Eat a Toad!

Which pain do you prefer—the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret?


“Eat a toad for breakfast every day. That way, you can be sure nothing worse will happen to you all day.”

I was amused when I first heard this saying—I think it showed up in a much-forwarded e-mail, like most received knowledge these days.

I told my wife about it. After we both got done laughing, she said, “You know, that is what a lot of people do, in a sense—at great cost to themselves and those around them.” I asked what she meant; what follows developed from her explanation and our discussions.

People with strong reasoning skills, and relatively low regard for emotion (sounds like the old me, and some engineers I know), sometimes make a crucial but wrong decision early in their lives: Avoid trusting, caring, or saying what you really think, and you'll avoid most of the pain that comes through relationships—especially close ones.

People who do this sometimes appear strong to others. They may also appear cold and unreachable. And that is what they want; they don't want to be reached, because they don't want to be hurt.

But doing this to yourself is like eating a toad. Sure, if you mentally and emotionally “eat a toad for breakfast” nothing worse will probably happen to you that day, but that's because the worst has already happened! And you did it to yourself. Not much can hurt a person who has cut their ties of caring for others because the worst damage has already been done—by the very cutting of those ties. A person this wounded by self-inflicted isolation may be beyond hurt, but they are surely beyond love, joy, peace, and contentment.

“It is better,” says the poet, “to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” That is, it's better to work at getting over a broken heart than not to have a heart.

Cauterizing your emotions cuts you off from the people you are here to serve and who are here to serve you—your spouse, your children, your parents, your employer and co-workers, your customers, and everyone else. By attempting to avoid pain, you cause pain—to others, and ultimately, to yourself, as you destroy your human relationships.

My wife once had a neighbor whose son, Ralphie, was very unpopular with the other kids, because he was violent. When my wife spoke to Ralphie's mother about it, she laughed and explained, “He's just hitting back first.”

So “hitting back first” has become a synonym in our family for unprovoked aggression.

While Ralphie did not write The 48 Laws of Power, he might have. This current bestseller gives “laws” for “winning.” Some examples: “12. Use selective honesty and generosity to disarm your victim...One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones....Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will.” “20. Do not commit to anyone.... By maintaining your independence, you become the master of others—playing people against one another, making them pursue you.” “33. Discover each man's thumbscrew.”

On the one hand, my wife and I were repulsed by this book. Its point of view is completely alien to us. But after some consideration, we read it—for the same reason that we have studied Machiavelli: It's a classic bestseller; we need to learn what is appealing to those around us.

And in that sense, this is an eye-opening book. It claims to be amoral (“outside the sphere to which moral judgements apply”), but is actually immoral (“not moral; conflicting with generally held moral principles”). The book advocates deceptive practices, disregard for others, and in fact anything that appears to advance oneself, regardless of the effect on other people.

This point of view rots the soul. If you take it to heart, you not only will lose every person, every relationship that could be important or dear to you, but—regardless of how much power, wealth, and control you acquire—you will “gain the whole world, and lose your own soul.”

What's more, meanness of spirit is contagious. It conforms to the law of sowing and reaping—“As you sow, so shall you reap.” Or—currently—“What goes around comes around.” If you are hard-hearted toward others, others—and not just your victims—will treat you similarly.

In this way, The 48 Laws of Power is a dishonest book, because it only cites the initial successes of those in history who employed the advocated “laws.” The later historically-recorded “come-uppances” of their choices are mostly omitted—as though they were not the essential results of implementing the selfish and dishonest behaviors recommended.

What's the alternative to toad-eating? Simple. The prophet Isaiah says, “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” In other words, instead of eating something horrible, so that everything else will seem good in comparison, eat good things—that is, fill your mouth with good. Then that which is wrong—in yourself or in others—will stand out, to warn and protect you.

Disciplining yourself—with God's help—to be good and to advocate good is the way to learn discernment without poisoning yourself and your relationships.