Thursday, August 22, 2013

Boiled Frogs and Original Sin

Is it an urban myth/metaphor or a reality? That if you stick a frog in a pot of water and heat the water gradually the frog’s capacity to adapt will be its downfall. Not realizing it’s in danger, it will be boiled to death. Leaving aside the gruesome possibility of this ever having been a real life experiment, it’s not a bad metaphor for adult behaviour. We get stuck in a comfort zone that starts out looking and feeling just fine, and keeps us materially provided for. It requires a whole lot of compromises but they seem small at first and perfectly manageable.  

Some part of us is in protest but we don't hear it. Or if we do, there’s always the future. I’ll just do this for a while then I’ll change and do something really worthwhile. 

The days, weeks, months and years pass. At some level the compromises become increasingly painful and unbearable but instead of listening to the pain and taking it seriously, we say things like It’s not so bad. I shouldn’t complain. I can’t complain. I should be grateful. Don’t worry be happy. Be positive. We feel quite heroic when we do that. Responsible. Accountable. Unselfish. Healthy members of society. 

Healthy? I'm not so sure. Afraid, maybe. Still so controlled by an atavistic fear of having no food and shelter that we can't embrace that our survival requires more than that now. It requires nurturing the heart and soul.  

Growing up Catholic, I rebelled strongly against the idea of original sin. Nobody could explain in any way that sounded remotely intelligent to me. I've come to see that probably our capacity to not listen to the most important part of us is what it's about if you strip it of the moralism. Sin is an archery term, meaning to miss the mark. Original sin is our capacity to miss the mark – which is pretty much what languishing in a comfort zone that doesn’t feed your heart and soul and mind in a balanced way is. Alongside judging those who are least trying to not die the slow crucifying death.

I can’t imagine that boiling frogs was ever a real experiment. Even if some psychopath did decide it would further the understanding of human nature, they would have had to slow-boil hundreds of thousands of frogs to be able to reach any kind of significant conclusion, since one frog doesn’t equal every frog. Just as in a tank of fish the majority will swim round and round in the same direction but a few will swim in the opposite direction, it’s probable that most frogs would boil to death but some would leap out as soon as the water started getting warm.

I doubt there’s a human being who wouldn’t look at those few and believe they were at the forefront of frog-evolution. But when people behave in the same ways as those clever, evolved frogs would if the experiment really happened, our reactions aren’t so simple. 

Some humans are a whole lot more finely tuned than others. They feel what’s happening within themselves, they see what’s happening in others. They register emotions and discomfort far more quickly than many others do. A whole world is visible to them that others are oblivious to. The kind of compromise that others will feel comfortable with for a while - and regret most horribly later on - is like torture to them immediately. They instinctively understand the danger. They make different choices in life which we often see as risky. But that’s only if we don’t see what they’re protecting. If we don’t see that they’re like those frogs that jump when the water is just getting warm. We don’t even consider whether in fact they’re taking less of a risk than we are. 

If they find a way to be materially safe in the world and even materially wealthy, we make heroes out of them. We look up to them as leading the way, following their heart, inspiring us. We write books and make movies about them; we make them our role models and aspire to be just like them. Or we tell ourselves we’d like to. We hold on at least to the fact that it is a humanly possible thing to follow your heart and succeed. We hold onto that light in our darkest hour.

What if they don’t do so well? Do we still recognize that at least they’re following their heart, or trying to? Do we look to them for inspiration?

It’s a rhetorical question. We’re more likely to criticize them for being irresponsible, selfish, freeloaders. We turn our backs on them; judge them for not being more like us, for not being willing to make the sacrifices we make. We do it especially if we’re slowly boiling away in boiling frogland. Even more especially if we don’t have the courage and honesty to acknowledge it.  

Or else if we help them we do it believing ourselves to be the heroes. We seldom let them forget how magnanimous we are and how much they're in our debt. Whatever we do with it, we hold onto the idea that we’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys. We're at the forefront of evolution and they're trailing behind us. Even though our choices are eroding our lives faster than the speed of light. Yet imagine if we recognized that in many ways they’re ahead of us. Imagine if we embraced them, not from the perspective of how much we can do for them, but of how much we can learn from them about how not to slow-boil yourself to death. Imagine that.