An experience involving an elephant and a tween took place at the sleep-away camp where I worked this summer.
Except that it wasn’t a real elephant, of course. It was an elephant in the room.
My story begins with a simple observation I made while working as camp doctor at the sleep-away this past summer.
Here’s what happened
A special needs child, having fallen and hit her head, needed to be observed in the infirmary at the camp. She laid down in the room next to mine, where we temporarily kept those who we needed to keep our eye on. There was one other boy in the room, in the bed next to hers, who was being monitored as well.
The girl was in her mid-teens, a very sweet young woman, who also happened to be a camper from the special needs camp. At this moment in time, something had set her off, and she was extremely loud, screaming at her counselor, making abrupt & aggressive demands, and causing a ruckus.
It sounded like a zoo.
I looked into the room, bracing myself for the scene, and was taken aback by the way the boy next to her had reacted.
To put it simply, he didn’t
The young boy, 12, did not even blink. He didn’t wince or give a dirty look. Didn’t even say a word.. about the elephant in the room.
Are you familiar with the term, elephant in the room? I’ll define it here, in case you’re not.
elephant in the room. informal. If you say there is an elephant in the room, you mean that there is an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.
Now that our definition is squared away, I’ll continue the story.
I was absolutely amazed at how he dealt with the time he was there, resting, watching a movie on the television (which happened to have been stationed right across the room, with the screaming girl within his field of vision). He didn’t once complain. There was even a bed, empty, just a few feet over, which he didn’t ask to be move into, as I expected he would. Not even once.
The elephant was charging at him, full speed ahead- metaphorically speaking, of course- and he didn’t as much as utter a sound.
He just stared straight ahead, watching his show, completely accepting of the circus that was rumbling around him, unaffected in the most real and raw way that could be.
In front of me, and in my head for a long time after, the scene re-played itself again and again, so beautifully, so inspiring, and so amazing to watch. Not only because of its purity, but also because he was the child and I, the adult.
Would you have reacted this way? By not reacting?
I know would have had trouble.
It warmed my heart to see such acceptance and in turn, I pose this question, both to myself and to my readers: when do we lose that sweet innocence that is so understanding of others, especially when they’re not what we consider as part of ‘the norm’?
Do we lose this amazing trait as we age?
Do we become more grouchy, less accepting of others?
I see people in my everyday life exchanging rude remarks with one another. People often butt in where it’s often not their place.
Is it because I live near New York City, a place so notorious for bluntness of behaviors, referred to by some in other areas as obnoxious? Are attitudes different elsewhere? Is our reaction to those that are different than us a function of where we live? Maybe it’s the climate?
Are we all born with a sweet demeanor? Do we lose it someplace along the way?
Is it in our genes?
Are we born with a tabula rasa, with an innocence like that of the tween boy I saw? Is it our baseline setting?
Are we then nurtured by our environment?
Dr. Oliver James, a child clinical psychologist and author, thinks so. Some of his thoughts are highlighted in this 2014 Metro article called What Gives Us Our Personality? Nature Takes on Nurture. You can click on it to read it.)
Are we taught to change, to react the way we often do in these similar situations, with anger and impatience?
Does anyone have the answers?
I know I don’t. But becoming more accepting, for me, is worthy of a meaningful dig.
If, by asking these questions, they initiate a self-imposed reassessment, a sort of survey we give to ourselves, they may be valuable in asking on a regular basis. A self-evaluation of how we look at others, of how we treat them.
If we all look deep inside, maybe we can reconsider the way in which we look at, judge, and treat others around us, who may not have the same life as we do.
I always remind myself that each person out there has their own issue. All of us have problems which need to be worked on in our lives. No one is perfect. But it’s up to us to look past outward appearances and remember that fact, when others may not be the best or nicest that they can be.
Looking past appearances
I don’t just mean outward, physical appearances. I’m referring to the way in which situations appear.
Maybe the man that just yelled at you had learned earlier in the day that his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. Maybe the girl who pushed you in line was battling her own demons and felt depressed, on medications, or struggling to get through it on her own. Maybe the young cashier who snapped at you from behind the register had a rocky past, was neglected, or even abused.
How do you react in these scenarios and are you the best person that you can be?
Lessons like this one, learned from the tween boy at the sleepaway camp infirmary, and his attitude toward the elephant in the room, are worth every minute of our time. They teach us to not only re-examine who we truly are on the inside, but how to change it on the outside and, in turn, become more accepting of others who are not like us.
We are all elephants in the room.