Three blind men were asked to describe an elephant. One felt the trunk and quickly announced: “An elephant is long and thin.” The second, who felt the ear, countered: “No, it’s broad and flat.” The third, who felt the leg, said: “You’re both wrong – it’s thick and round.” Each man was so sure that he was right that they ended up fighting over it.
This is one of my favourite stories because it reminds us that we are all explorers in life, groping in the dark, and that we should be patient with ourselves and with others as we muddle along together, learning about ourselves and our ever-changing world.
And, because it is a story, it is far more memorable than, for example, the explanation I offered afterwards. That’s the magical power of stories. In fact, the word “spell” meant “story” in Old English – and storytelling is a kind of “spellcraft”.
“We are part human, part stories,” says author and poet Ben Okri in Birds of Heaven, adding that people are “as healthy and confident as they stories they tell themselves”.
We tell ourselves stories all the time, often at the back of our mind and just beyond our inner hearing; sometimes dominating our thoughts as we try in vain to grasp at a permanent, unchangeable sense of self, or seek to justify our behaviour and decisions or to “prove” that our (limited) view of the world is the right one.
Religions are full of tales woven to give meaning to our lives. This creative engagement with life’s mysteries is, on the whole, a good thing as long as we do not confuse fact with fiction, or insist that an ear is the whole elephant. And as long as the stories – these experiments with truth - do not become set in stone and entomb our creativity and wonder.
And some stories certainly do leave you spellbound. The Christmas story, for example, is probably the best known in the world – and what makes it even more special is the likelihood that, in essence, it probably dates back to well before Jesus was born. It is generally accepted that he was not born on what we now call Christmas day (it was far more likely to have been in the spring). The date was chosen many years later to coincide with a similar festival that was already popular: the Winter Solstice (December 21) – which, in pre-Christian times, saw the rebirth of the Sun God (later, the Son of God). It is one of eight festivals throughout the year when we can reconnect with the cycle of nature’s seasons and the seasons of our lives; a time to pause in the hustle and bustle of everyday existence.
It also reminds us that only out of darkness does light arise. It may be the longest night, but even our darkest times can be pregnant with hope.
We have all known periods in our lives when we feel we are descending into darkness. And, like the blind men in the story, our perception can become very limited – focused in on our pain. But, the Winter Solstice reminds us that, just as the sun descends and the light seems to be going out, the soul’s rebirth is only a daybreak away. Of course, winter is still not over and there will be chill winds ahead, but the light is regaining its power.
The Christmas we celebrate today is a blend of stories and traditions handed down to us by the Romans (with their festival of Saturnalia), the Norse and Anglo-Saxons (Yule – believed to mean the wheel of the sun), the Persians (Yalda - when the Sun God Mithras was born to a virgin mother) and, of course, Britain’s Druids.
But what it comes down to is rebirth, hope, peace and goodwill to all. And that, I believe, is something worth celebrating, whatever your religion.
So, is it the greatest story ever told? Maybe. But we have a whole lot of elephant still to discover.