Tortoises Teach Us Important Lessons

Children all over the world are exposed to many animal fables, stories intended to teach them lessons or morals. Among the most well-known is an Aesop fable called “The Tortoise and the Hare,” in which a hare makes fun of a tortoise for being too slow, prompting the tortoise to challenge the hare to a race.  

The hare is so confident of winning that he decides to take a nap in the middle of the race. But he oversleeps and the tortoise beats him to the finish line. The moral of the story is that you should never take a nap without setting an alarm. Otherwise, a 30-minute nap might turn into a two-hour snooze, causing you to miss something you’ll regret, perhaps a doctor’s appointment or an important interview, such as Oprah’s interview with Taylor Swift. (Find out if she’s actually dating a football player!) 

Another lesson is that being overconfident and underestimating your opponent can be your downfall. This is how underdogs pull off upsets in national elections, winning the presidency while you’re deciding which pantsuit to wear for your inauguration. 

The third and perhaps most important lesson is that the race does not always belong to the swift, unless they happen to be named Taylor. 

Being slow and persistent can also get you to the finish line and make you a winner. So often in life, the person who makes steady progress completes an important task, while the person who tries to be the fastest makes critical errors. It’s better to be as steady as a tortoise than to be harebrained. 

I was reminded of the importance of persistence when I read about Tank, the world’s slowest escape artist. Tank is a tortoise belonging to Mike Nelson, a veterinarian in Leighton, Pennsylvania. During the warm months, Dr. Nelson keeps Tank in an outside pen at his veterinary clinic, but Tank recently escaped for the third time, squeezing through a hole in the fence. He had created the hole by continuously ramming the fence. (Now you know why he’s called Tank and why you shouldn’t be surprised if you hear that Ukraine is deploying its Tortoise Brigade against the Russians.) 

Tortoises do not like to stay in one place. And sometimes they’re forced to move to a new place, as depicted in the Panchatantra fable from India called “The Tortoise and the Geese.” Two geese and a tortoise live happily together in a pond until a drought ruins their paradise. The geese decide to fly to another place, where there’s plenty of food and water. The tortoise can’t fly, but begs the geese to take him with them.  

The geese are reluctant, but finally relent, coming up with a plan: they’ll carry a stick between them in their beaks, while the tortoise hangs onto the middle with his jaws. They caution him not to open his mouth during the flight. But when they fly over a group of villagers who point and laugh at the tortoise, he can’t resist saying something to them. He opens his mouth, and next thing you know, he’s dropping to earth. (Thankfully, he doesn’t hit the ground directly but falls on a sleeping hare. The hare wakes up, rubs his eyes and dashes off toward another tortoise, who is doing a victory dance in the distance.) 

The lesson of the story, of course, is one that pilots learn in flying school: stay away from geese in the air. 

Another lesson is to stick to what you’re good at. If walking is your thing, don’t feel bad when someone flies past you on the track. 

But the most important lesson is one that Tank has learned. His third escape from the veterinary clinic ended in capture too. He was found almost two weeks later and returned to the clinic.   

If you ask him if he’s planning to escape again, he won’t say a word. 

He knows the wisdom of not opening his mouth unnecessarily. 

Image courtesy of Provided

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