In November, 2012 Y Worlds issued a legacY to Donald N. Michael– the author of this amazing essay- Some Observations with Regard to a Missing Elephant. Donald died shortly after publication in November 2000. Thanks to Larry Victor who brought this essay to our attention, and who reformatted it as it appears below. Donald Michael is an inspiration to all of us at Y Worlds because he strove mightily and diligently to understand human systems and share his insights. His thinking intersects with Y Worlds more closely than anyone we have known. If this essay resonates with you, please let us know. 

Donald Michael’s work continues in a collection of essays entitled In Search of the Missing Elephant: Selected Essays of Donald N. Michael. It covers the evolution of his ideas from an early essay on the potential impact of technology to this Missing Elephant paper. It is available through Triarchy Press and via Amazon.



What is happening to the human race is too complex,
to comprehend.

Acknowledging that
we don’t know
what we’re talking about

carries significant implications
for how we perceive
ourselves as persons
how we conduct
our activities.


Unavoidable sources of our ignorance include the following:

  • (a) too much and too little information to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation within the time available for action;
  • (b) no shared set of value priorities;
  • c) no agreement on how much context is necessary to be responsible for actions and interpretations;
  • (d) spoken/written language cannot adequately map the complexity;
  • (e) absence of reliable boundaries;
  • (f) self-amplifying, unpredictable acting-out of the shadow; and
  • (g) governance becomes uniquely problematic. 

 Living constructively with these circumstances depends on:

  • (a) recognizing that we seek meaning, although, unavoidably, we live in illusions;
  • (b) acknowledging the vulnerability and finiteness of ourselves and our projects;
  • (c) lacking pride and arrogance in the conviction that we know what must be done and how to do it;
  • (d) acting in the spirit of hope, not optimism
  • e) acting in the spirit of “tentative commitment”;
  •  (f) being “context alert”;
  • (g) being a learner/teacher, and
  • (h) practicing compassion for all who must live and act under these conditions.

I begin with a Sufi story we’re all familiar with. It’s the story of the blind persons and the elephant. Recall that persons who were blind were each coming up with a different definition of what was “out there,” depending and what part of the elephant they were touching. Notice that the story depends on the fact that there is a storyteller who can see that there is an elephant, different parts of which the blind people are fumbling around with.

What I’m going to propose is that today,
the storyteller is blind.

There is no elephant.

The storyteller doesn’t know
what he or she is talking about.

Less metaphorically, I’ll put it this way:

What is happening
to the human race,
in the large, is

too complex
too interconnected
too dynamic
to comprehend.

There is no agreed-on interpretation
that provides an enduring basis
for coherent action
based on an understanding
of the enfolding context.

Take any subject that preoccupies us. Attend to all the factors that arguably might seriously affect its current condition, where it might go what might be done about it, and how to go about doing so.

I’ll take poverty as an example.

Think of the variety of factors that connect with poverty. If one were attempting to comprehend the factors seriously affecting poverty, one would have to attend to at least:

media presentation
market economy
information flows
and events

All of these and more infuse any topic that we pay attention to and try to do something about. But, clearly, we can’t attend to all of these (and others) because each has its own complex mix of interdependencies to be attended to.

Poverty is one of an endless series of examples. What we’re faced with, essentially, is the micro/macro question:

how circumstances in the small
affect circumstances in the large


how circumstances in the large
affect circumstances in the small.

And we don’t know — chaos theory, “butterfly effects,” and complex adaptive systems not withstanding —how the micro/macro, interchange operates in specific human situations. And for reasons I shall come to, I don’t think we can know. In effect, we don’t comprehend — can’t comprehend — the kind of beast that holds the parts together: in this example, how they’re held together for the human condition we call poverty. There isn’t any elephant there.

Having asserted this, let me emphasize that I’m in no sense belittling our daily efforts to engage issues like poverty or other aspects of the human condition. Rather, I hope to add a deeper appreciation of the existential challenge we face, the poignancy of our efforts, and the admiration they merit as we try to deal with our circumstances.

Indeed, it seems to me that if we could acknowledge that we don’t know what we’re talking about in the large when we try to deal with any of the human issues we face, that acknowledgment would have very significant implications for how we perceive ourselves as persons and how we conduct our activities intended to help the human condition, including ourselves, I’ll came to those implications presently.

But first, I want to offer some observations in support of my proposal that we don’t know what we’re talking about in the large by describing six characteristics that seem to be to be the source of the storyteller’s blindness.

One more preparatory remark follows: I intend my observations to be as nonjudgmental as I can, I believe I am describing characteristics of the human world that simply are, I am trying to be an observer, not an evaluator. However, the very nature of my language and what I select from this complexity to emphasize convey values, hence judgments, often unknown to me.

Let me state the 

six contributors to our ignorance.

We have too much and too little information
to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation
within the available time for action.

More information in the social realm generally leads to more uncertainty, not less.

Usually, more information tells us that we need still more information to interpret what information we do have, whether it pertains to toxic substances, ecological protection, economic projections, welfare policy, social impacts of global warming, or the consequences of changes in procedures for public or private decision making.

Therefore, the time it takes to reach agreement on the interpretation increases. During that time, the information increases as well. We need more information to interpret the information we have, and on and on.

Among the growing amount of information is that which increases our doubt about the integrity, validity, and reliability of the information we do have.

There is enough information, nevertheless, to generate multiple interpretations of that information, which then adds another layer of information and interpretation that’s required to use that information. And more information often stimulates the creation of more options. As a result, still more information is generated, including more information about the information, and so on around and around the self-amplifying “information loop.”

Add, too, that information feedback seldom arrives at the time when it is needed for comparison with other information.

Usually, if it arrives at all, it is too late to adjust the action or interpretation close to the time that initiated the feedback in the first place.

  • Think, for example, of all the federal fund allocations for current social projects that are pegged to census information that is several years old.
  • Or how long it takes to accumulate the evidence (feedback) and navigate the procedures before a judicial decision is made with regard to damage done years earlier.
  • Or think of corporate or government revelations that are exposed years after the fact, too late for timely rectification,




the first ignorance generator
is inadequate information
to reach knowledgeable decisions
in the finite amount of time
available for taking action.


there is no shared set of value priorities.

We make much of the fact that we share values,

and we always say,
“well, basically humans want the same things.”

Perhaps they do, at; a survival level,
but, beyond that:  

there is not a shared set of priorities
with regard to values across cultures
and often, as in the United States,
within cultures.

The priorities change with
circumstance, time, and engaged persons.


Here are some examples in which value priorities differ depending on the person/group and circumstance:

  • short-term expedience versus long-term prudent behavior and vice versa,
  • group identity versus individual identity,
  • individual responsibility versus societal responsibility,
  • freedom versus equality,
  • local claims versus larger claims for commitment,
  • universal rights versus local rights (that, in the names of local rights, repudiate universal rights, e.g., fundamentalisms),
  • human rights versus national interests (e.g., economic competition or nationalist terrorism),
  • public interest versus privacy (the encryption conflict about health information,whether private or not),
  • first amendment limits (pornography, etc.), and
  • the potential gain of new knowledge versus its potential social costs.

Who sets the rules of the game,
and who decides who decides?

These are all issues
in which the priority of values
is in contention.

There’s no reliable set of priorities
in place that can be used decisively
to choose among actions toward larger issues.

third contribution to this lack of comprehension
is what has been called 

the dilemma of context.

How much do you and/or I need to know
to feel responsible
for actions and interpretations?

How many layers of understanding are necessary
to have enough background to deal with the foreground?

There are no agreed-on criteria or methodology for how deeply to probe.

(I could have observed at the beginning of my enumeration that these six factors are interdependent, interactive.) So, for example, the question of how much context is necessary in a situation to decide what to do about that situation very much depends on what values are held by participants in that decision making.

And that raises another intractable context question:

Who are the legitimate participants
in the decision making with regard to deciding
what constitutes a sufficient context?

And who says so?

Just to remind you, a few of the differing claims defining the appropriate context are

  • the dramatis personae’s motives,
  • the world of the media,
  • cultural differences in public interpretations and responses,
  • political styles, and
  • historical/mythic memories.

Choose any issue that’s important to you
and ask how much information
I and/or we need
in order that you or I can say
that I and/or we
have adequate context
for thought and action?

This is an unresolved realm. It is unsolved for me as well in the very act of giving this talk.

fourth item is that

our spoken language,
the language we hear,
cannot adequately map
the complexity
that I’m talking about.

Our language, because we hear it or we read it, is linear. So, one thought follows another. Our language cannot adequately engage multiple interacting factors simultaneously.

Some poetry can, but we haven’t yet figured out how to use poetry for policy making or for resolving issues of context value priorities, or the like. And, perhaps some forms of visual language can help because it can be simultaneously presented in three dimensions.)

Our Noun/verb structure emphasizes items, events, and stasis (i.e., is-ness, e.g., we say “this is a microphone”) rather than engaging it as a multitude of processes in time and space that circular feedbacks that maintain boundary relationships.

In other words,

our spoken/written language
doesn’t allow us to talk
about these complexities
in ways that are
inherently informative
about the complexities.

In fact, it compounds these complexities because it unavoidably distorts our efforts to perceive a world of simultaneous, multiple, circular processes.

The fifth contribution
to our inability to know
what we are talking about is that

there is an increasing, and
— given the other contributions —
unavoidable absence of
reliable boundaries.

By boundaries,
I mean boundaries that circumscribe:
turf, relationships, concepts, identity,
property, gender, time, and more.

Without boundaries,
we can’t make sense of anything.

William James wrote of a boundaryless world as one of “blooming, buzzing confusion.”

Boundaries are how we
discriminate and partition experience

to create meaning in
all those nonmaterial realms, not just turf.

But, what is happening in this world, for reasons I’ve been describing (and others as well), is that

these boundaries
and their reliability
are increasingly eroded,
disintegrated, and
becoming more and more ambiguous.

All systems, including social systems, require boundaries to be coherent systems.

It’s the feedback that is determined by those boundaries in the system that allows a system to be self-sustaining. If there are no boundaries and no feedback, there is no self-sustaining quality that we call a system or that in the old story was called an elephant.

But all that I’ve been emphasizing
reduces the agreed-on criteria
for boundary-defining feedback.

Here are some examples, just to remind you: 

boundaries that are claimed for

political correctness,
public versus private,
intellectual property,
biological ethics questions.

All of these are blurred, ambiguous areas, taken very seriously, that nevertheless
don’t allow
the kind of linguistically and behaviorally discriminating
boundary defining I think necessary
to begin to comprehend the incomprehensibility of the complexity that we humans live in.

The sixth contributor
to our inability to know what we are talking about is
the self-amplifying,
acting out of the shadow
residing in each human:

our instincts,
our extrarational responses.

This situation could be considered a consequence of the other contributors to our ignorance — though each of them is also a consequence of all the others. (Or so I think.)

To be sure, this acting out allows for more creativity, but, often, in this complex world, it also is in the service of violence, oppression, selfishness, extreme positions of all stripes — that whole upwelling of the non-rational the nonreasonable that is so increasingly characteristic of all the world, not just the United States.

There was a time — a long time — when this sort of shadow driven acting out did not well up to the current degree.

The elephant depends on constraints, on boundaries, to be an elephant.

In the past, ritual, repression, and suppression served to constrain such acting out or to quash it entirely. One’s social and economic survival depended on playing by many explicit and implicit rules (boundaries). (Think of the upwelling of violence after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.)

These circumstances make human governance uniquely problematic.

By governance, I mean those shared practices by which a society’s members act reliably toward each other. Government is one such way such practices are established via laws and so on. Shared child socialization practices and formal religions are others.

For the reasons I am proposing here,

the processes of governance
can only become
less and less effective.

This, in turn,
increases unreliability
adds its own contributions
to the incomprehensibility of it all.

So much for six “ignorance-maintaining” characteristics.

Perhaps they are variations on one theme, and surely others could be added, but I hope these are enough to make a presumptive case that

our daily activities
are ineluctably embedded
in a larger context of ignorance

that we don’t know what we’re talking about.

So, what to do,
how to go about being engaged
in a human world we don’t understand
— and, if I’m on to something —
we won’t understand?

Here are
eight ways
I find helpful in
responding to the fact of our ignorance.

(In spite of writing assertively, I hope it’s clear that I include myself among those who don’t know what they’re talking about!) These aren’t in any particular order, though I think the sequence they are in adds a certain coherence.


The first is

to recognize
that given our neurology
and our shaping through evolutionary processes,
we are unavoidably seekers of meaning.

Recognizing that we are seekers of meaning, we also need

to recognize
that unavoidably,
we live in illusions:
socially and biologically created,
constructed worlds
that are nevertheless personally necessary.

And, this necessity can evoke the best and the worst in us, as the long history of “true believers” amply evidences.

I’m not implying that we can live outside of these constraints, but

we need to be self-conscious
about the fact that
we do live in illusions
and that
there is no way for humans to avoid this.

So, each of us needs to be self-conscious about our deep need that there be an elephant or for someone to tell us there really is an elephant. (Lots of authors and publishers thrive on that need.)



it seems
essential to acknowledge
vulnerability and finiteness,
both ours and our projects’.

This is because
we will be unavoidably
ignorant and uninformed
about the outcomes
— the consequences of the consequences of what we do.


Third, as all the great spiritual traditions emphasize,

Seek to live in poverty.

Not material poverty
 — rather be poor in pride and arrogance
and be poor in the conviction that
I and/or we know what is right and wrong,
what must be done, and how to do it.

we must act
— not acting is also acting —
regardless of our vulnerability and finiteness.


Thus, my fourth suggestion is that

a person or a group act
in the spirit of hope.

Hope, not optimism.

Here I draw on the insight of Rollo May. As he put it, optimism and pessimism are conditions of the stomach, of the gut. Their purpose is to make us feel good or bad. However, hope has to do with looking directly at the circumstances we’re dealing with, at the challenges we must accept as finite and vulnerable beings and activities, and recognizing the limits of our very interpretation of what we’re committing ourselves to, and still

go on because
one hopes that one can make a difference
in the face of all that stands in the way
of making a difference.


Fifth, this means one acts according to what I’ve been calling “tentative commitment.”

Tentative Commitment

means you are willing to look at the situation
carefully enough, to risk enough,
to contribute enough effort, to hope enough, to undertake your project.

And to recognize,
given our vulnerability,
our finiteness, and our fundamental ignorance,
that we may well have it wrong.

We may have to back off.

We may have to change
not only how we’re doing it but
whether we do it at all.

And then do so!

Tentative commitment becomes an
essential individual and group condition
for engaging a world
where we don’t know what we are talking about.


Suggestion six, then, is

to be
“context alert”
is a moral and operational necessity.

Among other things, this carries a very radical implication, given the current hype about the information society that promises to put us in touch with practically infinite amounts of information. However,

if you are context alert,
you can only be deeply understanding
of very few matters,

because it takes time and effort
to dig and check and deal
with other people who have different
value priorities, contexts, boundaries, and so on.

This means there are only a few things that you can be “up on” at any given time. But,

this is a very serious,
unsolved, indeed unformulated,
challenge for effective participation
in the democratic process
— whatever that might mean.


Number seven is that

one must be a learner/teacher,
a wary guide,
an explorer in the wilderness.

Be question askers all the time,
not answer givers.


Number eight echoes the great spiritual traditions (all of which recognize our essential ignorance): practice compassion. Given the circumstances I have described,

facing life
requires all the
we can bring to others and to ourselves.

Be as self-conscious as possible,
as much of the time as possible,
and thereby recognize
that we all live in illusion,
we all live in ignorance,
and we all search for and need meaning.

We all need help facing that reality,
and that help goes by the name of practicing compassion.

The blind must care for the blind.


Donald Michael’s work continues in a collection of essays entitled In Search of the Missing Elephant: Selected Essays of Donald N. Michael. It covers the evolution of his ideas from an early essay on the potential impact of technology to this Missing Elephant paper. It is available through Triarchy Press and via Amazon

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7 thoughts on “LegacY: Donald N. Michael

  1. Thank you for making Don Michael’s essay available in this medium. Don’s work continues. A collection of his essays, In Search of the Missing Elephant: Selected Essays of Donald N. Michael with an Introduction by Graham Leicester, was published in 2012 by Triarchy Press. It covers the evolution of his ideas from an early essay on the potential impact of technology to this Missing Elephant paper.

  2. Maureen, thank you for your comment and update on Donald’s work. We’ve updated the post to include your new information.

  3. I especially appreciated the suggested sixth way of responding: “to be
    ‘context alert’ is a moral and operational necessity.” Corporations and other institutions tend to implicitly separate the moral from the operational, but I wholeheartedly agree that they must be intertwined to undertake the massive contextualization process suggested (demanded) by new digital capabilities. I believe that the interplay between morals and operations is best characterized by the word “integrity,” as influenced by each of its different meanings and roots.

  4. I believe that Y Worlds is perfectly situated to install a solution that will enable the type of massive, verifiable and generative system of contextualization that is required to facilitate healthy decision making within interconnected global communities. To put in plainly: we need to be able to count on each other; we need at least minimal assurance that our fellow community members are contributing roughly as much to our shared objectives as we are.
    The sixth way responding queries what “effective participation in the democratic process” might mean. I see the democratic process as persistently working to integrate (there is that root again!) the interests and efforts of diverse community members so that the amassed resources are sufficient to sustain and protect community interests. We now have the potential to “crowdsource the Public Good,” and organizations such as Y Worlds, CENTRO and Wayfinder will serve as integral clearinghouses as we build our new collaborative economy.

  5. Thanks for recognizing the wisdom of Donald Michael – Tom. His beliefs resonate with many of us and become useful guides.

  6. I’m rarely so taken aback & energised by writings of this kind. It is ‘out of the box’ true.

    Like others the sixth suggestion raised thoughts:

    This means that in order to proceed in that state of being ‘up on’ a few things, we are embedded in trust to all others who are ‘up on’ areas of knowledge that we cannot or wish not to access. Part of that trust is that they too operate out of good intent for the systemic whole rather than from the shadow side.

    This state of affairs would be an ‘advanced’ society.

    An ‘advanced’ society in this sense is not necessarily technologically progressed or progressive.

    It is the state of affairs in many of our ancient but not ‘progressed’ societies. Tribes that reached a sustainable level of coexistence their level of complexity.

    I wonder if our felt condition in the face of new information complexity is much different from the FELT complexity of someone – tens of thousands of years ago – encountering the world without our tools.

  7. Sean thank you for taking a moment to share your insights about knowledge, trust, society and our context. We took up your analogy in our post “adolescence” about how we are not very different from our ancient predecessors with respect to facing new understandings and grappling with misunderstandings. Trust is a real problem. How do we moderate and enable trust based upon a proof process built upon evidence and reason? This is why we continue to advocate for a set of common objectives that involve Nurture, Equality, Truth and Systems at the highest level. None of us will every experience or imagine the entire elephant as it is, but the journey toward understanding is worth it.

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