This is a series of posts trying to deal honestly with what is true in our world; and who has significant interests in us keeping a naive belief that what we’ve always known is somehow more healthy than other competing options.
In this second section, I will attempt to deconstruct a bit of what we consider to be “normal” and “truthful” through a simple illustration. Maybe it doesn’t work, but it helps bring clarity to some of my thinking.
Along the lines established by the introduction, there’s an ancient story I have heard of…well…it’s ancient to me because there’s never been a time where I have not consciously known of this story, and the situation seems to be the same with my mother and father, and their parents as well. And at least three generations makes the story ancient, doesn’t it? The story has three elements (water, a pot, and a frog) and two different situations (in one the water is boiling, and in the other it slowly heats to boiling). As the story goes, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out again (it “knows better” than to stay there; its life is in danger!), but if you throw a frog into a pot of water, then slowly warm the water to boiling, the frog will stay in the water and cook to death (I thought it “knew better” than to stay there; its life was in danger!).
As a child, I got some sort of sick delight out of hearing that story, and even consciously remember saying to myself, “What a dumb animal! How could he stay in the midst of something that was killing him?!” As I’ve grown older and reflected on that story, though, my triumphant description of the frog as “dumb” is much more muted, because in many ways I can now see much of myself and others in that frog.
If we expand the story of the frog into a much wider arena than a pithy proverb, it begins to reveal a deeply incisive truth. In the arena of human society, for example, every people group across the face of this world has a unique take on what is “reality,” “truth,” the “good life,” and what is “normal.”
As a concrete example, the latter half of the 20th century was marked by a struggle of two economic systems (capitalism and communism) for global ascendancy. This struggle became so tense that some people groups developed whole theories (one theory known by a parlor game of black rectangles with white dots) on how to stem the tide of the opposing ideology. For communists, it was “obvious” that communism provided the best approach for the “good life,” and they had all kinds of reasons why it was “good.” For capitalists, it was “obvious” that capitalism provided the best approach for the “good life,” and they had all kinds of reasons why it was “good.” Both sides then proceeded to demonize the others’ systems to the point that they were willing to kill for the sake of what was “obvious” to them.
This simple illustration above shows a basic conundrum of life: how do we know what is really “good” and “true” (what is “reality”)? Both communists and capitalists seemed to come at their beliefs with integrity. This illustration, I would suggest, suggests that our belief of what is really “good” and “true” is conditioned by a variety of factors and shaping influences. Otherwise, how could two different groups of people arrive at radically different conclusions? At the very least, we must confess that what we assume to be “true” is in fact a result of us being intimately shaped in various ways by our society to pursue certain things, to assume certain things, and to order our lives in various ways. And the sum total of these beliefs is a life that we and others most like us call “normal” (which then enables us, if we’re lazy or naïve, to look at others not like “us” and call their different approach “abnormal,” because we “clearly” have a deeper perspective on what is objectively “normal”).
The frog story then truly does have something to say to us here. If we can imagine the various orderings of society in the story, the greater societal forces that have shaped us have a structure (the pot) and messages the forces disseminate on what is normal (the water); and from the moment we are more than a twinkle in our parents’ collective eye, we are educated, enculturated into a way of life that is “normal.” These different influences stretch from the wider (global influences, theories on the ordering of goods) to the more specific (parental guidance, everyday experience). Literally, we are so deeply enmeshed in our societies’ ways of seeing that we often don’t even know how deeply we have been shaped by them.