Once there was a frog living in a well. One day, quite unexpectedly, a second frog found his way into the well. “Where did you come from?” The first frog asked his visitor. “Oh, I came from a great lake beyond these earthen walls,” came the answer.
“Really!” said the first frog. “What is it like to live in a lake? Is it as nice as my well?” The visiting frog laughed. “There is no comparison!” he said. Then he began to describe vast acres of water; how the sun would hang in an endless sky for hours each day, not for just a few minutes directly overhead. He spoke of bright colors, creatures large and small, and the near infinity of the outside world.
The frog that had lived his entire life in the well did his best to listen, but finally said to himself, “Of all the liars I have known in my lifetime, this guy is the worst and most shameless. Who would ever believe that such a place that he is describing can exist?”
That’s a story by the late Jesuit mystic and priest, Anthony De Mello. As a masterful collector and teller of stories, he had a knack for revealing to his readers what they already knew, but not in a condescending, “Captain Obvious” sort of way. Rather, he was like a pop-up reminder on a digital calendar, through story and parable not letting us forget what was important.
And what do we know about the two frogs in Anthony’s story? We know that we should not judge either of them too harshly. Like the simple well-dweller, we have all been inexperienced and naive to the larger world. And like the new arrival from the lake, haven’t we all gushed about our “enlightenment?” How could we not? For we all speak the truth as we have experienced it.
Herein, I think, lies somewhat of an answer to much of the division in our society: Every person speaks, acts, believes, and engages others based on his or her own personal experience. That is, each person has a view of the world that has been shaped largely by his or her conditioning and circumstances, circumstances that most have no control over.
We get into trouble, it seems to me, when we demand that everyone else see things from our personal perspective. When we expect others to come to our religious, political, and social conclusions when others have not lived our lives, and we have not had their experiences, it is a recipe for polarization. We must take the time (yes, it takes time) to stop, learn, appreciate, and listen.
Because some of us live in a well; some in a lake, and others in a river or at sea. But we all share the same eco-system, as it were. We would do well to remember that – for we already know it – lest our unyielding demands of others poison the water for all of us.