Most of my life the elephants in my life were too awkward, too uncomfortable, too embarrassing, too close to the bone – it was better to ignore them and hope they’d go away. But the problem with baby elephants is that they grow into huge elephants with dangerous tusks, long trunks that can pick you up and dash you to the ground, and a trumpeting which deafens.
My childhood was full of juggling elephants, side-stepping elephants, letting sleeping elephants lie. At that age I didn’t even know that was what I was doing. There was no emotional literacy in my family. Communication was raw, uncontrolled and often vicious. Tension was ever present. There was no capacity to look objectively at what was happening or to develop any self awareness around personal boundaries, what was and was not acceptable behaviour. I lived with unconscious fear and learned early to shut up and navigate the unspoken tensions with care.
In relationships it has been extraordinary to realise how many elephants can fit into a room, squeezed and jostling till I can hardly breath. They have represented issues of power, sexuality, freedom, money, vulnerability, equality, anger, neediness, volatility and blame, often nursed over years but not spoken about.
Sometimes the elephants were very quiet and life went on…and sometimes they hovered close in and intense, creating an atmosphere I could cut with the proverbial knife. I can remember sitting on the sofa with a partner, watching a couple passionately kiss and sensually make love on screen, something we had not done in years. I felt the trunk tip of a gigantic elephant of enormous complexity, tapping me on the shoulder. I inwardly squirmed, felt unbelievably awkward, held my breath and said nothing.
Why is naming even one elephant so hard for me, for any of us?
In this case I feared a radical change in the status quo with unimaginable ramifications. I was too invested in the relationship. I feared our inability to navigate our way, unfacilitated, through the potentially volatile mire of unexpressed rage. I doubted our capacity to have a curious conversation without blame and that it would instead escalate to fury with no one to point out our blind spots and shadows. I lacked courage. I was afraid we could never explain or understand each other, partly because we were not sufficiently aware of our own demons or able to articulate our inner processes. It had all been building up for too long and we were each too full of the wrong that had been done to us by the other to really listen … and too much love had been lost. Better to push those elephants away and cook dinner.
As so often happens, eventually the elephants took charge of the room, and we left to go our own ways. I feel such a sadness at this wasted opportunity to learn from the school of life. Had I or we had the courage to name the elephants and been able to listen to each other without the emotional charge of accusation, hurt or blame, we might have come to a deeper understanding of what it is to live and learn and truly love.
And so I am tending to my own inner education, observing my actions and my motivations and understanding where they come from. I can only face my own fears, take responsibility for my part, learn my lessons and vow next time to have the courage and integrity to confront an elephant as soon as it is born.