Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Tortoise and the Hare

In the Gospel today God tells Solomon he can ask for anything, and God will grant it to him, and Solomon asks for wisdom. And Solomon is granted great wisdom, and you can see it mentioned in a number of places in Scripture, including the Song of Songs. But later, in Ecclesiastes, you see that Solomon did not always choose the wisest options, even if he knew them. He had this great gift, but he took it for granted, and the temptations of the world led him astray. And then, for some strange reason, my thoughts went from Solomon to the fable of the tortoise and the hare. (And for those who know me, you will not think it strange at all that my mind wanders in such a way.)

Solomon may have had rumors of Aesop’s fable when he wrote in Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift” (Eccl 9:11), but that’s pure speculation on my part. The fable itself has a number of moral interpretations, but some of the more common regarding the tortoise are: never give up, always keep plugging ahead, slow and steady is often better than a swift burnout, and never think you can’t win. Then there are maxims based on the hare’s performance in the fable: To win, you must never slow down, don’t stop to look over your shoulder, and then of course there’s Elmer Fudd’s take on hares: “Wabbits! I hate wabbits!” All good moral imperatives to think on (or laugh at), but that’s not where my mind went this morning.

In the fable, the hare slowed down and napped, and the tortoise passed him by and went on to win the race, but that’s not the important thing I see, when I think of our life’s race. From a moral point of view, our life is a race to heaven, and getting ahead, or closer to the finish line, means growing in holiness. It is a task for each of us. But where this analogy diverges from the fable of the tortoise and the hare is that, in life, this is not a race where the fastest wins, as Ecclesiastes notes. In fact, it is not a race where there is only one winner, but the goal is for all to be winners. The lifelong race to grow in holiness is won at the finish line, whether you get there through slow steady walking, or bursts of speed with plenty of rests along the way. The goal is to finish the race, period.

I think if some of the wise writers of Scripture were around today, perhaps they might use as an example of this call to holiness not the tortoise and the hare race, but the Special Olympics race. In the Special Olympics, children of various handicaps run races, and the goal is to finish. All finishers win, and are richly congratulated and given prizes. If some find it difficult along the way of the race, there are people there to encourage them, urge them to not give up, and tell them to not look at how fast or slow others are running the race, but to just continue to move ahead, to get to the finish line. That’s a more appropriate parable or fable of our life, a constant push of people with various handicaps, but who CAN finish. And it’s also a story of those who help those less able than themselves. In the Special Olympics fable, the rabbit wouldn’t stop and nap, he’d go back and help the tortoise and encourage him not to give up. And he’d probably be behind the tortoise as he crossed the finish line; who crossed the line first wouldn’t matter to the hare.

In a way, it’s like the parable of the hired hands in the field, whether some worked all day or some just at the end, but they all finished the workday and were rewarded the same. Finishing was the key, not when the work began or how slow of fast it was accomplished. That’s the way our life should be lived.

Some of us are slow, with few talents. Some of us are fast, with many talents. The slow ones may have had no one write a word in their high school yearbooks. The fast ones may have been congratulated as “Most Likely to Succeed,” before they had yet done anything; with their talents they were expected to succeed. But the tale of the tortoise and the hare shows that others’ expectations matter not, nor do our talents, it is our perseverance that matters. In life, in growing in holiness, in getting to heaven, it is about a lifelong race, to the finish line. And everyone can win, if they persevere.

They ways and wiles of the world are many. Solomon, with all his wisdom, found that out. There are many things which tempt us to stop, like the hare, along the way. Perhaps we think we are far ahead --- I’m holy enough; God must be happy. Perhaps we think the race is finished in this life --- I go to church on Sunday, but I must also rest and enjoy life. Perhaps we just plain get distracted, and church, prayer, and God become secondary. Perhaps we think the race for holiness is too hard: I’m not a saint. And in all these things, we rationalize quitting the race. Using our reason to rationalize things is good, but we need faith to go with our reasoning. Faith is underpinned by all those gifts, talents, and graces from God. We all have faith; unfortunately, we don’t all use it.

I think I stumbled upon a way to keep my life moving forward in holiness, to not grow lax. While I read, I meditated, and I prayed often during my life, I have had many periods where those things were done rarely --- other things seemed more important. What I also did, however, was care about my neighbor; it was something I was taught early in life, and it served me well. I learned it in what my parents did, I learned it in caring for my brother, and I learned it in Catholic schools and in church: Love you neighbor, and show it. And so I always volunteered in various ways to help the less well off, financially, physically, or mentally. If a volunteer opportunity arose, I almost always stepped up to the plate --- even at the expense of those things I “thought” were more important, money, career, and self-indulgences. And when I may have been slowing down in my faith walk, caring for these others, helping them, urging them not to give up --- like those helping at the Special Olympics --- my caring for others helped them, in a way, to care for me. For as they slowly ran the race, whatever the race they needed help with at the moment, I found myself walking along side them, and as they advanced, so did I. When I, who have so many talents, stopped along the way but still turned to help someone else, looking back I can see that I was also helping myself. And I didn’t even know it.

Be open to the tortoises which may cross your path, my friends, and slow down to help them. The race in life is not to finish first in anything, first in money, first in prestige, or first in happiness, the race is to finish as holy as you should be, no matter how long it takes you. And I’ve found that virtually ALL of my neighbors can help me do this, if I let them. If I let them by helping them first.


  1. I enjoyed this post and the food for thought. Reading it, I thought: that's just So like Tom.

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this, Maryellen. I assume you think this is like me because I am so like the tortoise, slow to catch on to everything, and racing to catch up late in my life. But I know this is like you, also: a hare, always willing to stop to help. I've seen your talents; you don't have to run fast to impress me anymore.