Maybe the Horse Will Sing: On the Value of Putting Things Off

Nasreddin got himself into some serious legal trouble–the reasons are lost to time. Before the king sentenced him to death, Nasreddin asked for a delay because he was the only person in the world who could teach a horse to sing. The king was skeptical, but gave Nasreddin a horse and a year to teach it. “If that horse isn’t signing a year from today, you’re going to be put to death, and we’re going to get creative about it!”

Nasreddin’s cellmate asked him why he’d done such a foolish thing! “Even you know that a horse can’t sing!”

“True. But a lot of things can happen in a year. The king may die. I may die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”

The preceding allegory is often attributed to Herodotus or Aesop in American science fiction stories, and I haven’t been able to track it down. To me it seems that the most plausible source is that this was originally a Sufi tale of Nasreddin Hodja, in part because sourcing is more difficult for Nasreddin stories and our folk tale philology is weaker for Muslim sources.

Regardless of the source, it’s surprising how much of life, work, and politics can respond well to this sort of lesson: keep trying and maybe things will be different later. Another science fiction author, Ray Cummings, captured this well: “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”

I’ve written about the problems with clichés often enough. They can be thought-defying and rule out further inquiry. (There’s surely more to time than Cummings’ joke.) Nonetheless, they often carry a little insight that’s needed often enough to justify the repetition, too.





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