The Farmer and The Viper

The Farmer’s Travels

Have you heard the story of the farmer and the viper? It is an interesting tale with a very simple yet profound moral. It goes like this. Once there was a farmer; he was an honest, caring, and hardworking man. This particular day the farmer is riding along in his horse and cart, heading into town for some much needed supplies. As he is traveling down the road this cold and blustery day...oh, did I not mention it is winter time in this non-descript part of the world at this vague sometime in history? Anyway, as he is traveling along this road he sees a viper coiled up and shivering by the side of the road. Now, being the caring farmer that he is he begins to slow down, and ultimately stops beside this viper and looks curiously at the beast.

The Viper’s Request and the Farmer’s Decision

“Please sir, pick me up and put me in your coat so that I can warm up and not perish” said the viper. Oh, don’t worry, in this distant part of the world, and at this such and such time, vipers can speak. It’s not a big deal. In any event this was not surprising at all to the farmer as he knew vipers. “I will not pick you up and put you in my coat, if I do, when you are warm you will bite me” the farmer exclaimed emphatically. “Oh no sir, I promise, I will not bite you, I only want to be warmed so that I do not die, please, sir, please” the viper answered desperately. Now this farmer was no fool, he knew vipers, and generally speaking, given the chance, they are known to bite, especially when tucked into your coat. But alas, the farmer began to pity the poor beast, and thought “I cannot leave it here to die”. And so, against his own better judgment the farmer scooped up the viper and tucked him into his tattered but still warm coat and climbed back up into his wagon to continue his journey.

The Consequence

Now, let’s stop to acknowledge, this was a pretty kind thing for the farmer to do. He had nothing but the best intentions, and after all the viper did promise it would not bite him, so all in all he felt okay about his choice. He was not worried or concerned as he traveled along the road to pick up essential supplies he needed for living, which made it all the more shocking when he felt the fangs sink deep into his skin beneath his coat. Startled he brought the cart to a halt, tore his coat open, grabbed the beast, and tossed it away from him. Stunned, he looked down at the viper and protested, “You promised, you promised you would not bite me! Why did you bite me? You promised!” The viper calmly replied “you knew I was a snake when you picked me up”.

Facts Don’t Care About Feelings

The moral to this story at its most basic is “if you play with fire you will get burned”. Or in the case of vipers, if you put a viper into your coat, expect to be bitten (please understand, I am not stereotyping all snakes, I am sure some snakes are great and won’t bite, but let’s just agree that vipers, in this distant land, at this such and such time are known to bite; it’s what they do).

But let’s investigate just a little bit deeper where things went wrong in this tale. It certainly wasn’t the farmer’s intentions; he tried to spread some good will in the world. He extended good will to a viper, a no good, people biting, lie to your face viper. Now let’s just slow down a minute, here is perhaps a good spot to think about the farmer’s kind actions. As far as consequences are concerned, the farmer’s kind intentions were not a factor. Consequences don’t care about intentions, they just dispassionately follow choices.

So think about the farmers choices. Was it wise to open himself up to this viper? Was it logical to expect that when he did, the viper would keep his promise? I mean, if you know vipers tend to bite, and everyone else you know that picked up a viper was bitten, should you expect to fare any better? Is it rational to think, “Well, I know vipers bite other people when they pick them up, but this viper will not bite me" or "I’m helping it, it will be grateful, hey, vipers love me"?

Feelings Flavor Facts

So knowing what he seemed to know about vipers, why did his expectations change? Why did he miss obvious bad consequences? Feelings. Feelings can be very powerful persuaders and if we get too close, too connected, too attached, and too comfortable, we start trusting what we know is not trustworthy. The farmer hung around far too long debating a decision he already knew was a bad one. What changed his mind was getting too close, and spending too much time connecting to something that could only bring him problems. But once you spend some time with someone (apparently even a viper) you start to feel stuff. He started to pity the viper, and that pity moved him to do what he knew was a bad idea.

Feelings are important, and they can be great informants that play an important part in decision making, however, caution should be exercised when something “feels right” but doesn’t seem right. Had any facts about vipers changed? Was the farmer immune to viper bites? If not, what exactly did pity add to this party? In this case he got too close, too involved and this “bonding” or “attachment” lead to a trust not warranted by the truth. You can have compassion toward someone (or something) and still recognize that attaching yourself to this person or situation is not wise and not helpful. You still have feelings, but they are being informed by your values, your knowledge, and your realistic expectations about the consequences of this choice.

So the moral of the story is, if you hang around too long you start trusting vipers, even though you know vipers can’t be trusted. Oh yeah, and if you play with vipers, you get bitten, not matter how you feel. What a pity.