within the scheme of the larger life that surrounds us (the elephant). We also understand a great deal more about our individual minds, bodies and personalities (the part of the elephant we touch, taste, smell, hear and see). This bounty of information challenges the comprehensive power of our primate brains, even as it challenges our evolved blood-kin centered compassion. Accepting this reality may not make things less challenging or complex, but it can help us enjoy the sweet strawberries that life sets before us as we keep exploring our bit of the cosmic elephant.