‘You will never make the crab walk straight.’ (Aristophanes)

Aristophanes was a comic playwright in ancient Greece. Some consider him the father of comedy. It was in one of his plays that the above phrase was spoken. It’s an interesting quotation from a couple of different angles. Let’s take a look.

Crabs are crabby

We begin with the time-honored belief that crabs are…well…crabby. Which means irritable, grouchy, and ill-tempered. They certainly appear that way. They nip at things, hold things down, and generally don’t appear to get along well with their fellow crabs. In fact, if you’ve ever watched a bunch of captured crabs in a bucket at the seashore, you’ve noticed that when one crab tries to escape out of the top of the bucket, the fellow crabs pull him back in. As if to say, ‘If I’m not getting out of this bucket—NO ONE is getting out of this bucket!’

Crabs walk funny

But whether crabs are actually crabby is beside the point. Aristophanes was not referring to the crab’s disposition—but to his MOVEMENT. Crabs don’t walk straight. They walk sideways. This only adds to their bad reputation. They seem sly and deceitful to us. If you saw a PERSON walking sideways, you’d assume they had some evil plan in mind.

So why do crabs walk sideways? Are they just being ornery? Are they just a bunch of nonconformist crustaceans? Are they merely determined to do things their own way? To chart their own course? Flaunt their own style? Do they simply march to the beat of a different drummer? Are they trying to set a new walking trend?

NO. Crabs walk sideways because they HAVE TO. It’s because of their anatomy. Crab legs (yum) are attached to the SIDE of a crab’s body. Their knees bend in a straight line, just like ours do. But given the location of their legs, the straight line movement is side-to-side rather than front-to-back. So a crab couldn’t walk straight even if he WANTED TO. He probably doesn’t want to, but even if he DID WANT TO—he would be UNABLE to. Crabs walk according to their physical nature. It’s just the way they’re built.

Some things cannot be changed

The point of the Aristophanes analogy is that some things cannot be changed. They just ARE. No amount of reason, argument, proposition, complaint, wishing, hoping, or disgust will change them. And because they cannot be changed, they should be ACCEPTED as unchangeable. This may sound like fatalism. Fatalism being the acceptance of all events and things as INEVITABLE and subject to the whim of FATE. In other words, beyond our control. But this is not Aristophanes’ point. He’s not claiming that NO THINGS can be changed. He’s claiming that SOME THINGS CANNOT be changed. And knowing which is which can be valuable. It can help stave off high levels of frustration. And anger. Even despair. Remember the prayer of Niebuhr we looked at a few weeks ago? In his Serenity Prayer we ask for wisdom to know the difference between what CAN be changed and what CANNOT be changed. This is a very important aspect of life that we do well to grasp.

Some things we cannot change

So we must accept that some things cannot be changed. No matter how much we want them to. No matter how hard we work to change them. No matter how long we’ve been at it. They are just not going to change. And we’ll wear out trying to change them. This past week when I was sitting at the dining room table one morning, a robin appeared on my deck just about 15 feet away. It perched on one of the deck chairs and then began to fly straight into the large slider window. Not just once. Not just a few times. But HUNDREDS OF TIMES. It flew into my window nearly the entire morning. Each time it was unsuccessful in flying through the glass, it would return to its perch and look around as if confused and frustrated. AND THEN FLY RIGHT BACK INTO THE WINDOW AGAIN! I tried to dissuade it. I opened the door and shooed it away. It came right back. I hung up objects on the inside of the glass to change what the bird saw. I talked to it, yelled at it, told the bird it was stupid. But it didn’t do any good. As soon as I went back inside, the bird resumed its futile flying episodes.

Eventually the bird must have tired, because she left. And I had a big mess to clean up afterwards, if you get my meaning. But to my amazement—the robin returned THE NEXT MORNING. And this time flew even more frantically and with greater determination than the previous day. Over and over and over again. More times than one could count. I expected to find the robin dead on the deck from exhaustion. The bird just could not accept that no amount of flying. No amount of resolve. No amount of determination. No amount of discipline would get her successfully through that glass. She needed to learn the lesson of the crab. That you will never get a crab to walk straight. The failure to grasp this lesson may have cost the robin her life.

Some things CAN be changed

I would guess that we have the lesson of the crab down at this point. But there’s more to say here. In accepting that some things cannot be changed, we should not abandon the idea that some things CAN BE CHANGED. And should be. And we should work hard to change them. We should do what we can to make things different and better. We may need to invest our energy and determination for a long time. We should not give up too early. We should not throw in the towel too soon. We should press on with fortitude and conviction that change can come as a result of our efforts.

But we should be prepared at some point to honestly reckon with the reality that change will never come. This is not failure. This is honesty. This is not quitting. This is wisdom. We don’t commend the robin for her determination. We condemn her for her stubbornness. There’s a difference between hanging in when victory might come, and continuing to wage a battle that can only be lost. As Sheena Easton once said, we should either ‘stick to our guns or abandon the fight.’

Remember the lesson of the crab

So the crab is a good reminder of the nature of change. Some things can be changed and should be. Some things can be changed quickly and easily. Some things can be changed with hard and enduring effort. But some things cannot be changed. They will never change. They cannot change. We cannot change them. And we should stop trying. We must change the things that we can change while accepting the things that we cannot change. And pray for wisdom to know the difference.

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Copyright © 2017 by Samuel Rodenhizer
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6 thoughts on “‘You will never make the crab walk straight.’ (Aristophanes)

  1. Rocky,
    I was just googling around, looking for an explanation for this quote and I found you!
    Pretty brilliant (in spite of a lot of capital letters, I’ll assume that you’re not trying to yell at me because, truly, you dont’ seem like that kind of a guy). Off to click your button and I’m not a follower.


    1. Thanks, JuLee. Actually, I’ve been weeding out my tendency to use capital letters. I hardly ever use them now. I now tend to use bold lower case letters. I think this is a reasonable compromise where I want to put emphasis. Thanks for your comment, and you are spot-on. I certainly don’t intend to yell at people. So glad you found and liked the post and that you’re now a follower. As you compare original posts to re-posts (required now because of increased demands elsewhere), you’ll be happy to notice that the caps have disappeared. Thanks again for reading.


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