The Heat of the Moment

There is a metaphoric story that has been told at several of the workshops conducted by  colleague Rene Mendoza, Interim Director of NITLAPAN.  The idea of the tale is that if you were to place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would immediately jump right out to escape the deadly heat.  But if you placed that same frog in a pot of tepid water and then very gradually turn the heat up to the boiling point, the frog would remain in the water until it died, so gradual and subtle would be the increase in heat and discomfort.

It’s an old metaphor and one that may or may not be literally true.  But it has been used by many leaders to describe the dangers of complacency, of accepting gradual erosions of a healthy state of being to an unhealthy one.  In the workshops, Rene has used the story as a metaphor for rural cooperatives who have gradually lost significant value for their work and product to the marketplace, the “middleman” and managers with unfair leverage over them.  The message is clear: jump out of the hot water of powerlessness and acceptance before the heat consumes you.

I wonder what it is about frogs and human beings that allows such acceptance of our conditions.  Is it really easier to withstand the pain of abuse than to get to a different place?  Right now in the United States, the Federal government is abusively dysfunctional, with many government offices closed down indefinitely.  People are out of work.  Important services are unavailable.  Leaders are not governing, but rather posturing for their own narrow interests.  And yet our population tolerates the closure of the very government for which it pays taxes, reacting to it as an inconvenience and a frustration and not as an unacceptable, potentially devastating display of self-centered arrogance.  And all while the water becomes hotter.

In Nicaragua, the small producer has often been the victim of marketplace brokers and buyers and others who have mastered the practice of playing the market; it’s the subject of workshops taking place among some cooperatives.  After each growing season, many cooperative members are left with little more in their pockets than the cost of production and the frustration of not being able to leverage any power in the commercialization chain.  Each year seems to be a little worse than the previous one.  There is dissatisfaction, but no real strategic initiative.  And the water becomes a little hotter.

There is a tremendous irony in our predisposition to simply accept the warming water.  We human beings are almost universally resistant to change, to being forced out of our comfort zones and away from that with which we are familiar.  And yet, adaptation to change is what we humans do better than nearly any other living creature.  We are capable of adapting to conditions or circumstances that are beyond imagination: we have plunged to the depths of the oceans and walked upon the surface of the moon. We live in the frozen Arctic and at the ring of the equator.  We know how to adapt.  But we rarely like to do it unless forced to.  It just seems easier to tolerate the heating of the water and to pretend that it isn’t that bad.

The workshops in which WPF will participate later this month will be making the case that it’s better to get out of hot water when you can rather than to wait until you’re burned.  Learning how to sense the heat, how and when to jump, where to land and what to do next are matters of survival, and action that is far easier done with others than all alone.  In the U.S., we collectively need to move from complacency to outrage.  In Nicaragua, producers have the opportunity to move from serving as pawns to being the most essential components of the marketplace.

The question is, how hot does the water have to get before any of us jumps….


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