Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Tame Your Own Elephant!

Written by: on February 27, 2020

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of my dad’s passing. It was a sacred, impossible, hilarious, formational eight-month journey of liver cancer. I was privileged to accompany him all the way to the river then watched as he took the most difficult step that we take in life’s journey: from this life to the life beyond.

My dad and I had a unique friendship. He was raised to be conservative, politically and theologically.  For the most part, he lived his life committed to an ethic that pours out of that particular paradigm. He was wise, cautious, safe, and certain. I, on the other hand, have lived an unconventional life oriented around a Jesus that has invited me into some of the most beautifully bizarre corners of our global village and into uncommon friendships that have expanded my theology, deepened my faith, and shaped the trajectory of my life.  To be clear, he wasn’t always comfortable, nor did he always agree with the path that I was walking. It is not safe; it appeared to him unwise; it awakened wonder rather than reinforced preexisting ideas; it was never familiar to him. It’s fair to say that, while we were both decent people, we were quite divided theologically and politically.

Yet, what I learned near the end of his life is that the journey that I’ve taken had propelled my dad beyond safety and convention. It was a journey that he never expected that he’d take but was willing to embark upon because he loved his son.  Throughout his final decade, this journey began to renovate his theology, open his mind to more gracious and generous possibilities, and expose him to relationships with people who were far different than he was.

But the transformation wasn’t just for him. Over the years, I watched in awe as we both went from threatened, critical, and defensive to more thoughtful, curious, and eager to know and experience more. We were both being found and formed by Jesus by immersing into and seeking to understand each other’s perspectives. As we journeyed with one another toward his death, both of our appetites grew for the kind of transformation we were experiencing. This journey that he and I had found ourselves navigating together was, in fact, a pilgrimage that reshaped his and continues to reshape my life. We were growing to see God, ourselves, each other, and our world more spaciously…more generously.

In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt helps us understand why decent people choose to believe what they believe and how said beliefs bind and blind us.[1] Pointing to the supremacy of intuition over reason, Haidt invites us to consider how our mind is like an elephant and a rider.  The elephant is our intuition that has become conditioned to intuit information and experiences and respond in a particular way. Humans, Haidt writes, “are constantly reacting intuitively to everything they perceive and basing their responses on those reactions. Within the first second of seeing, hearing, or meeting another person, the elephant has already begun to lean toward or away, and that lean influences what you think and do next. Intuitions come first.”[2]

The second component of our mind is the rider, or, reason. Rather than a “scientist searching for truth,” Haidt identifies the rider as a “politician searching for votes.”[3] Haidt suggests that all of us are “trapped in a moral matrix where our ‘elephants’ only look for what confirms its moral intuitions while our ‘riders’ play the role of the lawyer; we team up with people who share similar matrices and become close-minded; and we forget that morality is diverse.”[4] Put another way, the elephant drives our behavior and the rider functions as the “press secretary”[5] who works to justify our preferred argument.

The rider does not control the elephant. Rather, Haidt suggests that she can only respond…and hold on.

So how do we change someone’s mind? Haidt writes:

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way — deeply and intuitively — you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness….[6]

Changing someone’s mind requires that we interact with their elephant (intuition) rather than their rider (reason).

Haidt highlights what my dad and I did poorly as well as what we learned to do well.  That is, when my dad and I tried to convert each other’s riders (reason) through evidence and our preferred talking points, we failed hopelessly. Our elephants veered in opposite directions and the gap between us grew.  Yet, when we approached each other’s elephants (intuition) with handfuls of proverbial circus peanuts (genuine questions rooted in the desire to understand the other), our elephants would lean in and begin to walk in stride with each other.

Haidt puts it this way:

The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments.[7]

Perhaps Haidt would agree with Hunter’s suggestion that change occurs not by building power and conquering others, but through faithful presence. That is, in the context of disagreement, the practices of proximity, curiosity, and long listening communicate an important commitment: “I’m here regardless of if we agree.” What I discovered in my journey with my dad is that as we made intentional decisions to live that truth, we grew certain of each other’s affection. That certainty, in turn, caused us to think more generously of one another. What’s more, it opened the pores of our souls and we found ourselves being transformed. Rather than committing to converting each other’s riders, we were learning to tame our own elephants.


[1] Haidt, Jonathon. “The Righteous Mind: Why Liberals and Conservatives Can’t Get Along.” Filmed July 1, 2013. YouTube video, 26:46. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qN42ZLwNFBY

[2] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Random House, 2012. 59.

[3] Ibid, 76.

[4] McNerny, Samuel. “Jonathon Haidt and the Moral Matrix: Breaking Out of Our Righteous Minds,” ScientificAmerica.com.https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/jonathan-haidt-the-moral-matrix-breaking-out-of-our-righteous-minds/ (Accessed February 25, 2020).

[5] Haidt, Jonathon. “The Righteous Mind: Why Liberals and Conservatives Can’t Get Along.” Filmed July 1, 2013. YouTube video, 26:46. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qN42ZLwNFBY

[6] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. 49.

[7] Ibid, 68

About the Author

Jer Swigart

16 responses to “Tame Your Own Elephant!”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    I had to read this three times. The first two times I cried. It’s beautiful and from the heart. I’ve been watching you this past week remember your dad on you social media channels. I’ve also seen a post by your brother. It sounds like your dad was an amazing man. His teachable spirit and deep love for his family and Lord will impact generations to come. His legacy is strong and will not soon be forgotten. Thank you for allowing us to have a glimpse into the journey you two took together. Those steps were definitely hard and holy.

    You highlighted: “Empathy is an antidote to righteousness…” A quick google search reveals empathy can be learned…in 3-6 easy steps. The sites primarily discussing it are psychological or business in nature. None seem to be Christian. Fascinating that something so easy and integral is missing in many relationships, especially pockets of the church. I wonder if it isn’t the foundational component necessary for love to develop? Or do we need to love first? Maybe they are the same thing?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Could it be that we have been in the seat of power for so long that our preference for conquering has diminished our need for relationship? Empathy is etched into the essence and ethic of Jesus, so much so the elephants of others rebelled against their riders in order to be near Jesus. Yet when we understand ourselves as superior, we don’t need anyone. We need only to win. You hear me? Would love to get your take on this.

      • Darcy Hansen says:

        Do we know a different paradigm besides conquering? I think it was on Dylan’s post I mentioned the lack of shared memory within a culture. Conquering is part of the American narrative. It’s also a huge part of our Christian narrative. It’s the “best person standing” mentality, and of course the that means we infiltrate lands, make converts of the natives or eliminate them, and utilize resources for our gain, so as to prove our blessedness by God. It’s a bulldozer approach, and its been in place so long, few can imagine anything different. So yes, I agree we have been dominant for so long that our need for others, who are historically deemed other or worthless, are of no use except as a means to an end. Sadly, love is co-opted as the motivation for doing so, and thus the circle of insanity continues. There is little room for empathy when others only exist to establish or maintain a particular paradigm of thought.

  2. Dylan Branson says:

    Thanks for this, Jer. Beautifully written.

    How have you engaged the rider and the elephant in Global Immersion’s work? I would imagine that you get a broad array of people who participate in your immersion trips that bring their own presuppositions, biases, and expectations into their experience, so I can see being able to cultivate empathy being intrinsic and important to raising up global peacemakers.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      That’s right. The other post I could have written out of Haidt would have been on immersive learning as I read him making a remarkable argument for its necessity. Over the last decade, experience has told our team that data alone is not sufficient to change anyone’s mind. We need to expose people to the implications of imperialist theology and to the human beings who suffer because our understanding of faithfulness. It’s only within the human experience that, as John A. Powell suggests, we are able to “expand our circle of human concern.” From our view, immersive learning is the only way to win the trust of elephants.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    I appreciate you sharing your journey with your dad. My father passed a few years back and what started out many years ago as a battle of wills ended as a beautiful relationship. The turning point for me was the realization that my job wasn’t to change or convince him of anything, it was to love, honor and respect him as my dad. What was the pivotal point for you? I guess I wasn’t trying to change the rider any more but tame my elephant.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I’m sorry to hear that you, too, share in the experience of losing your dad. My desire to convince or convert my dad was driven by two equal parts: (1) I wanted to win the argument; and (2) I genuinely cared for him.

      With regard to winning, we have to ask ourselves: “To what end?” What does winning cost us? What does it get us? And is it not the epitome of arrogance to automatically suggest that one’s argument/data is superior to another’s?

      With regard to caring, I think that I was honestly driven by the idea that he would be better off if he adopted my perspective. That coming around to my preferred understanding would, in the short and long term, benefit him more than sticking to his own perspective. It’s twisted rationale, but it’s real.

      As I’m reflecting, even now, two memories strike me. The first is of a time when I confronted my dad’s approach to curiosity. It was a tender, non-emotinally charged conversation in which I let him know of my experience of his questions: they sound more corrective than curious. It was a beautiful conversation that turned a corner for us.

      The second memory is of a time nearing the 2016 elections when, again, in a moment of calm, he let me know that over the past several months, he had felt intellectually bullied by me. Now from my point of view, while I was simply entering into these conversations having read perspectives across the spectrum, he was regurgitating thin talking points from his preferred news source. For the record, I struggle to respect a conversation based solely on strong opinions and thin, pre-packaged talking points. I want to spar in a thoughtful way that expands my understanding, finding those kinds of conversations as moments of friendship deepening. I never intended to come across as a bully, but that I had been perceived as such by him was devastating to me. I had a course correction to make. That conversation turned another corner.

      How about you, Greg? Did you ever have any corner-turning moments with your dad?

      • Greg Reich says:

        Though my relationship with my father was much different in some ways that you had with your father. My dad though a believer came from a deeply broken family filled with anger and distrust. His biblical opinions were Old Testament at best and until the last few years of his life he truly did not understand the concept of grace. He could be a very kind and fun individual but cruel and verbally abusive. I decided early on that in order to find the gold in his life I was going to have to be willing to deal with all the dross and pain that went with the mining process. For me the turning point was when as a late teen decided to release my hatred and unforgiveness toward my dad and made a deliberate choice to honor and serve him. It took a few years but I remember sitting on a hillside one hunting season with my dad and having him bear his heart about his disappointments and frustrations with life. It was then I realized that my calling in this relationship was to create a safe place for my dad to be himself. Over those years we had some pretty heated talks but each one left us with a deeper understanding of one another. It’s funny after all these years my memories aren’t of the hard times but the sweet moments of transparency. Things weren’t perfect but they were real and authentic. My dad was a hard man who had a hard life, even though we never truly agreed on much of God we did truly enjoy one another’s company. I believe this is part of the value of Haidt’s book. The issue isn’t being in full agreement over spiritual or political convictions; the issue is being willing to listen and find common ground. I have friends that I disagree with both theologically and politically but I have sought to understand their opinions and enjoy spending time with them even if we never come to agree. If all my friends were just like me life would be pretty bland.

        • Jer Swigart says:

          Greg. Thanks for sharing this. Wow. So rich. I really appreciate the image of mining for gold. It sounds like you found it.

          And, yes, I agree. Haidt seems to suggest that the right question is “How do we get along despite disagreement?”

          Thought-provoking stuff here, my friend.

  4. John McLarty says:

    The political divisions in our nation have grown from ideological disagreements to personal disgust. We have trouble separating our beliefs about an issue form our beliefs about a person. I saw Haidt talk about love as a way of defusing disgust. Perhaps you and your dad never got this far apart, but it’s certainly happening. It was interesting to hear him (in a Ted Talk) talk about our need for a “new type of empathy,” then immediately call on the teachings of Jesus, among other expressions of ancient religion, as the way to get started. Maybe Jesus really did know what he was talking about and maybe we’d all be wise to pay closer attention and practice that faithful presence as you mentioned. On a personal note, thanks for sharing this week about your relationship with your dad- I don’t know if this post was difficult and painful for you to write or if it was an opportunity to reflect and process some grieve, healing, and gratitude. Either way, it was a beautiful integration and reminder that relationships need intentional care, especially if our elephants are leading us in different directions.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks John.

      Honestly, I really struggled with the idea of how my dad, with the character that he had and presented consistently, could get behind a candidate of such obvious moral bankruptcy. In the moments I’m most ashamed of, I knew that I was demonizing my dad and throwing him in with some hypothetical group theo-political sell-outs. It was hard work (harder than I expected) to separate the person from position. Very practically speaking, I found that the longer the intervals between connection points, the easier it was for me to imagine that he was a monster. Silly to confess, but I think many resonate with this.

  5. Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, a deeply personal post… thanks for the invitation into one of your most meaningful relationships. I suppose I’ve made a game of guessing what people might post about as I read, and I did think you would keep in on the empathic antidote Haidt offers. Good to see you thinking about what “faithful presence” might be. You’re so good at letting texts speak to one another. The practices of proximity, curiosity, and long listening are something I’m going to take away from this post – and have implications for my innovation posture of empathy and solidarity.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks, Shawn.

      Take a look at my comments to Greg. There, I offer some thoughts about what I learned in my dialogues with my dad about how questions can be used to cause lean in or lean out. Specifically, I think we can use our questions in an attempt to correct someone (causing the elephant to lean out) and in an attempt to genuinely understand (causing the elephant to lean in). The biggest challenge in Haidt for me is that my focus mustn’t be on the elephants nor riders of others but on my own. As I said in my post, to truly grow in empathy requires that I learn to tame my own elephant.

      To those who would say, “Well then how are you going to accomplish anything?” I would suggest that those who have most changed my life are women and men who tried to convince me of nothing. Rather, they are individuals whose elephants have been trained to win over mine.

  6. Steve Wingate says:

    Pointing to the supremacy of intuition over reason

    and sometimes that is for mere survival as a viable option

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks, Steve. You’re right. At times, intuition for the sake of the survival demands that the elephant has a mind of its own. Yet The Righteous Mind wasn’t about surviving potentially life-threatening altercations. While arguments over politics and religion seem like “life & death” issues, they truly are not. Rather, it seems that Haidt was suggesting that in order to live the hopeful alternative to the polarizing reality we currently exist within, we need to learn to tame our elephants.

  7. Chris Pollock says:

    Appreciate your openness in sharing something so sacred. Your journey with your dad is pretty inspiring. Thank you.

    Faithful presence and empathy are two key things that stand out from your offering. Finding connection between these two? Everyday, closer connection and practise.

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