“Goodness, it’s warm…”
Many of you know that this summer I drove to the East Coast and back on a vacation road trip. It was somewhat eventful with a failing fuel pump and a decision to return quickly to be of assistance to Debra and the Zen community in Eugene, Oregon. The fuel pump was resolved efficiently thanks to the mechanic recommended by my grad school friends in Alexandria, Virginia. Support for Debra and the Zen sangha in Eugene was harder to do from afar but I got back just in time to be helpful with a tragedy in that community.
When I was in Kansas heading east I stopped at my usual stop in Phillipsburg. It’s a small county seat in western Kansas surrounded by corn and soy fields. Very nice people there and I always look forward to my visits.
I got to the motel and waited for the front desk clerk to finish with a slow computer and a very complicated transaction. In the meantime, two biker couples came up on their motorcycles to the office. They came in from the hot sun and waited behind me. We struck up a conversation. “Where are you coming from” is the usual opening line. We then talked about the torrential storms we’d encountered in Colorado as well as the heat. One of the bikers mused about climate change and how he had seen so many odd weather changes in recent years.
His companion asked me if I knew the ‘frog in the frying pan’ story. I assured her I did and asked why she’d thought of that old parable. She replied that the story was too simple. Yes, it was a good parable on how change could harm us even as we paid no attention to its effects. However, it seemed a disservice to the intelligence of frogs. “How come?” I asked.
She said that in her opinion any self-respecting frog would know that something was wrong and jump out. It seemed unfair to assume the frog would sit there like the bump on a log and pay no attention to the heat of the water until it was boiling. And, she said, human beings are smarter than frogs (I should add one of the other bikers rolled his eyes at that comment).
The man in front of me at the counter finally left with his 5 sets of keys for 3 rooms. I thanked the bikers behind me and assured them I’d not be at the counter for long.
I thought about that conversation as I continued east the next day. She was literally right about frogs and their self-preservation techniques. I wondered if we human beings were as smart as frogs. Could we pay attention to that uneasy feeling something was seriously wrong around us? Could we be active rather than passive when it comes to climate, political and cultural changes? Or would we sit in that pan and hope everything would sort itself out ignoring those odd burning sensations?
The frog in the frying pan story is a great metaphor but we must be careful about accepting it on face value. Stories with moral endings are teaching tools but they can leave out what really happens. Frogs would jump out; people can respond with action; our fates aren’t determined by invisible hands turning the stove heat up just to see us boil.
We are not destined to be helpless victims of change unless we choose to ignore our intuition. We’re not alone in that frying pan of warming water. Others are with us and conversations like the one I had with the bikers in Kansas tell me that people are responding to change rather than ignoring it.
I am grateful for that conversation at the motel. It told me that others were worried the frying pan was getting too hot. Was it time to jump out? Could we avoid jumping from the frying pan in the fire? Could we help each other avoid such a fate?
I don’t know. Time will tell. Are we smarter than your average frog?