The parable of floundering frogs

(Charleston Gazette, Jan. 29, 2003)

(Distributed nationally by the Knight-Ridder-Tribune syndicate)

By James A. Haught

EVERY day on this editorial page, we try to prescribe the best solutions we can envision for public problems and issues.

But deep in my mind, there's always a nagging awareness that the worst dilemmas defy cures. Consider some examples:

What about poverty in America? What can be done for the jobless, the homeless, the marginal families being shut off welfare, the children in soup kitchens, the 44 million "working poor" with no medical insurance?

Nearly everyone wants to help the underclass become employable and attain self-sufficiency. But some city "street people" (and in the mountains, "holler people") are almost unemployable. The new "information age" rewards only the bright, educated and competent - giving nothing to those on the fringes. The Bush administration, favoring the wealthy, does little for left-out folks. What's their future?

Here's another enigma: What about dismal crime, family breakdown, alcoholism, etc., in inner-city black ghettos? After two centuries of slavery and a century of segregation, America supposedly reached equality - but there's still an invisible barrier blocking less-educated blacks from opportunities available to whites. Ghetto life shows the bitter results. How can this misery be eased?

What about the half-century-old Jew-Arab nightmare in the Mideast? What about the hate that millions of young Muslims feel for the prosperous West? See any cures?

What about the horror of domestic violence? What can be done to prevent a few men from becoming so enraged that they kill their families and themselves? Despite ever-stronger protective laws, such massacres keep happening.

So, you can see, social and economic problems are a never-ending predicament. Someone once said that landing astronauts on the moon was a piece of cake, compared to solving America's race dilemma.

Stanford University physicist Andrei Linde - who works with baffling, seemingly insoluble riddles of quantum behavior - is from Russia. Explaining his difficult struggle, he tells this old Russian parable:

Two frogs fell into a can of sour cream and became desperate. No matter how hard they kicked and flailed, they couldn't touch the bottom or gain a foothold on the slick sides. After a while, one frog realized they were doomed, so he stopped kicking, and drowned. But the other frog stubbornly kept kicking and flopping, refusing to give up. Eventually, the cream was churned into butter, so he climbed onto it and hopped out of the can.

The frog moral is clear: Even when we can't see a logical solution, continue trying. Sooner or later, an answer will work out, somehow. That's how humanity has been floundering its way onward and upward for around 150,000 years. It still occurs daily everywhere around the planet.

Of course, some impossible problems never really go away - and others that finally are solved are soon replaced by new dilemmas. That's the inescapable pattern of history. All we can do is keep on kicking.