Be, Don't Seem to Be

by marin mikulic

There were once two frogs and a little boy. The frogs were dead and the boy’s task was to eat the dead frogs. Why were the frogs dead? I don’t know. There have been at least as many dead frogs as alive ones. Chances are good that the boy’s task was to eat dead frogs. Let’s move on.

Martin Woortman

So the boy had to eat two frogs. He was malnourished and after days of scrounging for scraps and rotten food, he stumbled across two gorgeous, recently deceased frogs in a pond. He knows the pond well. He knows the frogs aren’t rotten. He knows the frogs are edible. And yet, he cannot bring himself to do it. One look at their slimy skins and bulging eyes is enough to send him retching. As he retches, nothing comes out of his mouth. There’s nothing to come out. He hasn’t had food in days. He hasn’t any means to start a fire either. Everything is damp. The situation is rather clear. Either he eats the frogs now or joins them in the pond a little later.

Clenching his teeth, he resolves to eat the frogs and is immediately presented with a problem. You see, the frogs are of different sizes. One of them is a horrendous, fat, tumor-like monster the size of a small melon. The other is a tiny thing, barely bigger than the boy’s thumb, and a lot more palatable by the looks of it.

The boy’s immediate reaction is to gulp down the small one as if it were a pill of sorts. He smiles a tired smile and reaches for the smaller frog but then stops. Some part of his malnourished mind reminds him that he has to eat both frogs to survive. If he eats the smaller now, the large one still remains, and the prospect of that is terrifying [1]. Wouldn’t it be better to sink his teeth into the hard, leathery hide of the big one, again and again, swallowing as fast as possible, bite by nasty bite, and get it over with? Then he’d only have the small one left and, in comparison, that would almost be like candy. Disgusting, horrible candy, but candy nevertheless.

The boy is in a real bind now. He sits by the edge of the pond and contemplates his situation. There are two things he’d like to do. One, to eat the big frog first and be done with it. Two, not to have to deal with the big frog at all, while still having the benefits of all those lifesaving calories. Well, there’s a third thing he’d like. He’d like to not have been born into a shitty, starving life while the rest of the planet stuffs their faces with a wholegrain, organic, paleo, bio, avocado chia unicorn tear salad with a BigMac on the side.

Lesson one:
You can’t always get what you want, as the Rolling Stones sing.

Lesson two:
Instead, you get two dead frogs some first world writer expects you to eat. Get on with it.

Let’s return to the boy’s predicament. He’s hungry. It’s getting cold. He has to start moving soon or he’ll miss the next episode of his favorite Netflix show.



In a funny twist of fate, the boy is you. If you’re a girl, ignore this. I’ll write the same story with a girl as the protagonist for gender equality purposes. In any case, the frogs are a metaphor for a dilemma you have right now, a dilemma between a hard choice and an easy one. The rational part of you understands the order in which things ought to be done. Hard, first. Easy, second. The less rational part of you laughs at your silly face and hits play on the next Netflix episode.

The boy at the pond, however, has no choice but to be rational. His life does not accommodate the idea of postponement or procrastination. The consequences of his actions are stark, like placing a naked hand on a cold metal bar on a January morning. Eat or starve. Sleep inside or sleep on the street. Live or die. There isn’t really a dilemma for the boy. He knows that either he pounces on this opportunity now, or some other animal will. The moment he sees the frogs he wolfs down the big one and eats the small one for dessert. Done. What’s next?

In the “civilized” society, you might argue that things work a little different. Your needs are taken care of and the boy’s situation doesn’t apply.

That is true, but only in a very rudimentary way. Sure, your chances of survival are orders of magnitude greater than the boys. When you see a frog on the street you can just scream and run toward the nearest fast food joint to stuff your face with faceless animals compressed into nuggets. It doesn’t matter as much whether you make the hard choice now, or a bit later when circumstances force you to, or never if they don’t. It just doesn’t matter. You most likely won’t die from starvation, but you will die without ever exploring what you’re capable of.

Your face must be some variant of “well, that escalated quickly” right now. I know it is because even mine is, and I’m writing this. Sometimes things can get very funny in my head while writing. It’s also cold on this damn porch. Where was I?

The escalation. Starvation. There was another word I had at the ready…what was it? Ah, yes, actualization. That’s the “you will die without ever exploring what you’re capable of” part. Dramatic, isn’t it? Now, please don’t stop reading because you feel I’m moralising. You can quit 5 lines before this or 5 later, but not now goddamnit. I’m not moralising. I mean to say that just as the boy is you, so is he me, which in a roundabout way means that you too are me, and I…you. All three of us are at the edge of that pond, every day, each of us starving for something. The boy starves for food, I starve to get my writing as good as it can be, and you starve for…What do you starve for?

Image for post
Drew Brown

I don’t know. They say writers can read the reader’s mind, but yours is an enigma to me. So tell me, what do you starve for? Right here, on the edge of the pond. What does the mind of your mind, the heart of your heart, the soul of your soul starve for? Write it out on a piece of wood and let it float on the calm surface. And if you want to get funny with me and say you’re starving for a burger let me just notice that you might want to buy two and give one to the boy. Wait. This is a pond in the middle of nowhere. Your cash is useless, your credit card is useless. You’re starving for something. Not the best place to act smart. It’s better to be smart.

Have you ever heard of Cicero? He wrote a lot, like me, and was a famous Roman statesman, unlike me. In one of his essays, Cicero wrote esse quam videri to be, rather than to seem [2].

"Esse quam videri." Cicero

If there is any point to the pond we find ourselves sitting by, it is that it forces us to realize there are two ways to live life. One is to seem as if you were something you want to be. The other, to simply be what you want to be. Simple? Yes. All it takes is to eat the big frog first and leave the small one for dessert.

Easy? No. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, this choice to esse quam videri.

In any case, you’re not alone at the edge of the pond, and neither am I. Maybe it’s selfish to say I’m glad, but I am. It’s good to have company. We each have a pair of frogs, shiny, slimy, saggy, soft, and slick, waiting to be eaten. I see the boy eat and maybe I do too. You see us both do it and maybe your teeth sink into the frog too.

Just remember the order. First, the big frog. Then, the small frog.

Esse quam videri.

And the reward? You get to move on and run into a new choice, a new pair of nasty frogs. Only now you will have maybe developed a taste for the big frog.

And that, of course, makes all the difference.

[1] The frog anecdote possibly originates from the 18th century French writer named Nicolas Chamfort.

[2] Cicero’s essay De Amicitas (On Friendship).

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