Taylor: The camel takes over the tent

The meaning of any story is up to interpretation by the listener.

This story has been around so long that no one knows its origins anymore.

One night in the desert, the story goes, a traveller sat warming himself by a charcoal brazier in his tent. Outside, his camel whimpered and whined.

“Master,” the camel begged, “let me put just my nose inside your tent, for it is cold out here.”

The Master was a kindly man, so he invited the camel to stick its nose under the flap and into the warmth of the tent.

Soon the camel said, “Master, my nose feels much better. But the rest of my head is still outside. May I bring it in too?”

“Of course,” said the Master. “It will not take much more room.”

So the camel put its head inside. And in the same way, it manipulated the Master’s compassion to get its neck inside. Then its front legs. And its shoulders. And its hump. The Master moved over a little, each time, to make room for the camel.

Until eventually the entire camel was inside the tent.

“This is quite a small tent,” said the camel after a while. “There is not enough room for both of us. Since you are smaller than I am, perhaps it would be best if you went outside.”

The story has many variations, but the theme is constant—little by little, the camel took over the tent.

But what’s the story really about? There are no talking camels, so it has to be figurative, symbolic, metaphoric.

You thought that story was about refugees, didn’t you? Immigrants who accept our hospitality, and then try to take over? Donald Trump exploits that fear by promising to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the U.S. tent. Israel built a wall to exclude Palestinians. The Soviet Empire built a wall through the heart of Berlin. They didn’t work.

If that’s what you thought the story was about, you’re wrong.

It’s about cell phones. We thought we’d let them in so we could make emergency phone calls. Being out of our homes and offices wouldn’t mean being out of touch. And look—cell phones have taken over the tent! My wife replaced her cell phone recently. She wanted one that just made phone calls. There’s no such thing. Phones today take pictures, send messages, play games, track appointments, make bank deposits, count calories….

People look lost without a phone to stare at.

One variant of this story ends: “It is a wise rule to resist the beginnings of evil.” Does that make it a moral fable? Does the story illustrate the slippery-slope principle—let pot, booze, lottery tickets, or doubt into your life and they’ll take over?

I suggest it is all of the above, and none of the above. The meaning of any story—like the meaning of a painting or a piece of music—depends on how you choose to interpret it. The story of Genesis can be about caring for the Earth, or about exploiting it. The story of Jesus can be a doctrinal straitjacket or mind-blowing freedom. The story of evolution can promote either kinship or competition.

No story is self-evident. It’s what you make of it that counts.