Saturday, October 5, 2013

Might as Well Jump

Last week during her talk at the Washington Ethical Society, Mary Herman shared a couple of compelling images from a television show she had watched recently. It's so easy to turn animal behaviors into metaphors for life in the human world, but in this case I think it's apt.

The first image is that of a tree frog. Ordinarily, this little frog lives high in the treetops in the tropical rain forests. Hopping is rather precarious in this situation, so the tree frog has sticky pads on its hands and feet (do frogs have hands and feet? It seems odd to call them paws) that let it work its way from branch to branch. Every now and then, the frog has to beat a hasty retreat to escape from hungry birds and snakes. It needs to put as much distance as possible between itself and the predator, and it needs to do it quickly. So the frog takes a dive. It lets go of the branch it's on and goes into free fall.

Suicidal, right? No. Remember the sticky hands? The frog just waits until it sees a better leaf or branch, puts out its hands, and grabs on. Some tree frogs even have webbing between their fingers and toes that acts as a kind of parachute, buying them more time to look for their next perch on the way down.

Jumping requires letting go. No second thoughts about how far you're going to fall before you land again (or splat). Leaving behind all the tasty tidbits on that branch you worked so hard to climb up to. Once the frog lands, it finds itself in a new situation. New neighborhood, new sunlight patterns, new locations for the food and water, new neighbors to adjust to (or flee). No regrets, life's different now, move on.

The second daring amphibian is the pebble toad, who lives on the rocky heights of the Venezuelan mountains. Again, this is a neighborhood where hopping is an iffy proposition, so the toad climbs the mountain slopes. In one particularly dramatic video clip from the BBC, one of these little guys makes his way to the top of a ridge, only to meet a tarantula coming at him from the other direction.

So the little toad goes rigid, leans back, and bounces down the mountain, off a cliff or two, and into a waiting pond -- more like a puddle, actually. The pebble toad is so small and weighs so little that all the bouncing around doesn't hurt it. It doesn't stop to grouse about all the lost status and progress, it just does what it needs to do and begins again. That's life. This kind of strategy doesn't work if you're one of the big guys. When you're higher up on the food chain, if the free fall doesn't kill you, it will certainly incapacitate you and make you easy prey for something else.

People aren't frogs and toads. We do, however, find ourselves in situations where the real danger is in clinging to the familiar, clutching our hard-earned status, hesitating at the thought that we might fail utterly. Letting go requires knowing how to use the advantages that we carry with us and having the willingness to start all over again in a new situation.

I get up, and nothing gets me down.
You got it tough. I've seen the toughest around.
And I know, baby, just how you feel.
You've got to roll with the punches to get to what's real
-- Eddie Van Halen, "Might as Well Jump"


  1. Nancy, this is a really fine column/blog. Thank you for it. Especially since we were on vacation and not in attendance at Mary's platform last Sunday.

    Again, thanks. You do really good work.

    Best/ J

    John Campbell

  2. I wonder what comparable "bizarre adaptations" a human might be able to make use of to survive a potentially bumpy and jarring trek down? It seems to be beneficial to travel very light, for one thing. Having pretty generalized requirements for survival is another. I've made a few bump-and-bounce trips down, and I don't have the hang of thriving quite yet; I think my requirements for a fulfilled life may be too specific for the environments I land in!

  3. Excellent piece - loved the tree frog and pebble toad's attitudes toward life and your interpretation that followed. When you live life with the intention of contributing to it, you can't fail too miserably. There will always be a new leaf to eat or problem to solve...


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