One Part of the Whole

Agree. This is one of those words that I automatically associate with its opposite – disagree. Agree has lovely images of harmony and unity, to be of one mind. This rarely happens.

Several years ago, I worked on a committee with someone who routinely stated, “We can all agree that . . .” knowing full well that we didn’t all agree. He knew his agenda wasn’t popular and required a lot of work from people who didn’t share his vision. Whenever he said, “We can all agree” he set up a power dynamic where he was right and those who disagreed were wrong. This put those who disagreed in the position of actively choosing to speak up or put up, to fight or give in, to agree or disagree.

It was exhausting. Trying to agree on who is right and who is wrong always is. Forcing people to agree is authoritarian. Being forced to agree is demoralizing.

It reminds me of a fable I share with my students, The Blind Men and the Elephant. One day, six blind men in a small village hear about an elephant. They start speculating about what it must be like and soon disagree. After some time, the villagers tire of the argument and take the men to an actual elephant. Each man feels a different part of the animal.

BasantiKali2The man who feels the trunk thinks it’s like a snake. The man who feels the ear imagines a fan.  The man who feels the leg experiences a tree. The man who feels the side encounters a wall. The man who feels the tail is reminded of a rope. And the man who feels the tusk is confident it’s like a spear.

Who is right and who is wrong?

They all are. Each of them understands their own perspective, their truth. But they all lack knowledge of the whole, the entire truth. We all do. None of us knows the entire big picture or the entire truth of any situation. We only know our part from our perspective.

Often, agreement means forcing someone with a different perspective to acquiesce to the perspective of another. Instead of looking at different perspectives like puzzle pieces, we usually cling to our one piece and insist that those who disagree are wrong and need to admit the truth of our piece. Instead of joining our pieces together, giving both a better understanding of the whole, we hoard our piece and blame those who don’t have access to it for not knowing what we do.

Perhaps instead we could share our perspectives and together experience the magnificent beauty and grandeur of the elephant.