The term white elephant refers to an extravagant, but impractical, gift that cannot be easily disposed of. The phrase is said to come from the historic practice of the King of Siam (now Thailand) giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs.
In 1861, in order for the country Siam to survive and in an effort to engage with the West, King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, presented a letter of gifting the United States with several elephants, male and female, with high hopes of breeding and populating the West. Knowing that a gesture of kindness would go further than fear, he sent along generous piles of lavish gifts that included photos of himself and his daughter, a precious handmade sword and a letter that presented the exceptional gifting of the elephants.
The letter was addressed to President James Buchanan, but the King realized that the length of time it takes for a voyage to travel between Bangkok and Washington D.C. would interfere with the November elections. He was aware that by the time the letter had reached American soil there would be a new President in office. Sure enough, when President Abraham Lincoln came into presidency, he was the recipient of that letter.
The idea sounded great in the king’s’ mind; what would start off as several pairs of female and male elephants had the potential of inhabiting American forests. Americans would then be able to catch and tame them for their country’s profitable use. The king even included an outlined logistics plan of shipment of these elephants to America.
Perhaps the image of elephants roaming the American soil delighted President Lincoln to some degree, but the letter of decline further stated the tactful response, “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”
Lincoln’s response acknowledged the king’s wonderful gesture, but politely refused such a gift.
Sometimes in life, we find ourselves in similar situations as the King of Siam. We tend to have grandiose plans and wonderful gestures that we think will benefit the recipient. But, without realizing or understanding the situation someone else is in, we present him or her with the best gift, a white elephant. Or, sometimes, we can identify with President Lincoln, and are presented with gifts of no real value, except the burdensome effects of such generosity.
Although the gesture of gifting an elephant doesn’t necessarily apply today, it could similarly be replaced with other lavish gifts, for example, an expensive car.
Imagine driving an older Prius, when out of the blue someone delivers a Lamborghini in your driveway; a gift of gratitude for past efforts. Your initial reaction is one of excitement. You’ve hit the jackpot! So, you take it for a spin and show it off to everyone in your neighborhood. (You live in an average neighborhood.) Things just couldn’t get any better. But, after much driving, an empty gas tank becomes full; thanks to the $100 you didn’t plan on spending. Without realizing, an envious neighbor sees you driving such a fine vehicle and pays you a visit during the night; to tinker with the engine. The next morning, as you drive to work, the check engine light immediately alerts you. Not only are you now late for work and are stranded on the side of the highway, you will have to pay for towing and the replacement parts, triple that of your Prius. The costs unexpectedly add up and eat away at your wallet without ceasing or any type of warning. You begin to realize that life would have been much simpler had this “white elephant” not been presented in your life in the first place.
What started off as someone’s gesture of generosity, turned out to be a nightmare. Had Lincoln accepted the king’s offer and elephants roamed freely on American streets, unforeseen problems would surely exist.
Or, perhaps you are the one planning to gift someone lavishly. Your perception of them informs you that they surely could use such a wonderful gift; one that would compliment them quite nicely.
White elephants present themselves in different forms; friendships, opportunities, and offers. Initially, they may seem like great gestures, but overtime take a toll on your emotional health and eventually drain you of your energy.
You might have to ask yourself the question “If I welcome this white elephant into my life now, will I benefit from it, or will this become too much of a burden?’ Keep in mind that if you do decide to accept the offer, getting rid of it or re-gifting won’t be an option.