You know the fable of the tortoise and the hare? The hare and the tortoise decide to run a race against each other. The hare is ebullient, confident that he can easily outrun the tortoise. The race begins, and, the hare, shoots away from the starting line, far distancing himself from the stolid tortoise, who has barely moved from the starting line. Here’s the thing….the hare, in his excitement (and hubris) decides to take a series of detours, confident that he can easily afford the extra distance and still handily win the race. You know what happens here, right? The hare gets so caught up in his wanderings away from the actual race route, that, having lost track of the time, he arrives only to see the tortoise, still moving slowly but steadily, cross the finish line, and win the race.
We, whose parents read this fable to us as children, learned that “slow and steady wins the race”. Thing is, not all of us were able to internalize the lesson. For whatever reason - and there are many reasons - we either didn’t understand the concept of “slow and steady”, or, our temperament - our natures - meant that we were permanently set on “hare” and could scarcely access the tortoise approach.
I’m one of these. Cursed or blessed as I am with a depressive nature, you might think that slow and ‘tortoisey’ would come easily to me, but you’d be wrong. Like the hare, I often wander away from the track I’m supposed to be on. Here’s why: sadness, and often a kind of numbness beyond emotion, pull me deep down into pain, or if the descent moves deeper still, into a blank sort of hell-realm. When I am able to resurface from these dark depths, I am keenly aware of beauty, and my heart is bursting with love, curiosity, ambition, and joy. I think it’s the contrast that’s important here; like physical pain, emotional/psychological pain can be so utterly crushing, that, when you are granted a respite - however brief - you open your eyes and take in as much of the goodness and the life around you as you possibly can. You absolutely savour the inrush of non-pain or non-numbness, and you revel in feeling and being alive.
For me, this way of living has been sort of like drowning over and over again. When I am able to come up for air, I need to do all of my living - all of my joy, ambition - everything - from basic functioning, to nurturing relationships, to setting goals, and fulfilling ambitions, has to be played out quickly, until the oxygen runs out and I get pulled down again. This has kept me from mastering the art of consistency, which the tortoise employs so successfully in his race with the hare.
What does “slow and steady” mean, though? For the longest time, I figured the only lesson of the tortoise was this: set a goal, and work your way, step-by-step, through all of the tasks that will eventually bring you across the finish line. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted or pulled away from your self-assigned goal, and you’ll do well. Now, though, I understand the lesson of this fable somewhat differently. I live a life in which I know I will be pulled away from the race - often with little or no warning - and yet, I’m still alive. I have managed to find and sustain love in my life - with my husband, my sons, my mother, my siblings, my friends, and my animals. I find consolation in small things: the softness of my dog’s fur, the paperback I’ve read 5 times, and will read again, sipping a cup of tea while I watch the rain outside... and so, I fight my way up, again and again, from the watery depths of sadness, terror, and no-feeling - back into the light and the fresh air of the living. For me, this repeated effort to resurface is the essence of tortoise wisdom - this is how I practice consistency. I hold on to the small seeds of love, joy, and curiosity, carrying them with me as I descend into dark, airless places. Perhaps these small seeds provide the buoyancy that eventually draws me up out of the dark and into the light.
Each one of us is staggeringly unique - a one-time-only biochemical + spiritual equation. We can all benefit, though, from the tortoise’s example. The vicissitudes of life will likely make a “hare” of you - and marvelous things can be found off the main road - just take care to also have a turtle in the race; Find what sustains you - what makes you willing and able to open your eyes to each new day, and hold on to it. It may surprise you to find that the things keeping you afloat, day after day, are very small. That’s ok. Good things really do come in small packages.