Working With the Inner Elephant
It’s early. Four thirty a.m. I’m awake in the dark and can’t go back to sleep. Yesterday, I could barely wake up. This morning, I find myself in a state of unpleasant arousal. I’m pretty sure the minor building repairs we discussed last night are not going to lead to the ruin of the Temple, but my elephant is worried. This elephant is my new metaphor for the part of me that is not subject to the command and control of my reasoning mind. I think I’ll call him Herkimer.
Jonathan Haidt gave him to me.
Herkimer is often a very pleasant fellow. He’s well-meaning, but he worries a lot and he’s incredibly stubborn. When he begins to worry, my carefully reasoned reassurances are not only ineffective, they actually seem to goad him into more anxiety. Listen to this conversation from this morning:
David: ‘This stuff is not a big deal. I’ll make some phone calls today to get the ball rolling. We’ll get some people over to take care of these issues.’
Herk: ’You probably won’t remember to make the calls. You don’t have time and even if you do make the calls, you probably won’t reach anyone. And even if you reach someone, it will be weeks before you can schedule someone to come over and even look at this stuff. You’ve been aware of these things for a while and have done nothing. What’s wrong with you?’
Herkimer doesn’t mean to be mean. But when he starts off in a direction, he doesn’t like to be disturbed or manipulated into changing course. Reasoning with him when he’s in a bad mood is not only ineffective, it usually seems to make matters worse. (see above) On the plus side, Herkimer is quite admirable in the faith of his conviction and his refusal to give up. He is also wonderfully creative in generating arguments to justify whatever direction he happens to be headed.
So how do you work with an elephant in a bad mood? I’m reminded of the advice to professional consultants who go in to try to help organizations: ‘Don’t try to stop an elephant from sitting down.’ A wonderful image of the limited power we have over organizations, the world, and our inner elephants.
So I guess I’ll just walk alongside Herkimer for a little while. He’s just in a bad mood. I know how that is. Sometimes I worry too.
I’ll just get up and make a cup of tea. Then I’ll make a list of the different projects and the small steps I could take later today. After that I’ll sit in the old plush chair by the window and write for a little bit.
It’s early, so I don’t have to rush.