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Elephants and Rhinos

A dear and cherished friend occasionally feels compelled to affirm her conviction about my life purpose: “You are a truth teller!” She knows her assertion does not make my heart sing. Rather, it conjures images of the Salem witch trials and blurred news reports of an elderly woman, a shaman who lived on the edge of the village, mysteriously stoned to death. It also implies I know “the Truth” which is a bridge too far for me. To avoid the implications of her messaging, I opt for a life purpose that is more familiar: I see and acknowledge elephants in the room.

Though all dictionaries explain this concept, I like Wikipedia’s the best, because it comes closest to what I mean: “The expression ‘the elephant in the room’ (or ‘the elephant in the living room’) is a metaphorical idiom in English for an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable and is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous.” Revealing this elephant: that I own. I actually think it is one of the motivations that undergirds this blog.

I also think my skill in elephant recognition became refined early in my career, while interacting with rooms of male university professors and/or physicians who struggled with relating to an articulate, intelligent and self-governing woman. Most had never intended for women to be at "their" table and they could not figure out how to reverse the trend I represented. Early on I noticed that a percentage of men at the table were less equipped than I was to grapple with the issue at hand, and their limitations were overlooked or accommodated while any flaw of mine would be magnified and revisited endlessly: Elephant in the room. Every person marginalized for some reason understands what I just described.

A closely related metaphor I learned from an unrecallable source. As I remember the discovery, however, it was credited to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and explained what it was like for a child to live in a home where one or both parents were alcoholics, a reality all family members knew but accommodated and denied. It was described as “like living in a home where there was, in the living room, a rhinoceros covered with a sheet, and everyone called this a coffee table.” I was young when I read this, and loved it immediately. I had seven alcoholic uncles, and I think I pictured myself marching into various living rooms, lifting sheets and yelling “Rhino, Rhino, Rhino!!” with abandon and urgency. Expanding the rhino metaphor beyond AA, the dynamic itself applies to many situations where denial creates suffering.

Both elephants and rhinos have been described as “pachyderms”, once a scientific label and now merely a descriptive one. It seems noteworthy to me that this “pachyderm” metaphor has been viewed as useful, at least in the US. “Pachyderm” refers to both thick or thickening skin and to being callous or insensitive. I have often wondered whether my frustration at the “protection” given the callous or insensitive expressions of the pachyderm in a room is a factor in my impulse to reveal this imposter.

Now all this hanging out with elephants and rhinos has evoked in me a search for the meaning of this work as a life purpose. If I am abandoning the “truth teller” biography for one embracing the discovery and revealing of pachyderms, clarity seems urgent. It has seemed to me that many problematic things never get addressed because we are so busy saying they don’t exist that we are therefore quite unlikely to grapple with them. They control our world, our reality, and our experiential outcomes.

I am increasingly convinced that the Covid Cave timeout that so many humans took had a direct impact on our relationship to elephants and rhinos. During our timeout, nearly everything got scrambled and disrupted. Concurrently, we have discovered that our patterns of responding are more fragile or even fractured. As a result, many things that we once viewed as “embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous” (see Wikipedia above) have revealed themselves as serious issues we need to address. There are many more people seeing the elephants, lifting sheets in the living room, speaking out. We are at an inflection point about many of our rhinos and elephants!

For me, this is a dramatic and exciting window of opportunity!! If we can agree on the elephants and rhinos, we can move past their strangle hold on our psyches and figure out alternatives to denial and self-delusion. So having elephant and rhino skills counts these days. Hence, if you have them, start a blog.

It is noticeable that my blog often fails to deliver any useful ideas that clearly map out the future. I think those will be communal processes, not the ideas of solo imaginations. Indeed, one of the elephants in the room is the degree to which we are seduced by autocratic leaders, thinking their “solo imaginations” about reality absolve us of the personal accountabilities we really cannot escape. We will have to write the future as communities of purpose, courage and compassion.

OWLcourage is the voice of one woman’s capacity to see and name the elephants in the room. It does not resolve problems; it shines a light on them to catalyze consciousness, conviction, courage, and community action. As much as I wish I could offer a magic solution machine, I experience peace and joy in this purpose. It looks a lot like truth telling but actually is just one woman hanging out with helpful pachyderms.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

- James Baldwin -

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