Three blind men were asked to touch an elephant and describe it to the other two men. One felt the leg, and he told his friends that the elephant was like a tree. Another felt the tail and told his friends that an elephant was like a rope. The third man felt the ear and said the elephant was like a leaf. All the men were right, but they confused the respective parts for the whole.
The risk we run when we study the four tenets individually is that we’ll forget their significance when applied together. Make no mistake, the tenets are not solely good principals to live by, they’re a comprehensive worldview that contrasts sharply with the bill of goods we’re sold in our culture and at our schools.
The lie we’re bombarded with is that life is about us. We’re told that more consumption, more experiences, and more sex will make us happy. We’re told that staying happy is the best use of our time, talent, and treasures. I’ve become convicted that the four tenets challenge that perspective directly. I think we each know this is not a truth upon which we can build and sustain a fulfilling life.
Below I share what life has taught me about each of the tenets. Understand my perspective continues to change, and I can only report what I’ve seen just a few years ahead of you.
This is the easiest to confuse. It traces to Socrates’ exhortation to “know thyself.” Yet we often replace self-knowledge with self-identification. Ask someone to describe themselves, and you’ll hear:
“I’m from Waco, and I work for Southwest. I’ve been here, I like this, and I’m into that.”
It’s much easier to frame ourselves with externals. These categories become our identity. But this is not self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge comes from the purposeful and sometimes painful process of pushing past the external things that define us to the internal desires that make us who we are. I experienced this most clearly when I moved to China and couldn’t speak a word to anyone else. No one there cared about my accolades or my family. I didn’t know who I was or what that meant.
I challenge you to step past your identity. Push deeper and see how you describe yourself without externals. When you do, you’ll find yourself better equipped to know and realize your dreams. You’ll also find the certainty of self-knowledge a sure place to dwell when confronted with the rush of daily life.
I’ve learned that compassion is not community service, it’s not giving a dollar to a homeless person, and it’s not a sad feeling when you visit an orphanage. I’ve walked each of these roads, and every time I glimpsed someone’s pain and retreated back to the comfort of my own lifestyle I was the only person who benefited.
We often mistake guilt for compassion; it ends as a feeling without being joined to meaningful action. Think of a homeless person.
When you offer a few bucks and drive away you’ve only helped yourself. It’s not about how they spend the money, it’s about where you meet them. Do you want to go into their pain, remain there, and walk with them to something better? Is changing one person’s life worth it? Is it still worth it if you end up failing?
It’s complicated, and that’s the point. Homelessness, like everything else, doesn’t have a simple diagnosis or patent solutions. Life and relationships are messy and failing doesn’t mean failure. I’m asking you to move into the pain. Compassion is a willingness to remain in that place of discomfort with another.
To me, community and family are synonymous. You can’t go through life alone, and you need people to encourage you, to push you, and to welcome you back. People also need you to do the same for them. We choose most of our communities – faith families, work environments, and neighborhoods – so be thoughtful.
My strongest encouragement is to choose a community that isn’t homogenous. If our communities are healthy and causing us to grow they should differ in age, sex, race, religion, and political perspective. Invest in these communities and nurture them. You will find, as I have, that you learn the most from those the world values least.
Our society is fractured by injustices, disparities, and prejudices. We need more bridge-builders willing to consider opposing perspectives; more stakeholders who don’t think being right is more important than being in relationship; more people with the courage to have honest dialogue. We need to strive together to protect against the tyranny of a singular perspective. What would happen if we clung tighter to relationships than to creeds? As a leader, I’m asking you to start constructing a mosaic whose varicolored pieces create a much grander picture.
When the three blind men described the elephant they didn’t realize each piece might be connected to another. I’m asking you to see the connections and weigh the conclusion. I’m encouraging you to renew your commitment to a lifestyle that considers others as more important than yourself. If made, this commitment has very real implications for how you spend your time and where you invest your talent. My life and yours are not only about us. A life lived serving those around us will make us much happier than a life lived for ourselves.
This post was written by Hudson Baird – Vanderbilt alum, executive director of PelotonU and Forum Facilitator.
Leading up to the 2014 Texas Student Leadership Forum, we plan to post one blog per week centered around the four tenets of the Forum. We invite anyone to contribute to the discussion – please email email@example.com if you’re interested in writing.