I came across this quote as I visited the web site of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, to make plans to attend their 2010 Clergy and Lay Leadership conference a couple of weeks ago, ". . . together, the ants ate the elephant." It struck me, and has stuck with me since.
Immediately I performed a Google search trying to locate the source, which the best I could find was simply an African proverb. In some places the quote was led with "working", as in "working together, . . .". I've since featured it on my Facebook status, and now include it in my email signature. Why? Well, I'm glad I asked. :)
For those of us that have decided to focus time and energy on bringing the basic concepts of fairness, justice, equality, and other high-minded moral constructs such as these to the underprivileged and oppressed, the work often seems completely overwhelming. The battlefield is immense, and it is easy to think, as many do, that one person cannot make a difference, or even more damaging, "I can't make a difference". Everyone can identify examples of one person making a difference, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, etc., but of course few of us have egos large enough to see ourselves in that esteemed company.
While, yes, there is a place for the force of powerful personalities in moving societies to great change this quote reminds us that the key to making change happen is in our working together toward a common goal. Having a great leader of a movement is important, but only if there is a critical mass of people working together to get the work done. Do we need leaders and spokespersons? Yes. But just as importantly we need people like you and me!
One story I read associated with this quote talked about the ants being particularly peeved that the elephant kept walking all over them, taking lives and destroying homes. One ant eventually began discussing retaliation. Not an easy argument, but eventually the ants agreed to a plan. They would dig a series of tunnels in one spot along the path that the elephant took to the watering hole each day, so that his weight would cause the tunnels to collapse, and trap the elephant. Each ant had a part to play in the plan, and once completed the entire village stood wait for the elephant to arrive. Well, the end is no mystery, the elephant collapsed the tunnels and was trapped, and "together, the ants ate the elephant".
There are many elephants out there. And they are stomping all over the rights of people, humanitarian and otherwise. Luckily there are also many, many ants that if only they/we work together, can bring them down.