One of my amputee friends told me that her eight year old granddaughter called her a tortoise. At first, she was taken aback by this statement. All she thought about was how slow tortoises are, but after Googling it as a spirit animal, she realized that her granddaughter was right on point.

As a spirit animal, the shell of a tortoise has much symbolism, mostly positive, with a few negatives as well. I think we can relate to some of these as members of the limb loss/limb difference community. One I really like is that the tortoise is at peace with its journey. Doesn’t come easy, and we have to work on this, especially at the start. The tortoise views patience as a strength. In my own personal journey, I find this one difficult; hard to give myself time to heal, hard to wait for that first prosthesis, impatient to wear it all day, impatient to reach my goals. Faith in your own abilities is also another trait of the tortoise, a true struggle for us at times. Rounding out the positives, and you will recognize these in the many positive stories you hear from our community: innovates and is able to find solutions, accepts challenges, focused and goal oriented – slow movement still gets you where you want to go.

Being able to retract its head and its extremities also bears witness to the tortoise’s strength. Its shell is considered its home and its support. Bravery is also associated with the shell, as the tortoise literally has to stick its head and extremities out to move or get out of a dangerous situation. The tortoise doesn’t have any “baggage,” all its needs are carried with it, so as a spirit animal, it is truly a symbol of “home is where your heart is.” And because all its vulnerable parts must be extended to move, eat, and live, “sicking its head out” becomes a symbol of that bravery, in the spirit animal realm.

Although we associate relative slow movement of the tortoise as a negative, that is not necessarily the case. Patience, endurance, and steadfastness are not things to be done quickly or in haste. How many of us have rushed something, only to literally take a few steps back because we were impatient and our bodies couldn’t keep up with our goals? Remember the tortoise; setbacks are part of our normal, and we can all learn a lesson about attitude from this slow and steady reptile.

There is a negative side to the tortoise as well, and I’m all for fair representation. It has a tendency to not resolve issues, start something but not finish it, and to withdraw from difficult situations, both physical and emotional. This withdrawal causes isolation and lack of support, the very things we need to accomplish the goals we set for ourselves.

Lastly, let’s look at longevity. At this writing, the oldest recorded age of a living tortoise, named Jonathan, is 190 years. He was born in 1832! To put that in perspective, that is only 56 years after the birth of our nation and 29 years before the Civil War. The stories he could tell! We can all learn from his longevity. To wax philosophically, no matter how long our journey is, we can make the most of it. We will have to stick our necks out (advocate) and sometimes retreat (self-preservation). We move slowly and steadily in the direction we choose.
Since you still probably have the fable still running in the back of your mind, here are some negative traits of the hare. First, it can exhibit jealous behaviors. I know I had a hard time not comparing myself to other amputees who were doing things that I couldn’t do, even though they had been amputated around the same time. It took me a great deal of soul searching to give that up and realize I should only compete with myself. Secondly, the hare exhibits very strong emotions, which lead to “knee-jerk” decisions, to its detriment. Do your research if you are thinking of a major change. Lastly, the hare is known for having fun – think Peter Rabbit. This can be distracting, which keeps you from reaching your goals – a la The Tortoise And The Hare.

So, if someone calls you a “tortoise” because you may be slower than others, smile and thank them. If they look at you quizzically, you now have the knowledge to set them straight! And just as the story says, “slow and steady wins the race!”

And remember: You never know how much strength you have until you are called upon to use it.