I heard the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare at a youth camp. I was probably in middle school at the time and looking back, I was pretty miserable. I’m sure there were some good times, but mainly I remember middle school being a time when I never seemed to fit in. I was awkward and lonely, when I looked at my peers, I just didn’t know how to dress or keep up with fashion. I couldn’t ever seem to own the right brand of jeans or shoes. I was super skinny, with flat stringy hair when big curls and tall bangs were in. I felt like I was always on the fringe, the outside of a group but never really part of a group.
It was in the midst of this emotional turmoil that I found myself sitting on a hard metal chair listening to a story that changed my life. The story of the Tortoise and the Hare. Our speaker said during his own adolescence he felt a lot like the tortoise – slower than others, left behind, or just left out of the popular group. That completely described how I felt. Like I was always trying- but never quite measured up.
When I think about the tortoise, I think about someone who from the outside looks to be at a disadvantage. Someone who doesn’t have the natural skills or abilities of those around them. Someone who does not look like a winner. I think at some point of our lives, all of us could identify with that tortoise.
The tortoise in the story brings me to a scripture from Ephesians “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” (Ephesians 6:13) Sometimes the best thing we can do is just keep trying. Even when it’s harder for us than others, I mean turtles weren’t designed to run races. But the turtle won the race simply because he kept trying. He kept standing. It’s the last part of that verse that really speaks to me. “After you have done everything, to stand”. After you’ve done what’s right and you feel like you’re the only one choosing to do what’s right. Keep standing.
The tortoise won the race that day, not because he was skilled, not because he was talented, but simply because he never gave up, he persevered. Perseverance is what makes the difference between failure and success.
There’s another character in the story though, the rabbit, or hare as he’s called. The rabbit had a chance. He had a really good chance. He was designed to win races. He was destined to go fast. But he didn’t. He got distracted, he made choices that took him off track and sometimes our choices can take us off track as well.
One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 24:16 “for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.” I know it might seem simple, but to rise again after falling seven times means you actually fell down seven different times, in the Bible seven frequently represents the number of infinity. What this verse is saying is that a righteous man is not righteous because he’s doesn’t ever mess up, he is righteous because of how he responds to those lapses in judgment. How he responds to mistakes. Righteousness, or right standing before God, comes from what happens after we mess up. It does not come from being consistently perfect.
This verse is super encouraging to me because one of my greatest strengths is the ability to make stupid mistakes. There are a lot of times my personal decisions resemble the rabbit who got distracted in the middle of the race.
Unfortunately, many of my mistakes were simply times when I acted before thinking. I clearly remember a car ride during my college years when a friend and I were going down Highway. I was driving my Mazda Miata – You have to understand my relationship with my car though- it was my first true love. This car was my baby. I mean I would wash it three different times a week if necessary but I would never let it stay dirty. Years later, I even made sure the car was included in some of the photographs from my wedding. On this particular day, the weather was nice but we had started driving with the top up. So, I thought to myself – “It’s a nice day, we should put the top down.” Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me that driving down the highway at 60 miles an hour might be a little fast for the roof mechanism to work correctly. The whole relative motion thing you learn about in middle school physics of feeling like you’re not really moving when in fact you are moving, because you’re moving at the same speed of the car- I didn’t really get that concept yet.
I told my friend to undo the roof clip on his side, and I would undo the one on the drives side – obviously we were not really “good” friends – because he agreed to this without any question or hesitation. We released the roof clips and the roof slammed down faster than I could have ever imagined. At that moment it entered my brain that maybe, just maybe that was a bad idea. I’m pretty sure I did actually pull off to the side of the road at that point and while evaluating the roof I saw that my rear window had completely shattered. During the conversation with my Dad afterwards he looked pretty incredulous that I could have ever thought it was a reasonable idea. Unfortunately, many of my ideas seem “reasonable” to me but end up not turning out quite like I anticipated.
Like the rabbit in the story, I really try, I have every intention of doing the right thing at the right time in the right way- it’s just that so often the reality is I mess up. I mean, I’m the only teacher at my school who managed to drop a bowling ball in a glass aquarium (during a density experiment gone wrong) flooding the room with about 20 gallons of water all at once. That, like putting down a convertible roof at 60 mph was a mistake I haven’t ever made again.
It would different if I could just succeed in just never repeating a mistake. I might feel better if each time it was something different that I messed up on. Unfortunately. I also repeat the same mistakes all the times. For example, getting students names right. I don’t how it is I could tell you so many personal descriptors about a student- but the first name out of mouth is rarely right. Losing my wallet, my keys, or forgetting something vital to my lesson at home. Those are mistakes I repeat on a regular basis.
If we let them, our mistakes can derail our progress. Distractions and mistakes, like they did for the rabbit, can keep us from reaching our goals. They can prevent our success. They don’t have to. But they do have that power.
That’s really where perseverance comes in. If we go back to that verse in Proverbs, “for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.” It’s not the stumbling, it’s not the messing up, that would put you in the same category as the “wicked” who are overcome and can’t recover. It’s just not getting back up that is the problem.
Some days we might feel like the turtle, incompetent, incapable and somehow just not as skilled as everyone around us. I want you to know you’re not alone. Others have felt the same way. Others are feeling the same way. Really all we have to do to keep doing- is taking the next step. Success comes from not giving up.
Other days, we might feel like the rabbit, like we have the skills and ability to be successful but still fall short of winning. Either way we’re trying, but success is hard work and despite our best efforts we fail.
The verse in Ephesians really speaks to me in times like that. It’s talking about how God’s armor can help us in difficult times. It says“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” That last part, it really says it all. Having done everything, you stand. Truly that is what perseverance is, it’s standing.
Perseverance is when you’re feeling like the tortoise and like you’ll never finish – perseverance is taking the next step. Or, when you’re like the rabbit and you just keep messing up – perseverance is continuing to try. True success in life, eventually comes – as long as you don’t give up. Sometimes it takes a long time for us to see it. But I can promise you – as a survivor of middle school- you really just have to be willing to take the next step. Willing to get back up from a fall and keep trying.