Useful Fictions, Part II - The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Most of you are familiar with the story of the Tortoise and the Hare or some variation thereof.  The stripped down version goes something like this.

Tortoise and Hare Race1A turtle and a rabbit are having a race on some pretense or other. The race begins, and the rabbit leaves the turtle far behind, as you would expect. The turtle just keeps right on moving as best he can, though, and after a time the rabbit gets lazy, or cocky, or both, and takes a lil’ nap – which is irrational in these circumstances but sets up the moral of the story.

While the rabbit dozes, the turtle lumbers on by. Right as the rabbit wakes up, he sees the turtle almost over the finish line, and rushes to catch up. His hubris has cost him dearly, however, and he loses the race.

There are two morals to this version of the tale – one from the rabbit’s perspective and one from the turtle’s.

“Slow and steady wins the race,” we say on behalf of the turtle, who just kept plugging away even when events seemed to indicate the futility of so doing. The lesson for the rabbit is a bit sharper:  “Don’t get too comfortable, no matter how far ahead you think you are. You can lose it all in a moment.”

Those are good American morals, don’t you think? Hard work, patience, fortitude… We love that stuff – in theory if not always in practice. At the very least we appreciate them in others. And for those who are a bit ahead of the game? Other value systems might suggest slowing down to wait for or even help along the turtle, or merely enjoying the fruits of one’s success without feeling the need to prove more. But the American way is to NEVER slow down, or let up. If you’re not running, and leading, by insane margins, you are – for all metaphorical purposes – losing.

We tell it to our kids for either lesson, or both, and because it’s a nice story.

This version of the story is not universally applicable, however. It was not, for example, particularly useful for slave children in the antebellum United States. Slow and steady would NOT win the race, and no amount of fortitude or perseverance would be worth much if you were a slave. There was little to gain pretending otherwise. Being ahead was not even on the table, so forget that.

On the other hand, consider this tale:

Turtle Rabbit Race 2The rabbit is the cockiest and cruelest of the animals, and bullies the turtle into a race. The turtle has little choice, and after trying to dissuade the rabbit of the idea, they “agree” to test themselves the following morning. Just to keep things interesting, the rabbit adds a last-minute wager – the winner of the race will kill, cook, and eat the loser.

Good times.

The next morning the badger fires the starting pistol with a scowl. The rabbit leaves the turtle far behind, as you would expect, but as the rabbit is turning the first corner of the agreed upon path and entering the woods, he sees the turtle AHEAD of him on the trail – which makes no sense to him at all. Still, a solvable problem, and the rabbit picks up speed and easily passes the turtle, smirking as he flies by.

As he comes out of the wooded area, however, the rabbit sees the turtle ahead of him again, and about to cross the small bridge over the stream which marks the halfway point of the race. Now growing rather concerned, and saying some very inappropriate words under his increasingly labored breath, the rabbit pushes himself harder – his heart now pounding and his lungs beginning to burn.  He passes the turtle just past the bridge and curses him as he does.

Coming around the final corner of the race, which dips a bit with the contours of the land, the panicked rabbit sees the turtle about to cross the finish line. Despite a rather insane burst of last-minute effort, he cannot catch up – and he loses the race.

That evening the turtle, and his uncle, and his brother-in-law, and his son, have rabbit stew for dinner. It’s quite tasty, I’m told.

The initial turtle only survived because the turtles helped each other – quietly, and subtly, albeit at some risk to themselves. The deception only worked because to a rabbit, all turtles look pretty much the same, and because it never occurred to him that turtles might be smart.

I don’t actually want to teach those lessons to my kids in 2014 – that deception is sometimes necessary, to do what it takes to stay in the race, to play on others’ assumptions and stereotypes of you rather than defy them, etc.  But those were pretty useful lessons for a slave child in the early 19th century. Much better than that ‘slow and steady’ stuff.

The stories we tell ourselves matter. They matter because they demonstrate who we are, but they in turn shape who we are by shaping what we perceive. Our worldview is at least partly – and I suspect actually rather largely – shaped by the narrative through which we interpret it.

Narratives are the framework into which we fit experience. I don’t say this to be poetic, but to point out their importance.

At the risk of getting all evolutionary – thus alienating half of my Eleven Faithful Readers - we have learned to categorize and see patterns and make generalizations to conserve brain space and to survive.

Snake Biting Your FaceNot all snakes are dangerous, for example, and a few may be quite helpful in some ways, but learning to tell hundreds of them apart, quickly, and in various situations, is time, labor, and brain space intensive. If I’m right, nothing happens; if I’m wrong, I could die – painfully.

So, a narrative: "Snakes are scary bad. Run away from snakes.”

This takes up almost no brain space, requires little processing when I do encounter a snake, and produces quick benefit and almost no risk (there are few if any situations in which it’s VERY HELPFUL for me to be near just the right snake).

Extend this to people from other tribes, races, places, etc., and you can see how our stories begin to shape themselves around this bit of evolutionary efficiency. Sometimes reality shapes the stories, sure – but how easily the stories in turn shape reality.

Numerous western fairy tales have evolved over the centuries to reflect changing times.  Cinderella and the people around her became less brutal as life became less cruel for those telling the tale. At the same time, the agency in the tale gradually shifted away from Ella’s grit and piety and became a function of nature, fairy godmothers, or the savior prince so prevalent in young ladies’ upbringings for so many generations. Someday your prince will come, honey. Keep sewing.

How much good will legal evolution do if the patriarchy owns the female psyche through the stories we tell?

Little MermaidElla's agency and that of her ilk didn’t completely disappear, but it certainly evolved. Consider the Little Mermaid – who in both the Grimm and Disney versions of the story defies her father, entwines herself with the male of another species (or race), and makes a deal with dark forces to do so. She trades her voice – literally, which should absolutely horrify even the mildest feminist – for a shot at first base with the savior prince.

A few centuries ago, she paid for her brash indiscretion by turning to sea foam. A few decades ago, however, she not only wins the boy, who then kills the dark forces, but secures an apology from the father who tried to stand in the way of underage cross-species love-at-first-sight.

In the late 20th Century narrative, there is no cause more just than the emotional impulses of a rebellious 16-year old girl dressed like a stripper at Sea World.

The stories we tell reflect our worlds, and shape how we process those worlds. The crab sang one narrative, which lost (even though it was a better song).  Ariel and the trout sang another, and it changed which world they belonged to – the one with forks.

But fairy and folk tales are not the only ones we tell ourselves, nor are they always the ones which shape us most profoundly. To be continued...

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part I - Historical Myths

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part III - Historical Fiction... Sort Of

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part IV - What's Your Story?

Related Post: Useful Fictions, Part V - "Historical Fiction," Proper


Love this post! I deliberately "mess up" the moral or didactic lesson of every beloved fairy tale when referring to it during a lesson. Students need to look at multiple perspectives. Too often we buy into a theory or way of thinking. Teaching analytical thinking skills is soooo important in a world fraught with rhetorical manipulation. just gave me an idea for tomorrow's lesson!


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