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En(courage)ment for hard times, Travels

don’t be like an elephant

Fear is an invisible chain around an elephant’s leg.

This is what I find myself thinking while I ride on the back of one, in the tall piney forest surrounding Angkor Wat, an old Buddhist and Hindu temple in Cambodia (yes, both of those religions, I know, it’s interesting…), one golden afternoon in November. I have loved elephants all of my life. To ride one is on my bucket list. I am sitting in a litter of sorts, strapped to the back of the massive beast. My sandaled feet rest lightly against rough, wrinkled gray skin with coarse, thick hairs sticking up all over it. The driver, a small man with cinnamon skin and a dirty red circus-like uniform, sits on the elephant’s neck, his bare feet resting behind the large ears. I watch as the driver moves his big toe slightly, bending his ankle, and the animal instantly starts to move, shuffling forward apathetically, legs as big as medium trees, intelligent eyes staring at the ground.

He obviously isn’t happy. I wonder why he never tries to make a run for it. There are no ropes holding him. The driver holds a long, hooked stick.  I notice a few misshapen, unnatural holes in the elephant’s ears.

I suddenly realize what I did not realize before: what must happen in order for a person to ride an elephant. When my ride is done, one of the men in our party, a Cambodian pastor, tells some of us how they train the elephants to respond to the slightest pressure of a foot on their ear.

They do it when the elephants are babies. With fear. And pain. They beat them and chain them and pull them around by hooks in their ears.

All the rest of the afternoon I am thinking about how naive I have been about riding elephants. And the next day, as I encounter hundreds of women from a very poor village, who bathe rarely and do not know what it is to regularly eat at tables with utensils, but sit on the ground and eat with their hands, as I pray for them and feel the strong presence of fear that is a regular part of their lives, the abuse of a culture that hurts its women to control them, and sense the deep grief of a country where some very terrible things have happened in the last fifty years, I am thinking about the elephants.

I do a little research about circus elephants, preparing myself for the worst. What I find, including pictures, is unbearable.

When the elephants are little, they chain them hard and long, and beat them when they try to run.

They train them with fear and pain. An elephant has an excellent memory. They’re smart. They never forget.

Then, after the little elephant believes that he will never escape and will be beaten if he tries. After his will has been broken and his spirit snuffed out. After he has tried and tried, exercising his majestic strength and deafening cry, and utilizing every ounce of intelligence to break free. When he has sustained irreversible psychological damage, and been beaten down into a towering, cowering state.

When he gives up. Surrenders his power.


They take the chain off and replace it with a flimsy rope.

If the elephant wanted to escape, here’s his chance. A rope is nothing to an elephant. He is a formidable size. Immensely strong and powerful.

Gloriously able.

But he doesn’t escape. He doesn’t even try. He doesn’t even think about it.

He isn’t happy. But he hasn’t forgotten the pain. He is afraid. He has reconstructed his reality because of it.

That day, as I prayed for Cambodian women who have very little in the way of creature comforts, old and young alike, and as I asked God if He would heal this one, and speak clearly to that one, and let this one feel His love like a blanket or a new dress, and help this other one with joy, as I opened my eyes in the middle of a prayer for a beautiful little girl and saw lice jumping in her hair, my prayers took on a life of their own. They started to form involuntarily. I started to contend with Heaven for quality of life, dignity, love, home. Poverty up close changes prayers. Poverty up close is full of the invisible chains of fear.

Like a sad elephant who does not know who he is anymore.

I started to invoke Heaven. The love of God that quells fear. For more help. For more Americans to help. For freedom. For power. Love. Sound minds. I know I’ll come back to this nation. I know there is much to be done.

In the following weeks and days, I started to ponder the effects of fear and pain in our lives. If you look around you, wherever you live, in your workplace or country or neighborhood or church, you can see them. Many of us have reconstructed our reality because of them.

To the elephant that I rode that day, with downcast eyes and a listless trunk and a tail sent straight up into the filtered light, searching, it seemed, for something, the chain is still there, though you can’t see it.

For those women, the chains are invisible too, but their sick work is evident in a thousand ways.

For many people in my own country too. The United States. Often I talk to people who are bound by fear, afraid of pain and many other things. What others think. What might happen. Who might hurt them. How they could fail. How they could succeed. Fear of risk and authenticity and silence and honesty. Vulnerability. Steps of faith. Healthy boundaries.

I am afraid of some of these things too.

The Spirit of God speaks to our hearts and it is a small, quiet, brave voice, full of adventure and faith and hope. Brimming with the kind of love that makes us free and safe. He names us, and we love ourselves again, and He promises strength that turns to joy.

As real as He ever was. Full of life. This is something I have learned again and again. God is not out to get me, to confine me, chain me, suppress me. That is not His voice. He wants me beautiful and able and free.

We have been trained by old chains. Poverty isn’t the only peddler of fear. Abandonment. Abuse. Neglect. Loss. Ridicule. Betrayal. Mistakes. Peer pressure. Religion.

To the elephant, untethered in the thronging air of a lovely afternoon, big and beautiful and full of astonishing strength, the chain is still there.

As real as it ever was. Made of fear.

Fear is his master.

Don’t be like an elephant.

Fight back.

What is it that you can’t forget? What are you afraid of?

It’s time to break free. Shake off the ropes.

Remember who you are. Beautiful. Strong. Powerful. Gifted and full of destiny. Endowed with liberty and a voice.

A child of God.

Not a slave to fear.



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