On Being a Toad

Think as I Think

“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad.”
And after I had thought of it,
I said, “I will, then, be a toad.”

It occurs to me that I should explain my screen name. The anglophile part pretty much explains itself, but as for the “toad” reference, it is one which has caused a great deal of confusion over the years. Some have come across it and chided me for putting myself down – after all, a toad’s a lowly, warty creature, yes? I remember a speech I gave a at a church graduation celebration once in which I referenced the above poem, and which had the effect of boring half the people present and rendering the other half semi-catatonic. So, allow me to wax whatever…

The poem cited above was written by Stephen Crane, with whom many are more familiar as the author of The Red Badge of Courage. I first encountered it in high school, and I adopted it immediately as a life philosophy. You see, here I was, a teenager from the U.S. living in Argentina, neither native nor quite foreign, son of a missionary couple upon whose jobs the main focus of my existence seemed to be. I did not decide to go to Argentina, I was taken there. This is not to say that I did not enjoy my time in that country – I did, and I would not be who I am today lacking that experience. It IS to say that I was not a missionary, I was a missionary kid – I was (and we all are), to an extent, baggage. I was who and where I was because of factors entirely external to myself; my identity was formed as a corollary to someone else’s (an identity, I might add, which I have somewhat set aside, to the puzzlement of many). I was in many ways an outsider in my own life. When we would return to the United States on furlough, I did not fit in because I had been away for so long. I knew none of the current bands or movies or television shows: my response to the student poll in my eighth grade yearbook (in 1992) to the question “What’s your favorite song” was Footloose. Even in Argentina, where I believe I fit in better than I ever have or ever will anywhere, I could not claim to be in my element. Rather, I was something of a free radical, admitted into space instead of being there by right or nature.

I always felt this as a weakness, but when I came across Crane’s poem it hit me: being different is not a weakness but a strength. It makes me ME; it sets me apart. It is a circumstance to revel in. Idiosyncrasy must be allowed to thrive.

This is not a position to be taken lightly. Our society is based upon the preservation of sameness, homogeneity. Crane’s poem captures this brilliantly. Unless we are willing to give up who we are – be it a matter of race, gender, religion, politics, or lifestyle – and conform to the standards whereby society defines the well-balanced individual, we are to be reviled, belittled, made to feel less than we are. All of the derogatory terms we’ve invented through the years to categorize the unacceptable “other” bear witness to this dynamic. Nerd, geek, dweeb, dork, doofus, heathen, faggot, retard, and, in Crane’s usage, toad – many of us are well versed in the vocabulary of scorn. Even the term “idiot,” traditionally used to separate the less from the more socially acceptable, stems from differences in a person’s comportment, outlook, personality or behavior that don’t fit with popular usage and therefore stand as a threat to social cohesion. Avoid the idiot – he is to be feared.

From one picked-upon child to another, it is important to recognize the true meaning of name-calling. What masquerades as superiority and derision is really a latent fear, of the different, of the individual who stands on his or her own, who is more concerned with being true to him or herself than with fitting the template of society at large, of the person who truly feels comfortable in his own pair of worn-out, run-down sneakers. Know this: it is not the bully who has the power, it is the bullied, not the picker but the pickee. Not that this knowledge always helps – the names still hurt, sticks and stones or no, and enlightenment won’t block a well-aimed punch – but if it is true that knowledge is power, then maybe it will help the smallest among us take back some of theirs.

It might be argued that today’s society is moving beyond this, that we’ve accepted the pluralistic ethos and encourage people to be who they are, and if this is true, then wonderful! However, as we drag an individual’s right to be who they feel that they are into the highest courts in the land to receive communal definition, it might behoove us to remember Crane’s words. When someone attempts to define you for you: Be a toad! When someone suggests that your way of thinking isn’t as deserving of respect as his: Be a toad! Because ultimately it’s the idiots among us, the ones who dare to approach life from an unconventional angle, who refuse to accept the status quo, who end up changing the world: Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Wilberforce, Rosa Parks…

All these and more are reasons why to me, being a toad is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it is MY badge of courage. I say with pride: I am an idiot! And above all else, I AM A TOAD!!

4 thoughts on “On Being a Toad

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