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What can change the nature of a man?

I’ve been thinking today a lot about the nature of us as human beings.  What makes us who we are?  Is it environment?  Is it genetics?  Is it learned behavior?  Is it how we want to be?  Is it our perceptions of ourselves that shape us?  Or do our perceptions of others change the way we act?

And, most importantly, what can change the nature of a man?

I am reminded of an old story about the frog and the scorpion.  The scorpion asks the frog to carry it across a river; the frog refuses, because the scorpion is just going to sting it.  The scorpion promises the frog that it won’t sting the frog – after all, if the scorpion stings the frog and the frog sinks, they both will die.  So the frog, assured in the scorpion’s logic, takes the scorpion onto its back and starts to cross the river – but the scorpion stings him halfway across anyway.  As the frog begins to feel the paralyzing venom and begins to sink, he has time to ask just one question: “Why?”

“Because it is my nature,” the scorpion replies.

The story has been used a number of times as a parable for how villains will act evil merely because it is in their nature to be evil.  But I think this misses a very important part of the message – to consider the scorpion evil is foolhardy.  The way I see it, the frog has no grounds to complain about the scorpion.  There is an eastern version of the story, where two monks walking along a path see a scorpion drowning in a pool.  One monk bends over and asks the scorpion if it wants help: the scorpion begs of course it needs help.  The monk agrees to help the scorpion, if the scorpion agrees not to sting the monk.  So the promise given, the monk reaches out and plucks the scorpion from the pool, moving it to dry ground.  But just before the monk puts the scorpion down, the scorpion stings the monk.

The other monk inquires of the first: Why did it sting you if you were helping it?  The helpful monk replies: It’s in his nature.  To which his friend asks the followup question: If you knew the scorpion would sting you, why did you help the scorpion?

And the zen monk replies: Because it is in mine.

The monk was no more angry at the scorpion for following its nature, and showed no remorse for having helped the scorpion.  In another version of the story, the helpful monk pulls the scorpion from the pool a number of times, and is stung each time for it.  Our natures drive us – we cannot be held to blame for following our natural instincts and innermost desires than the scorpion for its sting, or the bird from its flight, or the predator for its hunt.

In the game Planescape: Torment, the protagonist Nameless One wanders the multiverse in search for clues as to who he really might be.  He awakens in a cold stone slab in the Mortuary, a hunk of dried, scarred flesh, with not a memory to himself.  (Of course this game appeals to me, its central conceit is the most important question of all: Who am I?)  The game’s quest is the quest for the Nameless One’s life: to better understand his nature.  In the middle of this quest, he meets a hag named Ravel Puzzlewell, and she – as well as a number of other characters throughout the game – posits the question as the riddle that the Nameless One must solve:

What can change the nature of a man?

I have carried this question with me for a long time.  It’s a question that Ravel Puzzlewell has carried for a long time as well: she’s asked it of hundreds of thousands of travelers in her journey, and only one man’s answer has ever satisfied her.  But not because of what the answer was, but rather what the answer said about the man who was answering it.

Now here I am, on the raggedy edge.  Am I the scorpion, or am I the monk?

And what can change the nature of a man?


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