Why Elephants?

by Marion Forgatch

People have asked us why elephants are such an important metaphor in our GenerationPMTO practice. One reason is that they show deep family bonds and require years to socialize their young. When a baby elephant has a problem, the entire family attempts to soothe it. When one of their herd dies, the rest of them grieve. Elephants, highly sensitive and caring animals, are revered by several cultures. For example the Hindus see them as representing strength, power and wisdom.

The main metaphor we use when we talk about elephants up and down refers to an old question that seeks understanding of our origins. The story exists in Hindu, Native American, and other cultures and is addressed in many ways, some referring to elephants, others to turtles, and others combining the two. It goes like this...A wise person was asked: What does the Earth rest upon? The answer was this, "The Earth rests on the back of an elephant." But what does the elephant stand on? "Another elephant." But what does that elephant stand on? "It's elephants all the way down."

I’m not sure the answer addresses the question of origins. For me, the issue of elephants standing on each other is about process—as we stand on each other’s backs, we teach each other up and down the chain. Looking at it one way, trainers teach therapists who teach parents who teach children how to get along well. Yet, it’s also the case that children teach parents who teach therapists who teach trainers. It’s an iterative feedback process in which we all learn from each other, up and down our chain. That’s like the process in which our theory guides our practice, which we test with research. Our findings help us improve our theory, practice and research. Although there is no final answer, we can learn from each other with a process that helps us grow.

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