One of history’s more accomplished storytellers spun a masterful tale that is known in every corner of the world. The story is known as “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and the ancient fabulist was a clever, former slave named Aesop.
“The Tortoise and the Hare” was not his only parable, not by a long shot, and his collection includes such classics as “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” “The Goose Who Laid the Golden Egg,” “The Fox and the Grapes,” and more than 700 others. But of “Aesop’s Fables,” this tale of the lumbering tortoise and the snoozing hare is his most popular, even after 25 centuries.
We all know the plot line: A braggadocios rabbit yammers on and on about his blazing speed, daily humiliating the tortoise who is as slow as, well, a tortoise. Frustrated by this treatment, finally the tortoise does the unthinkable and challenges the hare to a race. After a bout of uncontrolled laughter, the rabbit accepts the challenge and the race is afoot.
Likewise, we all know the outcome. The hare, after building what would appear to be an unsurmountable lead, decides to bed down for a nap. And as the rabbit catches Zs along the road, the deliberate, plodding tortoise passes his slumbering rival to win the race.
If you are like most who heard Aesop’s story, it was explained to you as an ode to underdogs. Mantras like, “Slow and steady wins the race,” and “The power of perseverance prevails,” start getting thrown around, and the tortoise becomes a shining example of grit and resiliency. With no slight toward our terrapin friend, such an interpretation misses Aesop’s point.
Consider this instead: While persistent, the reason the turtle won was because of the failure of the rabbit. It is not so much a story about the persevering long-shot, as it is a story about the defeat that comes from an unfinished task. Thus, the mantra, “Slow and steady wins the race,” should probably be replaced with “Finish what you started.”
Of course, we all like to see ourselves as the steady turtle: Committed, resolute, cheered on by the crowd, the consummate underdog who overcomes against superior foes in the end. More often, we are the rabbit (though this is hard to admit). We start out with plenty of strength, even bluster, well suited for the challenge ahead of us, but we don’t complete the race.
Maybe it is exhaustion, maybe overconfidence or injury, but it becomes terribly easy to quit while we are ahead. We lie down, perchance wishing only for a nap, but the day and the race – our dreams, marriages, careers, hopes, and dreams – go marching right by us.
Here, the admonition from Scripture is a good one to heed: “Do this one thing. Strain toward what is ahead. Press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called you.” Yes, slow and steady will sometimes win the race, but not unless you finish what you begin.
Photo by Cedric Fox