With age comes wisdom,
but sometimes age comes alone.
~ Oscar Wilde
As I start this post, there are just a few more hours left until my birthday.
Birthdays for me are still a time of celebration. They are also a time of reflection:
Where have I been?
What have I done?
Where am I going?
This time around the sun, I find myself thinking about the life advice that’s been passed along to me and that I have, in turn, passed along to others over the years. It’s an ongoing process. Sifting. Sorting. Testing. Honing. Much has been discarded. What I’ve kept has become all the more precious.
From books to broadcasts, seminars to sermons, political missives to posted memes — everyone seems to have “truer truth” than everyone else. I can’t help but wonder, amid the onslaught of voices, why anyone should be inclined to listen to mine. How’s anyone to know what to believe when it comes to advice?
What is factual — and what’s no more than loudly proclaimed opinion?
Somehow, all of these thoughts coalesced into a scene from my childhood. Or rather, I should say scenes from my childhood and adolescence; some tend to blur together on account of their repetitious nature.
There I am, sitting in a church pew. The side pieces are white, trimmed with dark-stained, ornate armrests. The back side of the pew in front of me is the same near-black wood, and at intervals along its length are matching outcrops that hold hymnals with gold foil lettering and faded maroon covers made of cloth that makes a zzzip! sound when I run my fingernails lightly over them.
Oscillating block chords emanate from the organ, reverberating from high ceilings, only to be pulled back down into the pits of stomachs by the weight of pulsing bass tones played on long, black foot pedals.
As the last echoes retreat, a suited man with slick hair solemnly ascends crimson-carpeted stairs and stands before a ponderous, stark white pulpit that matches the end-caps on the pews. As hymnals thud back into their places, the pastor’s eyes dart to parishioners, cowing any last whisperers into awkward silence, until he is sure he has everyone’s full attention.
His speech is slow, measured, punctuated with pregnant pauses. Authoritative. He knows what others do not — could not — know, mysteries that the masses would have no hope of understanding unless by his impartation.
He begins with an object lesson, as a principal might to abashed school children who had played hooky. He tells us that a frog placed into boiling water will jump out; but a frog placed into a pot of cool water that is heated slowly, degree by degree, will sit motionless, unaware, until the water reaches a boil and it cooks to death.
You can almost hear the collective gulp from the congregation.
The exemplum, in this case, clearly implies that we (the listeners, not by any means the speaker) are the frog and that, without the minister’s continual guidance and teaching, we too would acclimate to the incremental moral degradation around us until … well, until something nondescript but unspeakably terrible happened to us.
It’s funny. I was in this system for a long time. And I was considered the golden child, the model for others to follow. And yet I never quite understood the frog story.
I remember wondering, even at a very young age, what kind of sadistic person would have actually tested this out, slowly boiling frogs. And why?
I knew a lot about animals. More than many adults. In fact, my close second choice for schooling and career was marine biology. And I thought, This doesn’t make sense. Yes, a frog is cold blooded and will adapt; but it also has a survival instinct. I just can’t see it sitting in that water long enough to boil.
Now, if you were to Google “boiling frog” at this moment, you would find nearly a quarter of a million matches. This baby has been around a long time, a perennial favorite it seems. You can find a host of illustrations. You can even watch YouTube videos, as I did this morning, that seem to show the sequence of events — a live frog sitting in a pot of water with a digital thermometer attached to the side, showing a starting temperature of under 70° which slowly rises while the frog sits motionless, culminating in the gruesome sight of the dead frog floating amid the froth of a full boil.
But then the video ends with a note saying, “No animals were harmed during the making of this video.”
Things that make you go hmmmm.
The fact is that the maker of this video started with a premise that the old canard was true.
Yes, he had a real frog.
Yes, the frog was filmed in a pot of water.
And, yes, that water was heated from 70° to an on-screen temperature of about 81°.
But then … there is a cut away. We don’t see the temperature rising. We go straight to full boil as the man continues delivering his warning in sagacious tones.
Clearly, the frog in the boiling water is not the same one from the start of the video.
It’s a rubber frog.
Don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t some outcry against any particular religion. I just happened to have first heard the analogy in church growing up; but it’s been used by everyone from pastors to professors to politicians, as a means of adding weight to their own words.
That said, I encourage you to look up Friedrich Goltz. For now, so that I can tie things together, I’ll give you the nuts and bolts. Goltz was a German physiologist around the time of Lincoln. And in an effort to support a ruling theory that the seat of the human soul was the brain, Goltz conducted experiments in which he placed live frogs into cool water and slowly increased the temperature. And it is true that his frogs sat right there, seemingly oblivious to the rising heat, until they boiled to death.
Thing is, these were no ordinary frogs.
This is, they were lobotomized.
Yup, that’s right. Goltz went to the trouble of removing the entire cerebral cortex of each frog in his study, essentially leaving only the stem attached to the spine. So while the frogs were technically “alive” in that their basic body functions continued, they had no brains.
Interestingly, they don’t tell you that part in the sermons.
The truth of the matter (as you’ll find HERE and many other places) is that a frog thrown into boiling water will not “hop out.” When you think about it, it’s a ridiculous premise. Rather, the frog will likely die or, at the very least, be severely injured. And a frog subjected to incrementally heated water …
… will hop out. In fact, the test group in Goltz’s own original study — frogs with fully functional brains — all hopped out when things got uncomfortable.
You see, given a brain, even a frog knows when something seems fishy. It doesn’t just keep sitting there and taking it with a smile. In frog-language, it thinks, “Something’s not right here. I’ve had just about enough of this nonsense and I’m not putting up with it anymore. I’m outta here.”
Bear with me. I assure you that the dawn of another birthday is not bringing with it senility. I have a point in all of this.
As a matter of fact, here it is:
Just because a thing is said repeatedly or loudly … doesn’t make it true.
In actuality, even what I’m telling you right now may be a complete fabrication. Do you trust me? If so, why? At what point do we begin investing the time to find out for ourselves what is true —and what is not — over solely taking others’ word for it?
Turns out frogs aren’t as dumb as they’d been made out to be after all.
The question is … what about us?