My side of the elephant

Perspective is a funny thing. What you see is greatly affected by where you sit. That's why, from the very first time I heard the Buddhist parable about the blind men describing an elephant - one was touching its trunk, the others different body parts - and coming up with a vastly different creature, I've loved it. It so accurately describes the world we live in.

A male friend who recently went through an acrimonious divorce has a very different view of relationships these days from another good friend who has been happily married for two decades.

Both guys are middle-aged, successful, Caucasian. But listening to them speak of marriage, and women, a visitor from another planet would think they were describing different worlds and different creatures, not simply different marriages.

These thoughts about perspective are front and center because of two recent experiences I've had.

The first took place at a small family get-together that included my two daughters and my ex-wife. Since the ex and I have now been divorced 20 years, and since we took turns raising our daughters in their teens, we can be in the same room for a couple of hours without the need for restraining orders and mediators.

Somewhere in a pleasant, rambling conversation, aided by beer and wine, one of my daughters mentioned a long-ago family function that ended in a fight - not involving the ex-wife and me. All four of us recounted well-polished anecdotal memories of that day. I discovered later, by talking with my daughters individually, that each had told friends their stories of that nearly forgotten day and an argument between familial antagonists who have been dead for at least a decade.

Each of us remembered the incident differently. Each of us placed the emphasis on different parts of the bygone day. And each of us came to and developed different conclusions to explain not only what happened but what lessons we'd learned.

Almost nothing three intelligent women remembered jibed with my memories, at all. Even our memories are elephant. Our perspectives are shaped by not only our race, gender, age and place of origin, but also the way we remember and, sadly, what we forget.

Even our style of mentally editing life experiences is different. And these are family members, people I know (or knew at one time) very well. If we can't agree, how in God's name will there ever be peace between radical Islam and the fundamentalist Christian thinking of someone like George W. Bush?

Not long after the family memory stew meltdown, I was at a party down south, near Tacoma, with some friends I've seen occasionally since a three-year journalism stint in Kitsap County.

Many of my Seattle friends in the mid-'90s, when I first went to Port Orchard - surrounded, as they would have said, by rednecks and sailors - seemed surprised that I thrived socially over there. They had mistaken me, because of my agreement with them on abortion, national politics and the general money-mad tenor of modern urban American life, for a fellow liberal.

I like to think of myself as an independent with liberal social leanings.

I am, after all, in addition to my political views, a Vietnam-era vet raised in a family where men had lost their lives in World War II. And I grew up in one of the most reactionary cities in the United States, Cincinnati.

I got along fine in Kitsap County, without trimming my conversational sails all that much. But the war in Iraq and the entire Bush 43 presidency has radicalized me a bit, and after a few beers at this recent down-south reunion I began taking offense at what some of my former co-workers were saying. They, coming from a more rural, Love It or Leave It (rather than Fix It) background, quickly allowed their arguments to degenerate into name-calling and mutterings about how much I'd changed.

The day ended without fisticuffs, but it also ended badly. I probably won't be heading that way again any time soon.

But now that my emotions have cooled, I realize the argument wasn't really about Iraq or political greed for power dressed up as religiously bent patriotism.

We were, rather, fighting about one of the biggest elephants - our version of who we are and the country we live in. Their elephant looked like a bloated, bullying paper tiger to me. My elephant looked like a red skunk to them.

It happens, every day. Just depends where you are looking when the elephant walks by.

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