Good morning, friendos! To mark the occasion of the New Year, I wanted to tell you the story of the Spider on a Frog on a Tortoise.
This is a real photo snapped by my friend Darren (Darren Hoyt, web designer extraordinaire). A few years ago, he discovered this unlikely stack of animals trapped in the filter well of a swimming pool. It was late summer and it had been raining all week.
Darren explains that after a heavy rain, you have to check the filters because dead critters (frogs, bugs, etc) tend to get trapped inside. It's just how it goes. Rainfall = dead critters. So it was with morbid curiosity that Darren approached the pool that day. But instead of a grim clean-up job, Darren writes: "we found something else -- a turtle, exhausted and barely able to stay afloat any longer, supporting a frog on its back while a spider clung to the frog’s head to avoid drowning. We guessed it had been 3 days since the storms hit, when the filters were last emptied. Somehow the three had survived in 8″ of water, one of top of the other like ice cream scoops."
I offer this story as a way to start the New Year -- because it hints at the idea that maybe we're not as selfish in our nature as we are always told we are.
Did the tortoise rock the heavy frog cargo from his back? No. Did the frog eat the spider? No. (Maybe that kind of frog doesn't eat that kind of spider. The spider expert I contacted couldn't verify the species from the photo, but...) Did the spider attack the frog out of fear, biting its slimy steed in desperation or in hopes of a meal? No, it did not. All anybody did was cling to each other. Darren says that "Even after their rescue, they were reluctant to part ways. Finally, the spider disappeared into the grass and the frog hopped in the other direction."
So make of it what you will. But I'm making it my symbol of 2013. A little talisman, Tortoise - Frog - Spider, to carry around as we start anew this year. To remind us that we've got it in us to be good. That sometimes we save each other.
Is this naive meaning-making -- blinders toward the tortoise -- in the midst of the dizzy flurry of war, violence, and greed that splatters our newspapers?
Maybe. But I'll leave you with this steamroller of an essay by Benjamin Anastas that raises an interesting question about where selfishness comes from. I'll let you experience the joy of reading it (it's short, punchy, and pulls a fist full of tears from your spleen through your eyelids with its last line) but there's one particularly relevant part for my Tortoise - Frog - Spider outlook. Instead of heading to biology or evolutionary psychology for examples of potential altruism, Anastas looks to Ralph Waldo Emerson -- looks to him as the guy who, in America anyway, propagated the idea that we are selfish to our core and we best not fight it. In a talk at the Masonic Temple of Boston in 1838, Emerson first introduced the idea of “Self-Reliance” to the American consciousness. And in so doing, Emerson packaged selfishness as a moral and admirable trait. He condoned it. Embraced it. Imbued it with divinity. Self-Reliance was the thing that would get you ahead in the world. It belonged to the brave. The uncompromising. It became a virtue.
But Self-Reliance, Anastas argues, is the problem. He calls it a "spell" -- cast over the American people, and urges us to consider that it might not be a universal to "love ourselves before any other."
Whether or not we are truly inherently selfish in our nature, I like to imagine that there was a time when we didn’t admire and accept it as so. And it's interesting to note that Emerson preceded Darwin by about 20 years. So perhaps by the time Darwin's theory of evolution came on the scene, an already rampant ideology ("selfishness rules!") was happy to see itself in this new theory (survival of the fittest, every man for himself), and point to selfishness as an infallible, deeply scientific truth.
Maybe, MAYBE, the idea that selfishness is simply "the way we are" is just that, an idea. An ideology, even. A chant we tell ourselves to excuse and perpetuate behavior. Maybe it's just as natural for us to be generous. Maybe the frog on a tortoise with a spider on its head is not an outlier, but proof, dripping in chlorine, of our quite natural tendency to help one another out. It's so deep in us, in fact, it goes back way back... past our reptilian brain, to the amphibian, and even arthropodan one.
So gribbit gribbit friends, and whatever sound a turtle makes and whatever sound a spider makes. Happy Lucky 13, may it be full of triple-scooped offerings of generosity.
Look! This lady got a tattoo of spider on a frog on a turtle.
Look! Darren's complete account of his discovery.
Look! Sometimes people don't suck.