The Elephant Rope is a famous folk tale about the power of belief. Many years ago, a young man who had always wanted to visit the circus was finally afforded the chance to do so. As he was passing by the elephants, he suddenly stopped, confused by the fact that these huge creatures were being held only by a small rope tied to one of their legs. No chains, no cages. It was obvious that the elephants could, at any point, break away from the ropes they were tied to but for some reason, they did not.
Spotting a trainer brushing one of them down, the young man approached her, asking why these magnificent mammoths just stood there and made no attempt to get away.
“Ah,” she said, “the elephant rope. You spotted it. Interesting, huh?” She turned to examine the inquisitive young man. “Most people miss it. Or they see it and don’t question it. Pretty incredible. Everyone around here refers to it as the ‘chained elephant syndrome’ or ‘the elephant mindset’–as in, ‘that sounds like an elephant mindset to me’, or ‘don’t get chained elephant syndrome’.”
The young man glanced back at the nearest elephant rope tethering its enormous prisoner to its respective cell. He looked back at the trainer, questioning.
She explained: “When the elephants are very young, and much smaller, we use the same size of rope to tie them there and, at that age, it’s enough to hold them. As they grow, they’re conditioned to believe they can’t break away–because they really couldn’t when they were younger. They think the rope can still hold them, so they just give up–long before they reach maturity.”
The young circus-goer was amazed. These animals could at any time break free from their bonds, but, simply because they believed they couldn’t — and were raised to accept that belief as an unchangeable and unquestionable reality, it became their reality. As hard as it was for an onlooker such as himself to swallow, nonetheless there it was. Here were these ancient, incredibly powerful beasts, possessing strength beyond belief, yet conscripted to a tiny space by their keepers, whose tools were nothing more than a rope that was, in reality, completely ineffectual. A flimsy little elephant rope.