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#23 – Ethiopian Proverb: The Frog Wanting to Be an Elephant Swelled Up Until He Burst.
Reflections on how not to substitute the need for improvement with the obsession of imitation.
Proverbs on Blast is a newsletter of reflection on PROVERBS and the gems they offer for personal and professional growth. Posts are written by a learner on a quest for more wisdom (me). Please keep reading. Comment at the end. Share this post. Subscribe for more.
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To all, come with me to Ethiopia for a deeper dive into their one-line nugget of wisdom: “The frog, wanting to be an elephant, swelled up until he burst.” They gave us a proverb that takes us back to the animal kingdom for reflection. The parties in this proverb are similar to those of an earlier post about the hippo and the river bird. Where the focus of that proverb was on the bigger animal—the hippo—the focus of this proverb is on the smaller animal—the frog.
At its core, this proverb identifies the problem of wanting to be something else. In a bid to uncover the deep insights that the Ethiopian elders share, I deconstructed their sentence into four sections, then probed what each section offers for reflection to get you started on your own reflection.
1) The frog
2) wanting to be an elephant
3) swelled up
4) until he burst.
The frog is a common term that we use a lot in literal and figurative terms. But how much do we really know about frogs? I learned a lot from the collections of amazing frog facts by Deborah Tukua, James Israelsen, and Wikipedia. Click the links to get more of what they shared than I have included in this post.
1. The Frog
One of the most common animals in the world, there are frogs in every continent, except Antarctica, which is too cold. This profusion, their population, and the fact that there are more than 6,000 species of them increases the likelihood that most people would have seen a frog by their fifth birthday. Except for Antarctica residents. Frogs live on land and in water. They have addresses in trees and in ponds. Many are green, but there are also red, orange, yellow, blue, purple, and multi-colored frogs with stripes, spots, or other patterns. Their home address determines their coloration, which they mostly use to blend in for survival or stand out in warning about their toxicity. They even have varied colors and patterns of eyes. Their eyes are bulging and sit atop their heads like the hippo’s with an almost 180-degree range of vision.
Most frogs are harmless but they all have teeth on the roof of their mouths that certain species will use to bite if they feel threatened. Those, like the poison dart frogs and golden poison frogs are, as the name implies, poisonous. Usually, the poisonous breeds have bright colors like orange, which serves as a warning of their toxicity. Some of them are among the most poisonous animals in the world. So, if you bump into one, keep moving fast and far away.
Frogs are carnivorous and feed on bugs, insects, slugs, algae, and other plants. Their sharp nocturnal vision allows them to hunt well at night and their eyes participate actively in eating. So, when a frog eats, it must close its eyes and pull them down into the roof of its mouth to help push food down their throat. They can’t drink water but absorb it through their bodies. They cannot handle too much sun, fierce winds, or too little water. Although part of the same family of frogs, toads can get by without too much moisture while frogs cannot survive without enough water.
Frogs live in community and several of them together are called an army of frogs. They make sounds called croaking and can be loooouuuud! I know this from personal experience. When the loudest of them, the bullfrog, sets his mind on attracting a mate, he can out-croak the other species and be heard from a mile away. Growing up, I had to endure listening to their nighttime choir rehearsals, recitals, and lots of free months-long concerts. Now, I chuckle when I call people who live around ponds and can’t hear a word they’re saying because they’re too close to a the concert stage on a night when the frog orchestra are competing for the grammys. They are loud!
In addition, frogs get around via a variety of movement styles. Some species have legs longer than their bodies. These are the ones that jump, which can be to a distance of about 20 times their body length. In human context, Michael Anthony Powell is the holder of the long jump world record. He earned his yet-to-be-beaten world record in 1991 with a 29 ft 4.25 inch jump. At 6 ft 2 in. tall, that means he jumped almost five times his body length. Easy-peasy for long-legged frogs who do that on the regular. No wonder the South African sharp-nosed frog earned due praise for jumping 130 inches or 44 times its 3-inch body length. In contrast, frog species with shorter back legs can only crawl, walk, or hop.
Generally, frogs are smallish in a range of small sizes. The tiniest is about the size of a housefly while the biggest and heaviest grows to 12.5 inches long and weighs about 7.1 pounds. It’s aptly called a Goliath. Every frog can puff up various parts of their bodies for different purposes. A female may use it to shake off unwanted males from its back. Male frogs use it to attract females. All frogs divert air in the sections of their bodies that they want to swell—mainly their trunk or belly—as a defense mechanism against predators.
Like them or not, frogs are worth a closer look and there are lots more interesting information to learn about them. If interested, visit these sources for more frog facts: by Deborah Tukua, James Israelsen, and Wikipedia.
To wrap up this first section of our Ethiopian proverb, I scoured online for images of uncommon frogs. I selected the 9 below, mainly because I haven’t seen many of them before. Test your knowledge of frogs in the gallery below. How many types of frogs do you recognize?
Here are the names of the photographers who have graciously allowed the public to use their images at no cost. Some of them included the types of frogs they photographed. Others did not (#2, #3, #6), which gives us the opportunity to find out on our own. Please share in the comments section if you know.
The photographers get their due credit for generously sharing their talents with the world. So, moving L-R on each row, from the top (yellow-speckled), here is the list:
Panamanian Golden Frog. Image by Uschi
* White Frog. Image by Cassidy Marshall
* A Toad. Image by
Mediterranean Tree Frog. Image by Filip Kruchlich
European Fire-Bellied Toad. Image by Josch13
* A Toad. Image by Deborah Ferolito
Tomato frog. Image by Monika
Pond frog. Image by Ulrike Leone
Pickerel Frog. Image by Jan Haerer
However, according to the Ethiopian proverb, there was a time when the frog was not satisfied with being a frog. Which brings us to the second part of how that played out.
2. Wanting to Be an Elephant
This section of the proverb is in two parts. The first— “wanting to be”— is a state of mind that indicates dissatisfaction with what is and a longing for what is not. Several things can cause dissatisfaction. In some cases, it could be the aesthetics of size, coloration, or body shape. It could also be the manner of walking, the sound produced, or the distance that sound can travel. Ego can evoke dissatisfaction to want to be something else that is perceived to be better by others, lives longer, or is revered as legendary.
In this proverb, the frog was apparently not satisfied with what it is. And for whatever reason, it longed to be something it is not. It looked around the animal kingdom and fixed its gaze on the elephant. Not satisfied to just look, it then chose to want to be an elephant, which is the second part of this section of the proverb.
An elephant is legendary. Many people have seen live elephants. Almost everyone has seen pictures of them in books, photographs, movies, and may even own elephant carvings or plush toys. They are the largest living land animals and their majestic bearing has given them pride of place in cultural depictions of strength, size, wisdom, memory, longevity, loyalty, leadership, and sociability, among other desirable values. So, to get a better sense of the frog wanted to be an elephant, I scoured for basic details about elephants to highlight here. Visit the sources for more elephant facts:
There are generally two species of elephants—the African and the Asian. There are two genetically different African species—the forest and the savannah elephants. The African forest elephants and the Asian forest elephants are comparable in size while the African savannah elephants are the largest.
Elephants have an average lifespan of 60 to 70 years, with the oldest elephant having lived to be 82 years old. But longevity is not the only part of them that’s comparable to humans. Did you know that humans have 639 muscles in the entire body? Well, elephants have 50,000 muscles in their trunks alone. With no bones and just 6 muscle groups, the elephant trunk is a flexible multipurpose body part that they use to breathe, eat, drink, communicate, feel, touch, hold, and wrestle, among other functions. The tusks on either side of their trunk grows out and they are not born with it. Also, depending on whether the elephant is right-handed or left-handed, the tusk they use more often will be smaller than the other from wear and tear.
On the average, an elephant weighs 260 pounds at birth. Adult elephants weigh between 8,000 to 15,000 pounds and measure about 11 ft at the shoulder.
The heaviest elephant on record weighed 24030 pounds and was 12 ft tall at the shoulder. With this massive size, they cannot jump, hop, or gallop. They move by walking and can pick up speed in their legs up to 15 miles per hour without increasing their stride. They must eat about 661 pounds of food and 42 gallons of water daily for sustenance.
Elephants have poor eyesight but an acute sense of hearing and an astonishing sense of smell. They can smell four times better than a bloodhound and 160 times better than humans. Also, elephants are native to only two continents—Africa and Asia—where they roam in the wild and are a major tourist attraction from far off places.
Perhaps because of its legendary status, the frog believed that being an elephant was better than being a frog. After all, no one budgets for tourism savings to go see frogs. They are so common that they have become uninteresting and mundane. To some, frogs are even a nuisance. No wonder the frog got tired of its own skin and body and wanted to be someone else.
If the frog’s longing to be an elephant was based on admiration, it could have croaked it out. Or sent a note. Or typed it in neon letters in the skies to get it to the elephant’s attention. It appears that the sight or sound or fame of the elephant sent the frog into a tailspin and it chose to take matters into its own hands.
No short-term interview to ask the elephant about how to become legendary. Instead, it wanted to be the elephant.
No appeal for mentorship so it can be like whatever it admired or envied in the elephant. Instead, it wanted to be the elephant.
No withdrawal into solitude for introspection to process its discontent and budding desire. No, it devoted its mental capacity to the desire to be the elephant.
And because it was not the elephant, it decided to become one. Not by using elephant vitamins or lotion. Not by signing up in coach elephant’s fitness program. It simply reverted to convert its default mechanism for attraction and defense—swelling up—for an objective that was not realistic or attainable.
3. Swelled Up
Swelling can be voluntary or involuntary. In the case of the frog in this proverb, it chose to swell up. Its goal was to actualize the desire of wanting to be an elephant. Thinking it was business as usual, it started swelling up.
Whether it was out of envy at the elephant’s massive size, its majestic strides, its loud trumpets, gleaming tusks, versatile trunk, or the loud vibrations of its movement through the forest is not clear. But we’re told that the frog started swelling up.
Whether the frog was frustrated with not being able to do certain things because it was too little, we don’t know. Or anger because it was overlooked whenever the elephant was around, we don’t know.
We don’t even know if the reason why the frog started swelling up was out of imitation—to be like the elephant. Thinking it could become an elephant. Wanting to become an elephant.
The proverb indicates that the frog stopped being happy with who and what it was and wanted more. Which is not a bad thing, if the reason was to want more from itself. If it was to demand more from its potentials and strive to jump higher or walk faster or lay more eggs. Every specie can generate more returns from its potentials. But no, that was not the direction of the frog’s desires and intention. Instead, it thought it could manufacture a mathematical impossibility of pumping up self from a maximum of 7.1 pounds for its breed to the 24,000 pounds of another breed. Even a newborn elephant weighs 260 pounds, more than 36 times the size of the heaviest frog in the entire 4,000 species of them. There was no counselor, friend, or even foe around to knock some sense into the frog’s head and dissuade it from its foolish endeavor. So, it stepped on the gas of its inordinate desire to be more and what it was not and started swelling up.
How did the frog fare?
Until He Burst
Not surprisingly, the frog burst. It fell prey to a foolish, dangerous desire. It perished from the absence of a lack of judgment, wise counselors, and from stoking the mind in the wrong direction. Swelling is discomfiting, whether voluntary or otherwise. The consolation with the former is that when you choose to start swelling up, your body and mind will tell you when to stop. The choice to keep going beyond the point of discomfort suggests having a death wish or being fixated to the point of no return.
Did it have to be that way? No.
Does it have to be that way for you? No.
Let’s leave the frog and now turn inward.
Is there anything about you that you don’t like? Is there any part of you fills you with dissatisfaction when in the presence of someone better looking or more successful? If you’re alive and committed to growth, you should have a few so this is not a trick question. There is no safety in being self-satisfied that we are all there and need not do anything more to improve ourselves. But to the point of wanting to be someone else? That is stepping into the realm of the danger of the frog. Just don’t.
Make the time to study yourself anew.
YOU are enough as you are. You don’t need to be big to dream big. You don’t need to get bigger in size to accomplish bigger things. You may be a frog, ordinary and common. Put the extra in the common and be a frog in extraordinary and uncommon ways. Dare extraordinary things. Become extraordinary. YOU are more than enough to get a head start on that while being a frog. Settle into your size and uniqueness. You have capabilities for what you are built by nature to dare and accomplish. Neither is a limitation to success if you study to know how to work with what you have.
It is great to admire what others have that you don’t so be/stay a cheerleader, not a hater. Celebrating others who are more than you are and have more does not diminish you in any way. Instead, it enhances, enlivens, and emboldens to become a wellspring of joy and inspiration for others. Celebrate those who are ahead of you on the racetrack of life. But stay in the frog lane if you are a frog. Don’t waste time to want to be an elephant. Settle into being a frog. Can you be the one to transform general perceptions about how frogs are beyond ordinary? Possibly. Study to find out how you can be an exceptional frog not burst while trying to be an elephant.
What is within your capability? What feats are attainable for you by nature and design? There are several. Redirect your mind to discover what those are. That would be a better use of your mind than applying it to want to be an elephant. Become the one who knows that you were designed with gorgeous colors and with the capability to do what an elephant cannot do. You matter. You have considerable contributions to make. Embrace all that you are and have though you be a frog. Develop what dissatisfies you in and about you. Then show up in the world in your awesome frogness.
And please pass the caution on to others. Too many people are hurting and stalling because of being “The frog, wanting to be an elephant, swelled up until he burst.”
Best wishes to you!
What part of yourself do you need to study more to uncover new insights about how you are enough to be a force for good? Share in the comments below.
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