Mingling at a New Year's Eve party, I heard the "boiling frog story" for the first time. More an anecdote than a story, it goes like this: a frog will jump out if placed in a pan of boiling water, but if submerged in cold water that is heated very slowly, the frog won't jump out and will actually allow itself to be cooked to death.
The telling of this story was followed by frozen silence, with drinks pausing in mid-air. You could see the cerebral wheels turning and then came outbursts of knowing laughter. This story struck a chord in everyone.
Haven't all of us, at some point in our life, remained in situations that weren't good for us, that were slowly damaging our body or mind or soul, and yet we couldn't quite make that jump? It might have been fear, or apathy, or rationalization that kept us in that unhealthy situation... until finally we were forced to jump or "die" (or the other person jumped first, leaving us feeling like the boiled frog that was stupidly left behind).
After a quick internet search, I was relieved to learn this story isn't factual (modern biologists have tried it with real frogs and failed). Although 19th century researchers claim to have seen this behavior in frogs and that's where the story began, today the tale is merely a metaphor for people's inability to react to gradual changes that ultimately may be harmful to them. That became clear from my research, as well as the reason why this story was still resonating with me hours later.
For me, change has always been hard and I have been the frog in the pan more than once. The boiling water that creeps up on me gradually -- threatening to harm my spirit -- is not something in the external world, but my own refusal to accept uncontrollable changes in my life. It's my desire to hold on to what I have and keep it the way it is... if only I could really do that.
In 2011, for example, changes I tried to resist were: my children getting older and the dynamics of our relationship evolving; the ending of a friendship I knew wasn't good for me, but still I ruminated over leaving it; my children's educational environment taking a detrimental turn that forced change; the awareness that not all people are good and sometimes bad things happen to good people--this, in particular, was something I resisted accepting, wanting to see only the best in people and not wanting to believe that life can be profoundly unfair at times. (I resisted this reality until it smacked me and others in the face.)
I'm not sure if it's just my age group, but it seems many of my middle-aged friends also had a remarkably trying year and had to jump to save their lives. They feel as displaced as I do from the security of past times. For some friends, economic circumstances have forced them to make profound changes, such as relocating or losing their home. Others have faced divorce and the multitude of new struggles that come with that. My best friend is dealing with the care of her incapacitated, elderly parents, while others I know are struggling with empty nest, job burnout or an unemployed status they didn't deserve. Everyone has had to jump from the life they once knew into unchartered territory, reluctantly leaving the safety zone to which they had grown accustomed.
I think the hardest lesson for us is that our lives don't always turn out the way we wanted. People die, marriages break up, people we trusted let us down, and dreams we have don't always come true. And as we get older and have lived long enough to fail at something we worked very hard at, we are confronted with the fact that loss is a part of life. The resilience of youth fades a bit and we don't bounce back as easily from these changes and disappointments.
I think the message from all of this, at least for me, is to stop resisting change and to accept the realities of life, even when it's the last thing I wanted to happen. Because we live in an imperfect world, heartbreaking loss and injustice can be our personal reality at times. It's quite disillusioning when something really bad happens, like divorce or betrayal, but the real failure would be to let this kill our optimism and belief in life. So in essence, the leap we really need to make in the midst of change, more than anything else, is a leap of faith . . . faith in the future, faith that new possibilities and people will be waiting for us ahead once we finally let go of what we had.
And in one of life's little ironic moments, I've realized that my role models for this process are the people who walk through my door every day to mediate their divorce. I'm supposed to be "the expert," but they are in fact my teachers. Wounded, scared and in tremendous pain, they face change and uncertainty much greater than anything I am going through. I watch them --even those who were divided by an affair -- trying very hard to do the right thing for their children and their family. I see them resolve conflict without revenge or ego, accepting that they both have to make the jump -- whether they wanted it or not -- for their children to survive and thrive (and for themselves ultimately to find peace).
So as we begin this new year, I would like to honor every person who is facing divorce and significant life changes. It takes courage and strength to keep the faith when the unexpected happens. As someone who has followed people through divorce and loss for more than a decade, I can say that second chances do come to those who bravely leap and don't look back. A frog knows what it must do to survive and so do you.
Dedicated to Jill Green, a brilliant educator with an enormous heart.
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