The tortoise and the hare – a parable for our times?

31/10/2011 § 1 Comment

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes.

I think I am starting to understand the parable of the tortoise and the hare.

The other weekend we went for a family walk near Fritham, an unspoilt part of the Forest where we don’t go very often. We haven’t had great success with going on walks with Lucas – he tends to complain, as I suspect many five year olds do when dragged on a walk by their parents. But it was a lovely day and we decided to give it go.

Sure enough about 10 minutes into the walk, it started: “I’m tired”, “Are we going back now?” It would have been easy for us to get frustrated and either ignore his complaints or simply give up and head back to the pub. Instead we tried to adjust to meet his needs – we took a more interesting path, we engaged him in the occasional race, we stopped when he found a particularly interesting stick or leaf. In the end, we walked for 2 ¾ hours (partly because we took a wrong turn). Remarkably he only started complaining about being tired towards the very end, by which time we were tired too.

This got me thinking. How many times in life, when encountering resistance of some sort, do we either ignore it and plough on regardless or give up. Seeking instant or at least rapid gratification, we are not ready to deal properly with difficult situations. Yet most of the best experiences I have had have come when I have persevered. This is certainly true in relationships.  Many of my most important relationships with others have gone through a sticky patch at some stage. Working through the issues that come up are a necessary part of strengthening and deepening the relationship.

And I am starting to see there is a universal theme here. I have always liked the quote that I introduced this post with. It seems to me that the complexity he is talking about can be experienced as some sort of internal or external resistance, a practical obstacle or a complex emotion that arises. If you simply treat this resistance as an obstacle to be overcome, you may hurry to clear it, or you may give up, and either way you are missing the point.  These are foothills that must be scaled before you can start the true ascent of the mountain. Not only are they an essential part of the journey, they are a great opportunity to learn, to gather skills and knowledge that can prove invaluable in the greater tests ahead. You come through the foothills in better shape, with deeper understanding of what you have taken on. Or, equally usefully, you learn that this is not the mountain for you.

Perhaps the key insight I have taken from this is that finding the right pace is critical. Dragging Lucas on a forced march, trying to get him to keep up our adult pace, simply wouldn’t have worked; being willing to slow down allowed us all to keep going far longer than we would have expected. It reminds me of the time I climbed a 4000m mountain a few years ago. We were accompanied by a highly experienced guide, who had a mantra to help us get to the top. ‘Slow is steady, steady is fast.” In other words, find the right pace, one that you can keep at all day, and stick to it. If you do this you may achieve far more than those who are fitter and stronger but who start off at a rush.

And why do I think this is a parable for our time? Because our adolescent society, powered by cheap fossil fuels, continues to act like the hare, rushing into challenges (health care, education, international peace, you name it), seeking the quick solution, and ending up repeatedly disappointed, while the approach of the tortoise, the slow, steady, patient approach, is the only one that offers the prospect of providing long-term, proper solutions.

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