There is a well worn story about boiling frogs. The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, and put the pot of water on a stovetop where you gradually – very, very gradually – increase the temperature of the water right up to boiling, the frog will stay in the water and will be cooked to death, even though there is no lid on the pot and it could easily jump out.
That is a very short story. It is a pretty sad and kind of depressing story if you ask me. I thought about dressing it up and fleshing it out to present here. I thought about making it an interaction between a science teacher and a little girl. They would each have interesting names. It would be a science experiment. But then I couldn’t get past the cruelty to the frog if I made it real. So, I will leave it firmly in the realm of the apocryphal.
And, yet I find myself revisiting the story and thinking, even meditating on it more and more, not unlike a contemporary, middle American koan.
I am the frog. You are the frog. We are all the frog.
Daily stresses are the increase in temperature. My life, your life, all of our lives are becoming ever more stressful. The pot is near to boiling. Will we stay in the pot? To mix metaphors just a bit, are we all well cooked gooses or is there yet time to jump out? But where would we jump to? Out of the pot and into the fire?
Ah, but if this is a koan, that is a bit too easy, too simple. Yes, the warming water is stress, but it is more than that. The pot and the water are our environment, the society and social institutions which structure the environment within which we live. The ever increasing heat, ah that is structural violence! Direct violence harms directly. It is overt and acute and visible. But, structural violence kills indirectly and slowly, curtailing life spans by depriving people of material and non-material resources. Structural violence is commonplace and impersonal, like the subtly and perniciously ever increasing heat in the frog’s pot, is a chronic threat nearly invisible to wellbeing.
My mother was recently taken to the emergency room of her local hospital. My mother is 87 years old and has Parkinson’s disease. She needs to be on a complex regimen of medications. She spent over 12 hours in the emergency room before she was admitted to a regular hospital room. The well meaning nurses refused to give her any of her medications. In the emergency room they gave her a little food. On the floor in her room, they would not give her food or medication until after they had completed all of their forms and questions, and then we had to wait for the on call doctor to order her meds and for the pharmacy to send them up to the floor. The systems of the hospital are created and maintained for the convenience of the doctors and nurses. The systems of the hospital are not designed for the care and well being of the basic needs of the patients. That is a simple example of structural violence. Neglecting the need for food and medication of patients who are ill is wrong, and it is the norm.
Structural violence is built into the fabric of political and economic structures of society; it is built into our social institutions to create subtly harmful conditions that become ‘the way things are’. It is the subtle heat that harms by depriving individuals and groups of access to basic needs: social domination, political oppression, economic exploitation. Structural violence and asymmetries of power generate a kind of quiet brutality that gives birth to the banality of evil.
If we are to not be frogs in the pot, we need to be aware and act to challenge and change how and where the pathologies of power take their toll. Whose needs are served by the rules that structure and guide patterns of social interaction in our hospitals, our schools, our churches, our businesses, social services, government agencies? Structural violence and pathologies of power take their toll by creating conditions that deplete and deprive each of us of the potential for well being. The increasing heat is the lack of access to basic capabilities. According to Martha Nussbaum, basic human capabilities include life; bodily health and integrity; clarity, awareness, and the ability to express our senses, imagination, thought, and emotions; practical reason; affiliation; the social bases of self-respect and nonhumiliation; play; respect for other species; control over one’s social environment; and respect for the physical environment. We all have a right to each and every one of these basic capabilities simply because we are human beings; simply because we are sentient beings. Each of these basic capabilities is fundamental to living lives of dignity.
Look at our world, look at your world. Persistently throughout the course of our lives, throughout the course of each day in a myriad of ways, we are denied access and enjoyment of these basic capabilities. And we are told that this is normal, that this is the way that things are, the way they must be for the efficient and effective functioning of our hospitals, our schools, our churches, our businesses, social services, government agencies – of our society. If we continue to buy that line, then we are indeed all frogs in the pot, we will indeed be gooses who are quite cooked.
Rather, we need to learn to cherish ourselves and each other. We need to respect ourselves and each other, and we need to honor each other’s basic dignity as human beings. We need to become our own best friend, even as we develop the attitude and practice of befriending each other, even as we become ever more awake and aware.
Life and death are grave matters.
All things pass quickly away
Each of us must be completely alert:
Never neglectful, never indulgent.
This is a Zen saying, the evening message at many Zen sangha’s (communities), may we honor it well, with deep thought and compassionate action.