The frog, the scorpion and the river

Fable teaches us that we need to step out of ourselves and observe from a detached vantage point

In Summary

• If everything you see is rooted in your own identity, it becomes difficult to see the big picture.

River Kandisi in Ongata Rongai
River Kandisi in Ongata Rongai
Image: FILE

Today, I am going to tell you a story. The title of the story is, ‘The Scorpion and the Frog’. It begins thus:

One day, a scorpion set out on a journey over hills and valleys and through forests and bush, until he reached a river.

The river was wide and swift and the scorpion couldn’t swim. He ran upriver and then checked downriver, he couldn’t see any way across. Suddenly, the scorpion saw a frog sitting in the rushes by the bank on the other side of the river.

‘Ahoy! Mr Frog,’ called the scorpion across the water. ‘Would you be so kind as to give me a ride on your back across the river?’

Hesitating, and with a dubious expression etched on his face, the frog said, ‘Well now, Mr Scorpion. How do I know that if I help you, you won’t sting me and kill me?’

‘Because,’ said the scorpion, ‘If I sting you and kill you, then I would die, too, for you see, I cannot swim.’

The scorpion’s reply made sense to the frog, but the frog had more questions. ‘What if I get close to you and you sting me?’

‘I won’t,’ said the scorpion.

‘And when I get you across?’

‘I won’t,’ said the scorpion.

‘Alright,’ said the frog, and he swam over to pick up his passenger.

Onto the frog’s back the scorpion went and they set off across the river with the frog paddling his webbed feet wildly against the current. Halfway across the river, the frog suddenly felt a sharp sting on his back and out of the corner of his eye he saw the scorpion removing his stinger.

‘What the… You fool,’ said the frog, as the numbness began to creep into his limbs, ‘You have doomed us both. Why?’

The scorpion shrugged and said. ‘I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.’ And with those last words, the frog and the scorpion drowned. End of story.

When people come across fables, they often tend to see themselves as one of the characters. Many see themselves as the good guy, in this case the frog, and if they had to choose, they’d be the frog. A few will lean the other way and identify with the villain, so given a choice, they’d be the scorpion.

Thing is, the frog, trusting and kind, is too wrapped up in his own identity to see the scorpion for anything other than kind and trustworthy. And the scorpion, unable to control his compulsion, is blinded by his baser instincts to the consequences of his actions.

Both die because they couldn’t step out of themselves and observe from a detached vantage point.

There is a third choice character in this fable that hardly anyone notices: the river. Swiftly flowing throughout the entire story, the river is ever present but silent and unengaged in the minutiae of the interactions between the frog and the scorpion.

It is a detached observer but at the same time plays an integral part in the story. It is, as novelist Salman Rushdie would put it, the one who has stepped out of the frame and sees the whole picture.

Lesson: if everything you see is rooted in your own identity (frog or scorpion), it becomes difficult to see the big picture like the river does.