by Mathew Swora
If you’re wondering where this tongue-in-cheek essay is coming from, and where I’m going with it, suffice it to say that something in my recent Clinical Pastoral Education jogged the following memories and reflections about what I learned from a famous frog.
I was well beyond grade school when Sesame Street burst onto the scene. So my initial knowledge of Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch was all secondary, through younger children in the neighborhood. But Sesame Street became a force in my life when our daughters were in pre-school through the primary grades. Once home from school or a play date in the afternoon, they’d get a snack, and then I’d start on dinner prep. During those three years, I was the primary home-maker, and loved it.
I confess: afternoon public television for children often served as a babysitter. For our daughters, too. While I was chopping vegetables or cooking rice in the kitchen nearby, I could overhear Mr. Rogers saying, “I like you just the way you are,” and that would be worth a week of therapy. Then would come the (barely) controlled chaos of the Muppets on Sesame Street, often with humor that passed right over the children’s heads and hit me square in the funny bone.
“I’m Flakey” said one of the Seven Dwarves (who should each be counted only once, or you’ll never know how many dwarves you have) to the Snow White Muppet.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she dead-panned. That was in the show brought to you by the number seven.
Of all the Muppets, the one who most caught my attention was Kermit the Frog (not to be confused with Kermit the Gorf, nor Kermit the Forg, nor Kermit the Grof, who all came into The Wonderful World of T-Shirts at the same time to get their personalized t-shirts, so pay attention to the order of letters, children! See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKNJLeVncug,).
In the midst of all the chaos, compulsions and craziness of the Muppets, Kermit is the most sane and adult among them. He is a self-defined leader. But he’s not emotionally disengaged. What parent cannot identify with his characteristic sigh and grimace, even his occasional semi-stifled half-scream at the outrageous antics going on around him? Or even his occasional fainting spell when things get unbelievably outrageous?
And yet Kermit always remains respectfully engaged with his fellow Muppets, always interested, hopeful and willing to be helpful. That made him the perfect correspondent and journalist to interview famous characters from current events, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, such as when he interviewed the Miami Mice in the show brought to you by the letter M. Or Peter Piper, plus his brothers Porter and Potter, his sister Piper, and his papa, Papa, plus their dog Pepper, their pig Porker, their parrot Polly, in the show brought to us by the letter P.
His genuine interest in his fellow Muppets gave Kermit a realistic appraisal of Muppet nature, even while it appears to have earned him their trust, even with leadership, however little Muppets can actually be led. His motivational speaking skills, especially his prodigious prowess pronouncing parallel, plural consonants, keeps his fellow Muppets engaged, focused and enthused when confronting shared tasks and challenges, like when Kermit led them to Hollywood in The Muppet Movie (1979). Yet it is just as true that the other Muppets helped Kermit on this journey as much as he helped them. That is true leadership, when all participants can revel in what everyone did, together.
There’s no doubting the depth of Kermit’s capacity for love, in spite of all that he often has to endure. He’s married to a pig, after all, and a rather high maintenance, self-absorbed one at that (“Moi?” she would ask). Yet theirs is one of the longest-lasting celebrity marriages in Hollywood. Kermit is a visionary, who often sees things that the other Muppets barely grasp. Though diminutive in stature, as most frogs are, Kermit has the capacity to see beyond the more immediate and pressing preoccupations (some might call them “obsessive compulsions”) of his fellow Muppets with such matters as cookies, paper clips, oatmeal, trash or rubber duckies. When necessary, Kermit exercises the courage to challenge personal and group behavior whenever it is self-defeating, distracting or destructive, such as when Kermit asked Cookie Monster, “Are cookies all you think about? Don’t you ever think of other people?”
Cookie Monster replied, “Yes! Other people’s cookies!”
Cue the sigh.
All these qualities make Kermit a very spiritual frog, as frogs go. One could say that he is even something of a prophet. Like Samuel in the Old Testament, Kermit has heard a voice from beyond the confines of the usual Muppet preoccupations, calling him personally to a task, an identity, a dream. We hear it in his most famous song, The Rainbow Connection:
“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”
And yet, like a true prophet, Kermit’s hope and faith are not matters of mere wishful, magical thinking. His realism is as great as his values and aspirations. In the same song he also asks,
“Who said that every wish would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.
Look what it’s done so far.”
In spite of all the chaos around him, Kermit remains true to his own calling and identity, however hard being green might be. He maintains the artistic and recreational practices that rejuvenate his spirit, such as banjo playing, singing and tap dancing. We could learn much from such a frog. Even if he really is only a construction of cloth, wood and wire. And of some very random, yet fertile, imaginations.