Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Slow and Steady Wins the Race? Not Always……

It has been hammered into our brains since the impressionable age of five. We have been told the story numerous times-brainwashed even. And Aesop has emerged a genius.

Well most of Aesop’s life has been a myth and even though I have always loved his moral-laced fables, I must, absolutely and categorically disagree with this one. The tortoise doesn’t always win. In fact, most often the hare does and the tortoise comes trudging along slowly, steadily and gradually to cross the finishing line in a sad second. That is one of life’s not-so-savory facts and Aesop, somewhere in his brilliant spate of storytelling, forgot to consider the one blatant possibility-what if the hare hadn’t taken a break to rest?

As a child, this very thought used to give me some rather sleepless nights. The tortoise you see was a big favorite of mine. And obviously so, since the hare was arrogant and vain and proud and overconfident-a stark contrast to the lumbering tortoise, heavily burdened and yet dignified with a sense of challenge forged with the unmistakably honorable traits of confidence and humility. Who in his right mind would vote for the hare and who in his senses wouldn’t love the tortoise?

As the story goes, the hare, with his lithe body and long, fast legs, keeps boasting about his speed and the tortoise, tired of listening to the vainglorious banter, challenges the hare to a race. Amused with the tortoise’s cheek and surprised at the audacity of the futile challenge, the hare-gloating over the prospects of an easy win, accepts it. The race begins and obviously the hare is off to a flying start, with the tortoise traipsing behind at his usual calm, slow and steady pace. The hare, with overconfidence leaking out of his long bunny ears, decides to take a break, since the ‘footslogging tortoise is too slow to catch up’. He figures he can rest a while before he resumes and he firmly believes that he can still finish first. But he sleeps longer than intended, by which time, the tortoise has already passed him and plodded over to the finish line. The hare wakes up defeated and his ego shattered into a million pieces.

Wonderful story isn’t it? And kudos to Aesop for bringing to light such a valid point in such a lucid manner-haste makes waste. Catering to a task with a steady pace and calmness of mind will always get it done effectively. True story.

But the question I asked a as child is pertinent even today. What if the hare hadn’t taken the break? What if he had just kept running? He would still be faster than the tortoise and would inevitably win the race by a long shot. Maybe the real moral of the story is not actually that the slow and steady runner always wins the race, but something more to the tune of ‘pride comes before fall’ or ‘overconfidence gets you nowhere’ or ‘vanity is the quicksand of reason’ or some such cliché. These would make more sense with respect to this particular story than the whole ‘slow and steady winning the race’ quip.

Besides a race is a race is a race. Some win and some lose, but almost everyone wants to be in on it. Ambition is a crazed driver and every race and participant in the race is spurred by ambition varying in form and degree. Everything I see around me is a competition or race of some sort and I’m surrounded by people running and competing. Be it a queue to get the Toto lottery ticket for the weekly bonanza or the rush to get into the 7:49 train to Joo Koon. Always the struggle to be one up over another, always an effort to move to the head of the line, a constant need go with the flow and in the process get out there and win win win! We are hardwired right from the tender age of 3 (when we’re enrolled into kindergarten in a bid to get some real life training before real life begins) to get into the race and brainwashed with a sense of foreboding doom if we were to ever fall out of the race or even think of moving against the flow. Rebellious, free-thinking people have done just that and many have survived gloriously, but the masses continue to do what has been done for ages. Run.

Note here, that this is in no way a judgment about people who wish to be in the race. I myself have been in many, even though I have always rebelled against it and finally let myself go free. Kind of like Manny the wooly mammoth from Ice Age, who decides to walk against the flow of numerous creatures migrating to the south. But, yes I do not judge-as a rule. In fact I deeply respect everyone in the race and their efforts to get ahead in life. They shoulder their responsibilities effectively and work hard and there is absolutely no replacement for hard work. My respect for them will always remain deep and genuine. It’s just that I chose a different path, because of the way I’m built within.

I have a very poignant memory of a conversation with a friend in my early teens, which in many ways strengthened my resolution to travel my own path despite the fact that everyone else’s paths were different.

We were in our first year in junior degree college and we were in the middle of our mid-term exams. We met up after the physics exam and started talking about how we thought we might have fared.

It would be important to note at this point that I am not a very big fan of Physics as a subject (although cosmology and space science holds me spell bound) and I said in a non-committal manner, “I think I’ll make the pass-mark. Ok who’s up for ice-cream?”

This friend of mine, who has always been an ambition-crazed, success-obsessed individual was aghast, “Oh shut up!!! I couldn’t answer the last question. It was worth FOUR ENTIRE MARKS.”


“So? I’m sure you’ll make up for it the next time,” I said trying to soothe his troubled brow and nudging him towards the ice cream stall.

“No you don’t understannnnnnddddd,” he said in despair. “I’M OUT OF THE RAT RACE MAN, I’M out of the race, how will I ever get back in?” He moaned all the way home and I lost out on a perfectly good vanilla chocolate ripple. Sigh.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but I sure was glad that I was out of the rat race. I don’t even think I wanted to be in the rat race ever. I have always abhorred the idea of going where everyone’s going and I’ve always wanted to do the exact opposite of what everyone’s doing. It’s nothing to be proud of, it’s just the radical part of me. And not surprisingly it has very rarely worked to my advantage. My friend got back into the rat race and witnessed success after success and success and is now a very rich, successful engineer in the US of A, poised for many many more successes to come.

I on the other hand am a penniless writer, but enjoying every minute of it. After all, as I figure it, if I’m not in the rat race, I may not be conventionally successful, but at least I’m happy knowing I’m my own person and not a rat.

I spoke to my friend recently and he finally disclosed to me, his unhappiness with his long struggle to win. It had taken its toll. I asked him to take it easy and do what makes him happy now instead of being forced to constantly act to stay on top of things. He agreed. But I know he won’t be able to do it. His system is not made for it. If he’s not racing against a worthy competitor or winning some accolade or the other, he’ll suffocate. To him, competition is like the air he breathes and more often than not he competes with himself, when there’s nothing else to struggle against. To add to that, the seduction of money and success is too strong a lure and very difficult to break away from. But I wish him success in whatever he chooses to do.

As for me, I continue to do my thing and live for God and Guru. I have my own challenges and so many aspects about the beauty of life excite me. The glory of languages and the power of well-connected words, trees and flowers, forests and animals, oceans and mountains, art in any form, be it culinary or poetic, musical or created with a paintbrush, all the fiery, humble, hardworking and driven people working ceaselessly to make this world a better place for all of us, simple joys and many laughs-I live for them all.

I have long stopped any and all efforts to run with society (in general) and God has been kind to me, in that He has provided me with whatever I need and lessened my desires.

I am neither the hare, nor am I the tortoise. And I am certainly not a rat. I’m just plain and simple me. Watching the race, loving all, and living life.

Love to all,

Shreyasi

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