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The chained elephant

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When I was little, I was enchanted by the magical world of the circus. I was excited to be able to see each of the animals traveling by car from city to city up close.

During the show everything seemed wonderful and dazzling to me, but the elephant’s appearance was always my favorite moment. The huge animal showed impressive dexterity, size and strength. It was evident that such an animal would be able to uproot a tree with a simple tug. However…

To my surprise, after each performance, the circus people would fasten the elephant to a small stake just stuck in the ground. This was a great mystery to me.

Although the current was thick and strong, an animal capable of tearing down a wall with its might could easily break free of the stake and flee. What was holding the elephant? Why not run away?

When I was five or six, I still believed that grown people knew everything. So I questioned the teachers, my uncle, and my mother about the elephant mystery.

They explained to me that the elephant did not run away because it was trained.

Of course, I asked them then:

“If you’re a master and don’t run away, why do you chain him?”

No one could answer that second question.

A long time later, one night, I met someone very wise, who had traveled around India and helped me find the answer.

The circus elephant had been chained to a stake since very, very young. I remember closing my eyes and thinking of the little newborn elephant attached to the stake. I imagined him pushing and pulling the stake day after day trying to break free…

I could almost see him falling asleep every night, exhausted by the effort, thinking about trying again the next morning. Everything was useless: the stake was too strong for a newborn animal, even if it was an elephant.

Until one day, the saddest day of his short life, the little elephant accepted that he could not break free and surrendered to his fate.

Then I understood why the huge and powerful elephant I saw in the circus was chained: I was convinced that I would never be able to break free of its stake.

The poor animal had its failure etched in his elephant memory and never, ever again tested his strength.

Some nights I dream that I approach the chained elephant and tell him in the ear:

– You know, you look like me. You also believe that you cannot do some things just because once, a long time ago, you tried and failed. You have to realize that time has passed and today you are stronger than before. If you really want to break free, I’m sure you can. Why don’t you try?

Sometimes I wake up thinking that one day my elephant finally tried and got the stake out…

So I smile and imagine that the huge animal continues to travel with the circus because it loves to amuse the children, although obviously it is no longer in chains. Jorge Bucay The Chained Elephant Arteplural Editions, 2008

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