The Elephant and the Importance of a Reflective Way of Being

You are here

A while ago I shared in my blog the story of a lumberjack. It was the story of an inspiring encounter between a hiker and a lumberjack who was working hard to cut trees with a blunt saw.

On a shallow level one may think this story is about efficiency. That a sharp saw is more effective, and how when we work more effectively we get more done.  On a deeper level this story is about the need of reflection and ongoing learning - about being mindful of a wider perspective of things and the beauty of exchange with others.

By thinking of the great potential that reflection has I would like to share another story which had a very profound impact on me when I first heard it, and it is a story about elephants. Elephants share some surprising traits with us humans, for example they argue over directions, they feel empathy for others and they have rituals to mourn their dead.

In South Asia a simple trick to domesticate elephants is used. The elephants are caught when they are very young and their owner is tying them with a chain around their ankle on a tree which is just big enough to hold it. The young elephant attempts to free itself, however it is very painful undertaking and after a while it’s not trying anymore. After some time the chain is replaced with a string. After some more time the elephant has grown into one of the biggest and strongest animals on our earth.

What is interesting is that the elephant will be still hold by the little tree it was once tied to when it was young. Now the elephant would be easily able to walk in its freedom, the string would be easily ripped off. However, the elephant isn’t questioning this anymore, it is holding onto the belief that by moving against the string it will become painful again. The elephant is rather unaware of its strength, power and greatness.

Of course those who captured the elephant and interact with it on a day to day basis will never allow the elephant to know its true greatness.

I am wondering how this story makes you feel? I am always very touched by it.  On one hand it is a metaphor for aspects of personal beliefs and perception which are holding us back and root in our past. On the other hand it highlights the aspect about what beliefs and perception are nurtured in relationships in families, groups, and in our society.

How often have we said or heard: “we can’t afford to do this”, “it has always been done this way”, “this is the way it has to be done as this is common sense” or “this is the policies and procedure”?

Surely, if critical reflected and explored that might be the case however, I have experienced and have to raise my hand myself, that often it isn’t questioned at all, the reasons for a decision aren’t reflected on. The complexity and challenges of our day-to-day life and work appear at time overwhelming and simple answers and quick fix solutions provided seem as an easy way forward. A culture of critical reflection would provide an alternative of constructively engaging in dilemmas we are facing, but it can be uncomfortable. Less painful it seems to stand with the string tied to what appeared powerful in the past. Or we have experienced that questioning becomes painful and uncomfortable. I have experienced that far too often explorative and curious questions to establish a deeper understanding are taken as critique. “By asking me the question you’re telling me I am wrong” is a feedback I have received when being surprised about the justifying and defending response in a discussion. Far from what I had intended and at the same time by learning about this perception it became the starting point for some more authentic and connecting dialogue.

When I trained to become a Social Pedagogue, reflection was introduced from the beginning to us as an essential way of being. In the course of our qualification it was equally nurtured as a reflection about ourselves to raise our self-awareness as well as about the various systems we are interacting in and we are and becoming part of.

The elephant story is for me an encouragement to step into the great power reflection hold and to loosen and break strings of beliefs and perception which no longer serving growth. It is a reminder for each of us to become who we truly are and to stop to be afraid of creating something new.

I have shared this story at the Social Pedagogy Development Network event and was touched by the feedbacks. One in particular inspired me to some more exploration. A foster carer shared that this story is for him equally a powerful image for children in care and the barriers they have to overcome.

I do very much agree with this. I recall when we were reflecting about ‘what is your image of the child?’ and were introducing the concept of the ‘rich child’ – rich in potential, skills, competence - ‘seeking the meaning of the world from birth, co-creator of knowledge, identity, culture and value’ (P. Moss, 2010), the following group exercise to describe the richness of the children started very slow. It appeared a challenge to see children in care as such. Lots of the perception about children in care stood in the way as well as behaviours the children and young people had learned to cope with incredible difficult situation and crisis before coming into foster or residential care made it hard to see beyond.

Lots of young people have told me that during the process of starting to live independently, they felt very disheartened because they experienced assumptions about them from people who had heard that they had lived in a residential home or being fostered. It made me sad to experience how those beliefs have been internalised too. Looking at the elephant story for me it is about nurturing to break free of those perception and beliefs for each child and of the perception and beliefs about ‘being in care’ so that children and young people have the same chances and access to the opportunity of our society equal to all children.