Frog, Bug and Preacher: A Skeptic’s Nursery Rhyme

Tea Hill, Prince Edward Island, Photo by Christine Trainor

A frog in a well,
A bug in a tree,
A preacher preaching.
They think they are free.

A small plot of land,
A short spell of time,
A dusty old book,
All reason and rhyme.

The infinite span
Of wide open seas,
Fathomless knowledge,
All outside their creed.

A frog in a well,
A bug in a tree,
A preacher preaching.
You don’t want to be.



Depth Charges:
Ancient: Zhuangzi – The Floods of Autumn
Classic: Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar
Modern: Umwelt by David Eagleman
A bug in a tree: The mushroom of a morning does not know (what takes place between) the beginning and end of a month; the short-lived cicada does not know (what takes place between) the spring and autumn.
A frog in a well: Animated Short Film


The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

For such a slim volume, Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking manages to bring together a vast array of topics which have been touchstone’s for my own thought for the past 3 decades: Stoicism, Daoism, mono no aware, meditation, and the Mexican Day of the Dead, to mention just a few. He even manages to find a few takes on negative paths to happiness, such as rejecting security as desirable and refusing to idolize goal setting,  which were new to me.  For a summary of the book, here is the ad for it from Youtube:

Burkeman’s style is light, flowing and humorous  He manages to squeeze in a wealth of facts and references, all nicely indexed and with a notes section replete with citations. For a review of the book, albeit by a colleague of his at The Guardian, check out this link.

The slenderness of the volume leads to its main weakness: he too often sticks to modern, new-age and popularized versions of ancient philosophies. This is especially true on his discussions of the self that draw heavily on Daoism. He does not delve deeply enough into Laozi and Zhuangzi, but rather relies on Wei Wu Wei and Eckhart Tolle. Curiously, he does not mention the “Negative Daoism” of Yang Zhu at all. This seems an odd oversight as Yang Zhu deftly combines critiques of the self, society and death that chime well with the Burkeman’s overall themes. Stay tuned for my blog on Yang Zhu.

The other point of irritation from an atheistic, skeptical point-of-view, is that he lets Buddhism off the hook. He does briefly mention that it is a religion before going into his chapter on meditation. He is rightly attracted to the philosophical and psychological insights of the meditative practices; however, like so many purported secular humanists, he fails to highlight the misogyny, homophobia, war-mongering and superstition (reincarnation, demons, gods, etc.) inherent to varying degrees in all forms of Buddhism.