Original Proverb: “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.”
Meaning as told by my informant:
“So, the story goes like this. Two men are hiking in the woods, and they see a bear. The bear is really mad, so they start running to get away. The first man says ‘how are we going to outrun this bear?’ and the other guy goes ‘I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.’ (laughs) Because think about it. If the bear gets one guy, he’s not going to keep running to get the other. In life, it means that you don’t need to be the best, you just need to be better. I used to like telling you that when you were taking tests that were graded on a curve. If you got a question wrong, but everyone else got two wrong, you didn’t have a perfect score, but you got a hundred percent. You didn’t outrun the bear, but you did outrun the other people.”
My informant is my father, who grew up on a chicken farm in South New Jersey. His parents were holocaust survivors who immigrated from Poland, so growing up, he generally spoke Yiddish at home and English at school. Everyone always calls him the “walking joke book,” and he speaks more in proverbs (in both languages) than he does in normal sentences. While he doesn’t remember where he learned this proverb, he assumes it was at school, since he learned it in English. He says he likes this proverb, and all proverbs, because they’re an easy way to evoke a whole story and moral from just a few words. In addition, he just thinks they’re funny and that the world would be a better place if everyone laughed more.
While I’m not in quarantine with my informant/father, I do call him every day, and this piece was collected during a routine call.
This was likely the first proverb I ever learned (I don’t technically remember learning it), and it evokes a very fond sense of nostalgia for me. I think the beauty of this proverb is its fairly dark sense of humor. The saying itself implies that someone is going to die, but an audience’s response is always laughter. It’s this weird sense of optimism because although you know someone is going to get mauled by a bear, your takeaway is that you’re going to be okay. My analysis is that depending on how you look at life, someone’s success almost always means someone else’s failure. For example, if I got into USC, that inherently means someone else didn’t. This can be even more awkward when you take into account how Americans value being humble and putting others before yourself. Oftentimes, Americans remedy discomfort with humor, which I believe is what makes this proverb transcendent. This proverb is not a joke, yet it masks as one because we choose to hide our self serving agendas under funny sayings. Referencing what my father said about curved tests, he never told me ‘wreck the curve so everyone else does worse than you,’ he just said ‘you don’t have to outrun the bear.’ Much like running from a bear, American humor is a self defense mechanism.