Seeing the Elephant
Recently, I was asked by the friend of a friend if I would be the speaker at the annual banquet of a local professional organization. The group would have no difficulty locating a good speaker, so I was perplexed as to what they thought I might have to say that they would be interested in.
I died laughing when I was told that the theme for the evening was “Be Brave.” The bravest thing I’ve ever done was read a Stephen King novel. Even then, I had to read it with the lights on.
Why in the world would this group ever ask a complete coward like me to talk on the subject of bravery? The answer, I suspect, isn’t very profound. To live as someone who is blind, automatically makes you brave or, alternatively, courageous, awesome (to use that greatly overused word), or inspirational. Like virtually every other blind person I have ever known, I have never in my life, even for a nanosecond, ever thought of myself as anything remarkable.
So, why then, do so many people think that living as a blind person is something special? I imagine that most of us apply words like “brave” and “courageous” to experiences like mountain climbing or combat that we have not had ourselves and doubt in our inner heart of hearts that we could do. I’m captivated by John Krakauer’s writings about mountain climbing. (Growing up in Kansas as I did, all I knew about mountains is that they’re where Coors beer came from.) I’m absolutely certain, however, that if I were magically transported to the base of Everest, my small inner voice would be screaming, “You need to be institutionalized if you think you’re going to climb that thing.”
Soldiers in the Civil War had an expression, “to see the elephant.” It was shorthand for combat and, more particularly, how they would react to the experience. Probably everyone who has ever gone into battle, from the Stone Age to the Nuclear, has secretly questioned how they would do when actually tested. You can hope you will do well but you can never be certain. Maybe I would cower in my foxhole. Maybe I would win the Congressional Medal of Honor. But I will never know for certain until I have the actual experience. Until then, I think of those who have passed through the fire as having a quality I would hope I have but am not certain I do.
I imagine that, for a great many people, blindness is “seeing the elephant.” They can’t imagine how they would confront it and doubt whether or not they would have the inner qualities to be successful in the same way I can’t imagine climbing Mt. Everest. I know I don’t have the requisite skills now. I don’t even know what skills those are. But, hard as it is to imagine, I suspect that, confronted with the necessity, I could learn those. In the beginning, I wouldn’t expect to climb Everest. I’d begin by practicing my skills on smaller, more realistic mountains. In the end, I’m certain I’d be a far more skilled climber than I could have ever imagine and, in the process, would have stilled my small inner voice and mastered the elephant.
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