Sunday, February 24, 2013

Not Zen 47: Obvious Winner

On the hottest day of the summer, a swarm of sea lions arrived in the bay. They hadn't ventured this far north before but once they'd made themselves at home it didn't take long for them to discover the otters.

Great colonies of sea otters swarmed together in five rafts of hundreds of members each. The two larger rafts were mostly females.  The three smaller rafts consisted of males of various prestige, strength, and distance from the females. All of the otters, to their dismay, discovered that their large groups provided them no defense from the sea lions. They were easy prey.

Every day for weeks, the great predators swam up to the edges of the colonies and dragged otters to their deaths. Finally, a large contingent of otters decided they would prefer to swim north to the next bay rather than wait to be eaten by sea lions. The elders among them knew that the trip north would cross a hard stretch of ocean where they would be victims of shark attacks, hunts by orcas, and tests with other dangerous animals. Only the toughest otters would survive.

"Should we permit pups to travel?" asked one of the leaders.

"How can we not?" said an elder. "What else would they do?  Stay here to be eaten?"

"Only the best can make it." She nodded to a new male. He was large and tough for his age. "Not all of them, either, just a few like this."

"You're wrong about that one," said the elder. "He fights with his playmates."

"He wins."

"No, he simply doesn't learn. It's otters like that one, over there, who will be with us in the end."

She gestured to a young, ordinary male. But the leader could see no difference between him and many other undersized children.

"I can't imagine why you think that," she snorted.

The long journey began the next day. Most of the otters survived the swim into the open ocean. Sharks took their share of the travelers but not in great numbers. The real hardship was the lack of food. There were few shellfish to be had even near the coast. Pups suffered the worst. They could not dive to the depths for crabs or other suitable game. They were reduced to scavenging beaches for the tiniest of mussels. In desperation, they began eating the sea urchins available.

To get at the sea urchins, the pups had to learn to bite through the undersides, where the spines were shortest. They had to deal with rays and starfish along the shore, too, competitors for the soft contents inside the urchins' protective, poisonous shells. Many pups starved, fell sick from the urchins, or dropped behind when they'd grown too weak to continue.

At last, the pilgrimage reached its destination. The lead otters discovered a bay with no kelp forest but with sufficient food to survive. By that time, only a dozen pups were left.

"You see," said the elder to the lead female. "The pup you thought was too small and ordinary is still with us."

"I don't know why," said the leader. "The strong one went missing, too. How did you know?"

"Bigger and stronger and smarter are good. When a battle is otherwise equal, an advantage in one area determines the winner. But battles are never equal. And this was not a short struggle. This was a long one."

"So how did you know that ordinary-seeming fellow would win?"

"I could see that it never occurred to him to stop trying.  When others failed, they sulked. He failed, revised his approach, and tried again. He had many quick failures and kept improving."

"That's all?"

"It served him well when others starved.  Here is something that may seem odd to you because you are young.  Winners in any contest are not usually the best. Instead, they are the ones who learn the most from their failures. Over time, that is how all of life is won."

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