The Lesson of the Tortoise
By Richard and Linda Eyre

The Tortoise and the Hare is our favorite Aesop’s fable.  Almost everyone knows the story, but few know the details, and thus they have a hard time really believing that a slow and plodding turtle could actually beat a quick and nimble rabbit. Here’s our version of the real story:

The race was a long one, very long, and the exact destination wasn’t known by either contestant. They were told the general direction of the finish line and instructed to watch for signs and indications along the way. The hare set out fast but kept missing the clues and getting off on long detours. He also frequently lost interest as he noticed various carrots along the way, becoming distracted by the applause of spectators who admired his sleekness.  He was in too much of a rush to make conversation or form relationships. He covered a lot of distance every day and was very tired when he got up each morning.

The tortoise moved slowly and tried to observe everything along the way. He had the habit of starting early each day and watching for signs. Even though he just plodded along, his foresight and ability to anticipate and look ahead gave him an interesting quality that he called the speed of going slow. He had reliable rules, a set schedule, and a predictable pace.  There was a certain stability about him.  Because of his deliberate, easygoing style, he had time to visit with other animals along the way, many of whom became his friends and told him of shortcuts or better roads.  Once there was a shortcut through an ocean inlet, and a family member, a sea tortoise, towed him through.

Others liked to walk along with the tortoise.  His slow, steady pace was restful and agreeable, and it always seemed that he had plenty of time to talk to anyone who wanted to walk along with him. He was interested in them.  He asked lots of questions of those who joined him, and he seemed to respect them and their ideas.

Some tried to discourage him, telling him that the hare had passed by long ago and warning the tortoise that it was too late, that he’d already lost.  He took their comments with a wise, knowing smile and just kept plodding along.

The Journey Is the Reward

Now, everyone knows that the turtle won.  But what is not commonly understood is how much fun he had in the process and how much he enjoyed the race.  He was always sure of his direction, he was content with slow, steady progress, and he loved finding signs and making friends and getting help along the way.  The rabbit, on the other hand, was pretty much lost all the time.  He looked flashy and stylish but he was always hurrying and was never quite sure exactly where he wanted to go.  He was erratic and sometimes just couldn’t decide how much the race really mattered to him, or if this was really the best race for him to be in.

If children are the race, oh how they appreciate and reward the steady, patient, consistent parent. The rewards and payoffs aren’t always immediate, but over time, over the course of the race, parents who hang in there, who remember the finish-line priority of their children and build a consistent, reliable life for them always win in the end.  Parents with a tortoise attitude – who know the race is long and that progress will be gradual – also tend to develop a calmness and confidence that makes children feel secure.  Such parents enjoy the race or the process, and they learn that consistency and predictable steadiness is more important to kids than quick fixes.

Some rabbit parents head off down various routes and get so turned around that they think the career path is more important than the family road.  They get in the wrong race and begin to think that the family is there to serve and support the job rather than the other way around.  They get caught up in winning the approval of others, and too distracted by the carrots of ever bigger houses, cars, titles, clothes, and status.  Tortoise parents, on the other hand, even though they’re no less aware of the demands and importance of work and career, still try to judge every path by whether it gets them closer to the finish line of well-adjusted kids and a happy family.  They build consistency and reliability into little things like meals together, church together, traditions and outings together, stories and prayers at bedtime.  They sometimes find shortcuts, such as family vacations that allow a lot of unhurried talk time, or one-on-one drives where there is lots of communication and many chances to deepen a relationship.

Tortoise parents don’t lack ambition, passion, spontaneity, and they certainly don’t have to be stiff or rigid.  In fact, the kind of parents who know the destination and know that it will take a good long time to get there, can actually loosen up and enjoy the journey.  They gain the old wisdom that knows there will be ups and downs but also knows that as long as they keep moving forward, time is on their side.  With certain predictable patterns in place, it actually feels less risky to take a chance or try something new now and then.

The lesson of the tortoise is calm, steady consistency that can wrap children in a warm blanket of peaceful predictability.  No matter how cold or random life gets outside the home, there are certain basic and consistent things they can always count on inside the home: a certain sense of being cared about, some reliable family rituals, a recurring pattern of order and schedule, and a limitless amount of unconditional love.  Such a home is a calmer, safer, more magnetic place than the chaotic and often confusing world our children inhabit at school and in their social environment outside the home.  Tortoise parents tend to create a plodding, comfortable place with traditions and with a pace that is purposefully slow enough to allow easy conversation and relaxed listening.

Lessons of the Tortoise

Like the tortoise, we must get up each day and keep at it, realizing that it is not our speed or brilliance that will get us through, but our consistency; not our ability but our availability.

Like the tortoise, we need to understand that it’s a long race and that there will be lots of little victories and defeats along the way – each of which we can learn from.

Like the tortoise, we should set up schedules and patterns that give order to our homes. We should look for and appreciate the occasional spontaneous shortcut, but we should avoid the big detours that take us off the real road, which leads to the finish line of a strong family.

Like the tortoise, we should never be in too big a hurry to listen, to notice, to share.

Like the tortoise, we should seek advice and help and be flexible enough to change our direction when we see a better way.

Like the tortoise, we should have regular, reliable rituals and timely traditions in which others –particularly our children — can find security and identity.

2003 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.