#25 - Burmese Proverb: Though the Centipede Has One of Its Legs Broken, This Does Not Affect Its Movement.
Reflections on the resilience and adaptability to overcome and not be set back by setbacks.
Proverbs on Blast is a newsletter of reflection on PROVERBS and the gems they offer for personal and professional growth. Posts are written by a learner on a quest for more wisdom (me). Please keep reading. Comment at the end. Share this post. Subscribe for more.
From the beautiful country of Myanmar comes this thought-provoking Burmese proverb that: "Though the centipede has one of its legs broken, this does not affect its movement." The proverb is a powerful reminder that accidents are real and the injuries they cause may result in great loss. At the same time, the losses that we experience can also activate resilience and adaptability in us. The proverb presumes that we will continue to deal with challenges and adversities, but that setbacks need not set us back, unless we choose to stay back for whatever reason.
Since the proverb used the centipede to make its point, it seems fitting to begin the reflection with a deeper dive into the interesting animal.
Centipedes are arthropods, which means they have segmented bodies and jointed legs. Each segment bears a pair of legs, and depending on the species, can result in a total of 30 to 354 legs.
Centipedes can be found in most parts of the world, except for Antarctica. They are particularly diverse and abundant in tropical and subtropical regions. They also look a lot like their close cousins, millipedes. You have likely mistaken one for the other since they are so populous and prevalent. According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, there are more than 3,000 known and an estimated 8,000 species of centipedes. In contrast, there are more than “7,000 known and 80,000 estimated species of millipedes.” Chances are that you’ll bump into one or the other soon, so here’s your opportunity to learn 5 key differences to help you easily tell them apart.
1. Body structure: Centipedes have long, flattened bodies with a pair of legs on each segment. The legs are positioned on the side of their body. They have a single pair of antennae and a pair of large, claw-like appendages at the front of their heads that they use to catch prey. Millipedes, on the other hand, have cylindrical bodies with two pairs of legs on each segment, positioned under their body. They have a rounded head with short antennae and do not have any specialized appendages.
2. Number of legs: Centipedes have fewer legs than millipedes. In contrast with the centipede’s 30 to 354 legs, millipedes have between 36 and 400 legs. Some species of millipedes can even have up to 750 legs. Imagine if they had to buy shoes.
3. Movement: Centipedes are fast-moving creatures that can run quickly and climb vertical surfaces. They are also able to swim and burrow. They will attack and bite when threatened. Millipedes move more slowly and tend to curl up in a ball when threatened.
4. Diet: Centipedes are carnivorous and feed on insects, spiders, and other small animals. They have venomous claws that they use to capture and kill their prey. Millipedes, on the other hand, are herbivores and feed on decaying plant material.
5. Habitat: Centipedes live in a wide variety of habitats, including deserts, forests, and grasslands. Some species thrive in moist environments such as caves and even aquatic spaces. However, millipedes prefer damp environments and often inhabit leaf litter, soil, under rocks, logs, and other moist areas.
The Centipede’s Legs
The numerous legs of the centipede are highly specialized for movement, with each segment having muscles that control the direction and speed of movement. The legs are critical to a centipede's survival, hence are equipped with sharp claws and spines, which are used for grasping prey and for defense from predators. Centipedes can move quickly by coordinating the movement of their legs, with some species capable of speeds up to 15 body lengths per second.
If a centipede loses one of its legs, it can regenerate it through a process called autotomy. The lost leg will be replaced by a new one during the next molting cycle, which is the process of shedding its exoskeleton and growing a new one. However, the regenerated leg may not be identical to the original, and it may take several molts for the new leg to fully develop and function properly. In the meantime, the centipede may experience a temporary decrease in mobility or balance, which could make it more vulnerable to predators or prey. However, centipedes are generally quite resilient and can adapt to losing a leg without significant long-term consequences.
Interestingly, our Burmese proverb does not say that the centipede keeps moving after one of its legs breaks. It merely states the effect of the break, which is that there is no lasting impact on its movement and progress. If it chooses, it still has many other legs to support and propel it forward. It suggests that the loss poses no limitation and the centipede can keep moving while the regeneration process takes place for it to grow a replacement leg. It hints at the fact that unless by choice, the centipede can keep moving if it so chooses.
Are You Able to Keep Moving?
At its core, this Burmese proverb is a metaphor for the human experience. Who among us has not encountered challenges and setbacks at some point? Who has not suffered one form of loss or the other? Many have experienced the figurative break of a leg and felt like having earned the right to give up and lose hope and quit rather than keep moving.
I have sat with many through the pain of devastating loss. I have also experienced my own losses at different scales. Some left scars that still throb, some are a distant memory without any lingering PTSD, and others seem gone but light up in pain with the right triggers. When fresh, it seemed the pain of my losses would never heal and I felt that each loss itself would be irredeemable. Yet, I am still here and thriving, a state that have sometimes in the past felt unlikely. Looking through the lens of those times and the blessings that time has helped uncover from each experience, the wisdom of this Burmese proverb soothes and assures, that "Though the centipede has one of its legs broken, this does not affect its movement."
The proverb indicates that even with setbacks or obstacles, we still have many resources and strengths to draw upon to keep moving forward. When the stinging tears of loss obscure our vision, to remember that we still have more than we have lost. The proverb echoes a message of hope and encouragement that each of us can find the resilience to overcome whatever challenges come our way.
Centipedes have many legs, each of which is specialized for a specific function, such as walking, grasping prey, or sensing their environment. This allows them to perform a wide range of tasks efficiently and effectively. Hence, the loss of one leg for a centipede is a great loss indeed. Just as one loss for you can be devastating, limiting, and its impact can be incalculable. But the proverb suggests that setbacks need not set us back; that we can reach within or reach out to find ways of adapting and moving forward in spite of the loss of one of our figurative legs. And that time will bring healing, regeneration, and restoration.
Knowing that adversity is real and can be unpredictable in its choice of who to visit and when, are you resilient enough to bounce back from adversity and to recover from setbacks to keep moving towards realizing your goals? You will be off-balance for a while. You may have to compensate for the loss of that one out of your 36 or the 300 legs that broke. But how ready are you to adjust to new situations—such as the loss of one of your legs, figuratively—and to find new ways of approaching challenges?
Our Burmese proverb offers a powerful reminder of the resilience and adaptability of living beings. Its message of hope and encouragement reminds us that no matter the challenges we face, we are capable of overcoming them and continuing on our path. Whether those challenges are personal, occur within a team setting, or while leading others, our progress boils down to resilience, adaptability, and persistence. However long it takes and no matter how hard it gets, each of us can find the strength and resources to overcome whatever challenges come our way.
Knowing that life is full of challenges and does not hesitate to lob curveballs at us when we least expect it, how resilient and adaptable can you be in the face of adversity?
If centipedes are able to continue moving and hunting despite the loss of a leg, and do not let the setback stop them from pursuing their goals, how focused are you on your goals to persevere and adapt in the face of setbacks or challenges?
Should you experience a loss, adaptability may require you to widen your circle of influence to include individuals from different backgrounds and skills set to help you get through your loss while you regenerate and recharge. How adaptable are you?
In today's fast-changing world with its new challenges and opportunities, adaptability may require you to constantly tweak your approach and find new ways of achieving your goals, even if you encounter obstacles along the way. How adaptable are you?
In leadership, a good leader is able to adapt to changing circumstances to guide their team through difficult times. How willing are you to stay focused to press through or around obstacles? How capable are you at inspiring your team to keep moving forward, especially when they encounter setbacks along the way? How adaptable are you?
Think of a difficulty or setback you are currently facing and ask yourself, "how can I still move forward despite this obstacle?" Embracing the centipede’s mindset can help you focus on your strengths and resources, rather than the one leg that is broken. For if one broken leg is not a setback for the centipede, your current setback may be severe enough that you need to pause and rest awhile but should not halt your advancement toward realizing your goals. So set a timeline to manage the setback knowing that you can regrow your broken leg. After sufficient rest, continue your journey toward advancement. However wobbly your next steps may be with the loss of one leg, just keep moving forward like the centipede toward your goals.
What goal challenges you and requires perseverance to achieve? Anticipate obstacles. Budget for setbacks. Whether it's learning a new skill, dealing with the loss of a loved one, a resource, an opportunity, or any other essential part of you, or it’s starting a new project, or overcoming a fear, commit to seeing a goal through to the end. Even when things get tough. Especially when things get tough.
Every day, one centipede somewhere in the world breaks a leg. Every second, we are at risk of loss, pain, and setbacks. Whenever life hands you lemons, whenever you feel discouraged or face setbacks, remember the centipede and get inspired to keep moving forward. With resilience and determination, anything is possible. Even you can keep moving though one of your many legs get broken. Persevere through the pain. Press on toward your goal!
What inspiration are you taking from this proverb to deal with any current loss or challenge that threatens to set you back? Share in the comments section.
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