Of Bullfrogs and Scorpions
by David Matthews 2
There’s an old parable about a bullfrog and a scorpion. It’s been told and re-told as other characters. Sometimes it’s a fox and a poisonous spider. Other times it’s a kangaroo and a snake. It is not necessarily the characters that are important, but rather it is how those characters act that is important.
But let us presume in this long-standing story that we are dealing with a bullfrog and a scorpion.
One day a group of scorpions and other crawling creatures are using a fallen tree branch to cross a stream. The waters are pretty rough today, so the crawling insects are sort of happy that they have help from this branch, because otherwise they would drown in the current.
Just before the last scorpion reaches the branch, a gust of wind dislodges the branch from its spot and sends it downstream. The scorpion is crushed. He had hoped to continue on with the others and now it appeared that he would be stranded.
Then he noticed a bullfrog further on down the bank preparing to swim across. He races up the bullfrog and politely asks if he could hitch a ride on the bullfrog’s back since they were both headed in the same direction.
But the bullfrog refuses, saying that he knows that if he allows the scorpion to ride with him that the scorpion would only sting him once they were in the water.
The scorpion gets indignant. “How dare you suggest that, kind frog? If I were to do something as stupid as sting you while we are in the middle of the water, then we’d both die, not just you. I am insulted that you would allow your prejudice against my species to stand in the way of cooperation! Look across the stream and you’ll see a whole group of insects and other animals working side-by-side to reach a common destination. If they can work together, then so can we. I promise you, on my honor as a scorpion, that I will not sting you while I am on your back.”
The bullfrog, feeling impassioned by the scorpion’s speech, agrees and allows the scorpion to ride atop his back as he swims across the stream.
Doubt creeps into the bullfrog’s mind as they are a quarter of the way across, but he realizes that it’s too late to stop now. The current is still pretty strong and the bullfrog has to use every muscle possible to continue to reach the other side.
When the two were halfway across the stream, the creatures on the other side of the embankment pulled on up to the shore in surprise. They had never seen a bullfrog transport a scorpion across the stream before. They started to cheer the two on as they slowly made their way across the rough waters.
Three-fourths of the way across the bullfrog is almost beaming with joy. Maybe he was wrong about scorpions. Maybe they can work together with other creatures for a common goal. Maybe his own prejudices were wrong. Just a few more strokes across and they will be safe on the other side.
And that’s when it hits the bullfrog. That sharp pressure right on the spine beneath the skull, followed by the tingling sensation of the scorpion’s poison coursing through his bullfrog arteries.
Despite promises to the contrary, the scorpion stung the bullfrog just a few strokes away from safety. The bullfrog’s limbs go limp, and they both start to get carried down below the watery surface.
“Why?” asked the bullfrog with his dying breath before drowning.
“It’s what I do,” the scorpion says with a shrug as he awaits his own watery demise.
This is where the story normally ends, but let us suppose that it continues from there.
The other creatures look on in horror as the bullfrog and scorpion drown.
The other nearby frogs demands justice for the loss of their friend. The spiders suggest that the remaining scorpions be left behind while the rest of the group continues on with their mutual journey.
The scorpions get indignant on the blame being foisted on them. “The bullfrog should have known this would happen,” they said. “We can’t be held responsible for our nature. We sting other creatures. It’s what we do. It’s the frog’s own fault that this happened. If he said no then there would be no tragedy. Why should we bear the burden of the bullfrog’s foolish actions?”
They continue on their mutual journey, but the subject would not end. The field mice suggest that should the scorpions need help crossing the next stream that they should have seeds blocking their stingers. The other creatures that could swim agree. But again, the scorpions wail in protest.
“How dare you suggest that we block our stingers before we work with you? Would you fill your mouths with sand in return? Would you dull your claws or hinder your strength? It’s unfair for you to demand that we hinder our natures while the rest of you go about free and clear! Is this not a free community? Are we all not equals here?”
“Then you will be left behind the next time we come across a body of water!” proclaimed one of the voles. “If we can’t trust you to restrain your nature, then we won’t carry you!” The majority of the other creatures nodded in agreement.
“No!” exclaimed the scorpions. “We all agreed to work together! You can’t give unfair conditions this far into our travels!”
Even the black widow spiders began to chime in. “It’s not right,” they said in agreement. “If you castigate them for the bad actions of a lone scorpion, would we be next?”
The day was coming to a close, so the creatures decide to rest for the night and resume their joint travels in the daytime. But when morning broke, the vole that spoke out earlier was nowhere to be found. The scorpions claimed that the vole left in the middle of the night. The other creatures questioned that claim until the black widow spiders agreed with the scorpions and said that they saw the vole leave in disgust.
The joint journey continued with the scorpions continuing with their protests. They wailed and moaned about how they were being “unfairly singled out” for the actions of one, and how “anti-scorpion” the discussions have been. They complained about bigotry and “anti-scorpion discrimination” and whined about being treated as “second-class creatures”.
Sure enough another body of water blocked their path to their mutual destination, and this time there was no tree branch to help them across. The remaining creatures that could cross the water were hesitant about letting the scorpions ride on their backs. But the snakes said that they would travel with creatures across the water, and even though they could not carry any creatures on their backs, they promised that they would eat the scorpions should their tails start to twitch.
A whole parade of creatures carried the scorpions on their backs across the rough body of water, with the snakes slithering alongside to keep the scorpions from acting on their natures. Finally the last of the creatures, a wolf rat, took the last scorpion across the water and was honestly surprised as to how peaceful everything seemed to be. There were no exclamations of outrage from the other side. No cries of drowned creatures midway across. On the other side of the embankment, whole rows of creatures waited just touching dry land, with the scorpions and spiders and the ants and the other creatures cheering this last furry mammal on from dry land.
But with just a few strokes away, the rat finally realized that something was wrong.
His fellow transport creatures, it turned out, were still in the water and they weren’t moving.
As soon as he reached the limits of dry land, that’s when he felt the scorpion sting him.
“We made a promise,” he heard the scorpion say as it got off his back and onto dry land. “We wouldn’t attack while we were on our way. But you can’t really blame us for doing this once we got to the other side. After all, we’re scorpions. It’s our nature. The bullfrog and the vole knew that. Why couldn’t you?”
Now let’s get brutally honest here… you can probably deduce which of our almighty “institutions” represents the scorpions in our expanded parable. They are the ones that consider themselves to be too “important” and too “big” to be held to account for their “nature”. And to a large extent I suspect they know it too.
So I have to wonder… if we know that this is their “nature”, and they’ve demonstrated before that they will act on their “nature” at their pleasure, even to their own detriment, why should we be surprised about it? It’s one thing to be the bullfrog and foolishly trust the scorpion, but if you’re the creatures that follow from that example, why are you making the mistake of trusting them a second time?
It’s something we all should be considering right about now… before the next obstacle reaches us and they demand safe passage on our backs.