The Parable of the People Gagged, Blindfolded, and Ear-Covered

[The idea of a chain reaction of empowerment may seem too optimistic to people who are convinced that the world is just too messed up—because they believe people are inherently selfish and cruel. How could there be so much violence and cruelty in the world, if people weren’t naturally aggressive? This parable which I heard in a church retreat long ago cleared up this mystery for me.]

A few people were captured and told that they were to be punished. They were told that they would be placed in a room full of dangerous and evil people. They were blindfolded and their ears covered so that they couldn’t see or hear anything. One by one, they were shoved into the room.

It usually happened that they ran right into someone who immediately punched or scratched at them. They recoiled, and often ran into someone else. This person sometimes grabbed them and tried to choke them. Or they kicked at them. Only with difficulty were they able to fight off the evil people with punches and kicks of their own.

Some people thought about their situation and marched in one direction until they found a wall of the room. There they stayed, crouched and cowering.

Others soon decided that the best defense was a good offense. So if any even brushed passed them, they immediately lashed out in attack. This seemed to work well enough, except for the times when the evil person was stronger, faster and more brutal.

What was the truth about the people in this room? There were no evil people. Everyone in the room was told the same thing: that the others were evil and dangerous. It was not a room of evil people; it was a room of frightened people. So, even one accidental bump between two people could spark a chain reaction of kicking and shoving throughout the whole room. Thus their belief about the others allowed them to act in such a way as to maintain the “evil” situation—without any evil people!

*    *    *

In a very similar way, we on Earth are told that certain peoples are evil or dangerous. Maybe they are people of other religions, races, or nationalities. Maybe they are people of certain occupations. Yes, some people really are cruel and some are destructive. But people’s expectation of evil in others sometimes helps maintain the fear and mutual distrust. Have you ever gotten angry at someone who seems to distrust or dislike you, because of something superficial—how you looked or how you dressed? So you dislike them in return. They feel your contempt, and your contempt confirms their dislike of you.

The parable works on the level of individuals and it works between groups of people. To some extent, it even works between people and some animals. The animal smells their fear and attacks. It even works within some people, for instance, when people are taught that their sexual desires are evil, or that any anger is wrong. These desires or emotions must then be fought against or repressed.

In the story, the people who told others that the world was a dangerous and evil place may have been well-intentioned. For instance, they may be like well-meaning parents who are trying to protect their children. In the story, the blindfolds and ear-covers may just be the limitations of our senses. We don’t really know the intentions of others. Since we can’t see inside the others, we are “blinded” to their true nature. Since we sometimes hear the angry words, but can’t hear the person’s fears or hurts that gives rise to the angry words, our ears are “covered.”

To me, this little parable explains much of the misery in the world. It also points in the direction of the relief of the suffering: being careful about making assumptions, striving for better communication, being willing to look for the good in people, and initially giving people the benefit of the doubt.

For these reasons, I consider this to be one of the most important parables ever told.

Here’s a parable with a similar message.  Again, I heard this at a retreat and have been unable to trace its source.  I am certainly grateful to whoever created both parables.


The Dream of Heaven and Hell

A man prayed to God to learn about Heaven and Hell. That night he had a dream in which an angel appeared and said, “I will show you two rooms. The first room is Hell.” The angel led him down a passageway and they looked in through a window down at a dinner table. The people sat at a table on which was laid a great feast of every imaginable delight. Unfortunately, they were bound to their chairs and each had four-foot long forks and spoons strapped to their arms, so that, try as they might, they could not get the food to their mouths. As a result they were in eternal torment, starving with the food just a couple of feet away from them. To make matters worse, they angrily jeered at each other.

After a time, the angel led him to the next room and said, “This is Heaven.” The man was surprised to see that the people were bound in exactly the same way, with the same four-foot-long silverware. Then he looked closer and saw that the people were feeding each other. And they were laughing and conversing with joy! There the angel left him. As he stood there watching the people of Heaven, he realized that their attitude, their trust of one another, and their willingness to cooperate had made all the difference.

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