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  • Elizabeth Nugent

The Tortoise and the Hare: When we won't know, what we don't know.




I have been training to become a group analyst for what feels like forever, and I still have a way to go. I am someone who likes everything done last week and so this slowed pace of learning has felt a little alien and at times tortuous. It would seem whenever I think I am getting ahead, I hit a stop sign. My first response is always to take on more and go faster, get even busier. Yet again and again - I find out I can’t win or live happily that way, and the answer has been I need to slow down.


A story that came up for me recently and has led to a great deal of reflection is The Aesop Fable - the Tortoise and the Hare.


Aesop was a Greek storyteller born in approximately 620 BCE. Tradition says he was born into slavery. Aesop became revered for his abilities in storytelling and was eventually given freedom. His stories are known for their simple structures and deep truths. The Tortoise and Hare is no different ...


The story concerns a Hare who ridicules a slow-moving Tortoise. Tired of the Hare's arrogant behaviour, the Tortoise challenges her to a race. The Hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and is so confident of winning that she takes a nap midway through the race. When the Hare awakes, however, she finds that her competitor, who has been crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before her.


My initial thoughts about this story were that it is a tale about the ingenuity and trickery needed to overcome a stronger opponent. I assumed the tortoise only won because the hare lost. The tortoise just got lucky, and it was really by chance that her consistency or ingenuity paid off. In this understanding the hare would be the ‘natural’ winner, but she was foolish and lazy and didn’t work hard enough. The hare had just underestimated her opponent and should have remained focused. In this understanding, if I want to win at my task, I would be most wise to be both fast and doggedly persistent - that is what will guarantee a ‘win’ and protect me from the tortoise' mediocrity stealing the prize.



However, is the main trait of a tortoise determination and are the features of greater speed and strength actually the most useful to win this race? What else is going on in the story - what might be the impact of choosing to sleep (or not be conscious) when taking up a task? What race are they actually running and where are they running to?


So, what do I know about hares, tortoises, races, sleeping/ unconscious parts? What happens in our absences and when might I make a decision to not be conscious of something?


Tortoises are reptiles of the same group as turtles. A group of tortoises is called a creep. However, tortoises are mostly solitary in nature and rarely come together as a group. They tend to live in isolation and on their own terms in the wild. It is only during mating season, or when coming together near a source of food or water, that they are known to form a creep.


Tortoises have a shell to protect from predation and other threats. The shell in tortoises is generally hard, and like other members of their species, they retract their necks and heads directly backward into the shell to protect them. Tortoises are the longest-living land animals in the world. Most tortoise species live between 80–150 years. Tortoises are placid and slow-moving, with an average walking speed of 0.2–0.5 km/h.


The tortoise has various cultural stories and spiritual meaning attached to it. In Hinduism, Kurma was the second Avatar of Vishnu. Like the Matsya Avatara, Kurma also belongs to the Satya Yuga. Vishnu took the form of a half-man, half-tortoise, the lower half being a tortoise. In Judaism and early Christianity tortoises were seen as unclean animals. Tortoise shells were used by ancient Chinese as oracle bones to make predictions. The tortoise is a symbol of the Ancient Greek god, Hermes. Hermes is the messenger or herald of the gods and as such a God necessary when transitioning worlds and crossing boundaries.



Hares are mammals. They are herbivores and live solitarily or in pairs. They nest in slight depressions called forms, and their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. Most are fast runners with long, powerful hind legs, and large ears to dissipate body heat.


The hare in African folk tales is a trickster; some of the stories about hares were retold among enslaved Africans in America and are the basis of the Br'er Rabbit stories. The hare appears in English folklore in the saying "as mad as a March hare" and in the legend of the White Hare that alternatively tells of a witch who takes the form of a white hare and goes out looking for prey at night or of the spirit of a broken-hearted maiden who cannot rest and who haunts her unfaithful lover.


In modern day, the hare is commonly associated with the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ēostre, and therefore pagan that symbols like the Easter Bunny have been appropriated into the Christian tradition. However, no primary sources support this belief, which seems to be a modern invention.


In European tradition, the hare symbolises the two qualities of swiftness and timidity.



Races are when someone is to compete with another or others to see who is fastest at covering a set course or achieving an objective. We talk about the human race, rat race and racism. We can often try and race to get ahead at work or in life. We look at each other’s accomplishments and can feel like we are not keeping up. But not all races require the same skill set, although time is usually an important feature of them.


Races and Unconscious parts


When thinking about races and unconscious parts, I think about the importance of preparation and planning. Whilst just turning up on the day is one way to approach a task, it is probably not the wisest of ideas if you want to 'win'.


In my group analytic training a great deal of time is given to the planning phase of running a group. A factor that is always taken into account when planning is to create opportunity to think with others about unknown variables. Those factors that you are just are not able to generate by yourself. It is also important in the planning to hold the possibility of ‘unknown unknowns’ occurring - events no-one could possibly plan for, such as a pandemic, or realising group members are long-lost siblings. As such you have to prepare processes and support systems around the group and group leader. Incorporated into this is always the overarching reality that it is humans involved and we come with our defenses, denials, limits etc.


'It takes a group to run a group' is a common phrase heard and this is because we all have so many blind spots that planning and thinking in isolation is seen as quite a dangerous activity - so whilst group conductors generally facilitate groups alone, we need others to 'creep' about with at the times of conception of the group, and also when the group leader is taking nourishment. Of course, you then have to plan this other group too. It can all feel impossibly slow. Yet if we do not take a slow pace and create sufficient time for thinking, it is nearly impossible to get a healthy group off the ground. The unconscious parts keep getting in the way. A bit like trying to do an excavation with a digger truck rather than a trowel - an awful lot gets missed or destroyed if we value speed to highly. Most of us have experienced being in a group that is dysfunctional - and how destructive that can be.



What happens in our absences?


One of the aspects of this story is what happens when the hare falls asleep. What happens in her absence? One of the things that I have really noticed in the running of my reflective practice groups is how unfamiliar many of us are with the impact that our absence has on others. What happens to others when we are not present?


In my clinical psychology training I was rotated over two years, every six months to a new placement (child, adult, older adult, learning disabilities), with a final year long placement at the end. These experiences gave me a whistle stop tour of the different parts of the psyche and how it might present across the lifespan and in different patient groups. It also taught me about the NHS system, how different parts fit together and integrate with the broader community. These were powerful experiences, and I am grateful for them. I inevitably came out of each with so many ideas about change and modification.


But what was I basing my observations on? How accurately did I know those groups and their settings? Moving from place to place required another part of me to remain asleep. The part that knows a slower pace is necessary in teams to make meaningful connections. Six months is next to nothing in terms of arriving and then leaving a workplace. It takes time to physically settle into a space and even longer to see and be seen beyond the masks people wear. Being a team member that has trainees come and go every six months is challenging to say the least and everyone knows they don’t get the ‘full' experience.


Likewise, being in therapy and staying in therapy are also two different experiences. There is significant value in both - but they come with different strengths and take you different distances.


When might I choose to be unconscious?


An interesting part of the story is that the hare deliberately chooses to sleep. He decides he is so ahead that it is ok to go unconscious for a bit. On one hand I can hear this as taking time for rest. It has an element of self-care about it. Also, if you are sprinting ahead the way that the hare is then, naturally, you end up needing time to recover. Another way of holding the sleep however is that of arrogance: she decides she doesn’t need to stay awake. She chooses to not be conscious as a way to proceed. She does not make space for blind spots or variables that have not occurred to her. She does not honour, any possibility of her not knowing something and there being processes going on she is not conscious of. Who knows what would have happened if she had stayed awake. Maybe she would have been able to win, or maybe winning was never in her ability.


I can’t help but think of clinicians and therapy modalities in this and those that make space for unconscious processes (be they psychoanalytic understandings or that of spiritual higher powers) and those that do not. I think of the revolving doors of the NHS and the need to sprint into affirmation care and cognitive understanding as opposed to those that take a much slower pace - that know (regardless of if offering short- or long-term therapy), you can only do what you can and work with whatever is in front of you.


I think of clinicians who have never been to personal therapy and have attempted to fast track their therapeutic understanding through academic learning or vicariously living through exploring the suffering of their patients. Those that may use psychoanalytic terms such as transference and projection but have chosen to hold these understandings in an unconscious way: cherry picking out elements of psychoanalytic theory when it suits a hoped-for interpretation of a situation. Or those that run groups, having never been in one - with an idea of them being at worst benign and at best cost effective.


One of the many jokes my Jungian analyst told me was that of a man who wished to be wise: A man wished to be wise, so he seeks out wise elders asking each if he could be their student. One by one they rejected him. Eventually he found someone who agreed to do it. Our hero asked how long it was going to take and the wise elder looked confused and said - I don't know, maybe 7 years? The man was upset as he longed to go home as quickly as possible, so he could get on with his life. He considered just leaving but he really wanted to be wise, so he could give his best to his friends and family - so he came up with a plan and asked the wise elder how long it would take if he really focused, put everything into it and worked at twice the rate. The wise elder thought for a moment and then said - oh well then, maybe fourteen?


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