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Of Elephants


There is a phrase ("the elephant in the room") which is a wonderful description of a situation where a group of people are more or less mutually conspiring to ignore some huge problem in their communications with one another.  It's like they have an elephant in the room where they are talking, but no one dares to even say, "Hey, what is that elephant doing here?"  They just ignore it and carry on as though everything is normal.

This describes the way that many people live their lives, and yet it is, IMO, neither healthy psychologically, nor helpful spiritually.  Yeah, sure, there is good sense in not magnifying problems for which we do not have solutions; but a simple acknowledgement that problems exist (and that both sides are keen to find a solution if one can be found) is quite different to ignoring the problem altogether.  The concept of a elephant in the room refers to a situation where behaviour and communication are actually proceeding in opposition to the ignored reality.

Communication between people who work together can often seem quite friendly and positive, but only because they don't really know each other intimately.  In most job type situations, elephants do not come up, because the level of fellowship does not extend into life outside the workplace.  Workers share jokes, trivia, and maybe the occasional problem or complaint that they have with someone else on the job, but overall, one gets the impression that there is great unity, even though the unity is relatively shallow.

Of course, at home, where it's harder to ignore differences, it can take a very strong deliberate effort to pretend that problems do not exist.  Like I said above, sometimes agreeing to disagree and then moving on is the best we can do.  But to totally pretend, for example, that there ARE no problems seems to be a form of denial that is not at all helpful.

The most common example of this tendency to avoid the elephant is the elephant of death.  We go through most of our lives avoiding any thought about this great over-riding reality of our existence.  Because we do not have absolute or complete answers to either how we got here or where we go after we die, most people find it easier to just ignore the "elephant" and live each day without much thought of dying.  Even in the face of imminent death (e.g. due to an incurable disease like cancer) most people will go into some form of denial.  When they do accept that they are going to die, they generally refuse to let themselves think about whether there may be some kind of judgment, followed by punishments and rewards after we die.  And so they miss out on being morally prepared for something that religions around the world hint at… i.e. an eternal afterlife which is based on how we lived our lives here. 

But back to the more mundane elephants.

How genuine is our communication with anyone?  There are so many social pressures to conform, that most people eventually accept that some topics are taboo if you want to be popular.  In the search for popularity, sometimes a whole herd of elephants wander through the room without anyone daring to point them out.  It happens in families, in clubs and other organisations, and even with people we meet rather casually throughout the day.

Hans Christian Anderson illustrated this phenomena in his classic story The Emperor's New Clothes, where everyone in town conspired in the lie that they could see clothes on the king, when, in fact, he was wearing none.  Superficially, the town looked to be happy, contented, and united.  But you had to act as though the king was NOT wandering around in his underwear in order to maintain that veneer of respectability.

The same thing happens in families, where skeletons of all sorts are stashed away in a closet someplace, so that the house will look respectable when visitors arrive.  Far from building character, such strategies mostly seem to fracture "integrity".  (The word "integrity" comes from wholeness, something that is impossible to maintain if we have to pretend things are fine when they are not.)

Plastic smiles and religious jargon can never take the place of genuine, open communication, even if the genuine article includes some moments of tension and disagreement.  The shallow unity of so much of the world can confuse people who have genuine deep unity with one another, making us think that others have dealt with their elephants when they really have not.

I feel great sadness for many in the world, when I realise how much they need to hide from one another in order to avoid ostracism or other painful experiences.  While I cannot force others to acknowledge or confront their elephants (including ones that involve me), I CAN let it all hang out in my  relationship with God.  For me personally, I also have the privilege of having a handful of friends with whom I can share my deepest feelings and beliefs without fear of reprisal.  I would hope that others may find some of that too, whether through honest sharing with friends or through a complete openness with God.

In conclusion, I would encourage people to think seriously about the various "elephants" that they try to avoid, with a view to acknowledging at least some of them, and giving some serious thought to finding ways to deal with them.  At the very least, recognising that these problems exist will help us to develop personal integrity, and with effort we may be able to build closer relationships with people by facing the elephants that stand between us.

The bottom line is to start by being honest about the elephants with God, whether or not we are able to open up about them with other people.
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