Tortoise, Hare, Heart, and Mind
Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller. He told tales of talking animals and animate objects. Most of us are familiar with at least a few of his stories.
There is a good chance that Aesop was never a real person. He was probably made up so that all the moral animal stories could claim a common origin, or to make them easier to shelve in libraries. To some, it may be disappointing that an actual Aesop never lived. But just because he wasn’t a living, breathing person doesn’t mean we can’t get value from the stories attributed to him. Fables teach real lessons. Obvious lessons, sometimes, but they can still have deep interpretations.
One of the most familiar of Aesop’s fables is that story of the tortoise and the hare. As you know, a tortoise is a terrestrial reptile with a large shell, known for its slow and deliberate way of moving. A hare is a lagomorph, sort of like a rabbit, but quicker. Hares don’t just hop. They gallop!
In the fable, the hare is bored one day, so he decided to bother the tortoise. The fast hare challenged the slow tortoise to a race. Of course, the hare should win. It would be stupid to enter a race with such a fast creature. But, remarkably, the tortoise accepts the challenge anyway.
The starting gun goes off, and the race is underway. Immediately, the hare speeds away, disappearing over a hill in the distance. The tortoise takes his first slow deliberate step, followed by the second…
The hare should just keep running. Finish the race, and then the story will be over. But what’s the point in being fast if no one sees how fast you really are? The hare knows he can run all the way back to the tortoise, taunt him a little, and make it back to the finish line. The hare knows he can stop for a slice of pizza, take his time savoring it, argue with the chef over the price, and still have enough speed to pull off an easy win. And after pizza, it might be nice to take a little nap. Just to help the digestion. The hare knows it will be hours before the tortoise catches up So, the hare goes to sleep under a tree…
Meanwhile, the tortoise is still lumbering along. He has no intention of winning the race, but still wants to finish. He might get a sticker at the end, or at least have a story to tell his great great grandchildren. With his goal set, the tortoise doesn’t notice when the hare comes back to taunt him. The tortoise doesn’t register the smells of the pizzeria as he goes by. And if you asked him later, he would have no recollection of passing the hare, fast asleep under a tree.
When the hare wakes up, he takes a moment to stretch, scratch, and fix his fur. He knows he’s still got plenty of time. He sets off to finally finish the race, going a bit slow but still faster than any tortoise. He sees the crowd of animals at the finish line, and thinks they are there to congratulate him. But they are already congratulating someone else.
The tortoise had already won. He crossed the finish line while the hare was sleeping. The race was the hare’s to lose, and he would never live it down. And from that day on, they called the tortoise, “Flash.”
Thus ends the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Fables are stories that are designed to teach lessons. Common applications of this story include, “slow and steady wins the race,” and more importantly, “don’t be a show off.”
But there are further applications as well. The tortoise and hare aren’t just animals, they can also serve as symbols of the human heart and the human mind.
The hare, in this case, can be seen as a representative of the human mind. The mind is quick, clever, and free to run on and on. This is the great strength of the mind, but also its downfall. When the mind gets ahead of the heart it becomes distractible, and overconfident. And then it uses this confidence to justify things that are bad. The tortoise would have told the hare that it was a bad idea to take a nap, but the hare would not have heard, because he was so far ahead.
And so the tortoise, in this case, represents the heart. Tortoises are capable of being excited, and they are capable of feeling down. Like the heart though, the tortoise does best when it is stable. Steadily chugging on, and resilient. It might seem sometimes that our hearts hold us back.
Our emotions are sometimes difficult to turn, and we have to drag them along. Whey can’t emotions of the heart be more like thoughts of the mind, easy come and easy go? Maybe we would be better off as all-mind. Hubris might be a small price to pay for speed.
But the heart is absolutely necessary for human life. A person can be brain dead and still count is a living organism.
So to is the tortoise absolutely vital for the story. Nobody cares about a hare who is super fast and wins all the time.
We all have tortoises and hares inside of us. Hearts and minds.
It is wise to not let your mind overtake your heart, but also wise to realize this is inevitable. Asking the mind to slow down is the same thing as asking the heart to speed up. Sometimes the mind will get far ahead of everything that matters. This will lead to frustration.
“Why can’t I get over my emotions? When will I be free of this weight in my chest? How can I win when part of me is so slow?”
You will never be free of the weight. It is a vital part of you. But if you stop for a minute to let the rest of yourself catch up, then you might feel a little better.
And there is more to live than winning. But that doesn’t mean you won’t look up after a long while of trudging and realize you’ve won!