People who know me well have often heard me say, “Everything is easy to the one who doesn’t have to do it.” More than once during my career I’ve been reminded of the Aesop Fable that parallels this maxim: the belling of the cat.
Belling the Cat
Long ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighborhood.”
This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said:
“It is easy to propose impossible remedies.”
Giving advice is easy when there is no personal risk involved. The old cat no doubt let the applause run its course before he interjected. We, too often, are quick to speak and slow to listen, and as a result make all kinds of statements that in retrospect we should have stuffed.
To quote Phaedrus, another ancient thinker, “Things are not always as they seem.”
This post originally appeared on my Ennyman’s Territory blog in the summer of 2007.