The Little Train that Thought it Could – Comparisons

The Little Engine That Could - Ms. Gower's First Grade

The Little Engine That Could is an American folktale (existing in the form of several illustrated children’s books and films) that became widely known in the United States after publication in 1930 by Platt & Munk. The story is used to teach children the value of optimism and hard work. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association listed the book as one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children”. A 1949 recording of the story was inducted to the National Recording Registry in 2009. 

The story’s signature phrases such as “I think I can” first occurred in print in a 1902 article in a Swedish journal.  An early published version of the story, “Story of the Engine That Thought It Could”, appeared in the New-York Tribune on April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by the Rev. Charles S. Wing.

What is the lesson that we can learn and implement from this classic childhood story? Well, the obvious might be that “as a man thinks or believes in his heart, so he is.” But is that all there is to it?

The story of the little engine has been told and retold many times. The underlying theme is the same — a stranded train is unable to find an engine willing to take it on over difficult terrain to its destination. Only the little blue engine is willing to try and, while repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I can”, overcomes a seemingly impossible task.

An early version goes as follows:

A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight-cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me”, said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side. “I think I can”, puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” It reached the top by drawing on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

So…what is the big lesson here? I believe the aspect we can learn, is that many times, the unlikely one, even the underdog, will be the one to rise to the top. It’s been said many times, “God is the God of the underdog”. He uses the weak things to shame the strong, according to 1 Cor 1:27.

When we perceive ourselves as “weak”, through comparing ourselves with those around us who appear to be “strong”; shiny, seeming to have it all together… apparently more capable – successful, we easily disqualify ourselves. “I can’t; that is too much a pull for me”, said the great engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused.

Even the “great” engine “built for hard work”, would not take on the challenge. I say “would” not because the great engine clearly had the capability but did not believe it could. So if I compare myself to someone who appears to have the goods, he or she may not, because the goods are the belief in oneself, or in God, that I can indeed do this, even though my perception of myself is that I may not be built for hard work, like the other engine.

Comparing will do that to you. The “strong” engine “compared” itself to the mountain and deduced it could not do it. The little engine, “drew on bravery”, took on the challenge, looked at the same hill, and decided to take the risk, and received the reward. It proved to itself that it could, if it would draw upon the inner strength and belief that it could, not comparing itself to the size of the mountain in its path, or to the label assigned to it.

Greatness of soul is aborted when we compare ourselves and subsequently disqualify ourselves. What are some of the “great” things that you have compared yourself with, like the big capable engine, and said, ” I can’t?”


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