I always chortle a bit at the homespun wisdom of this saying: “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese!”

In our culture we have been fed the breakfast of champions and coached in the necessity of being first in line. It’s really important to always be first in line—or is it?

Recently I was in the quaint Balkan country of Bulgaria. I loved it enough that I wanted to go back at the first opportunity. I had agreed to travel from Colorado to Sofia, Bulgaria, to work with Carl Hammerdorfer, the country’s Peace Corps director. With the Peace Corps and Project C.U.R.E. working together as a team, we were able to accomplish some very ambitious projects of rebuilding and refurnishing some strategic medical facilities in Bulgaria.

The curious history of Bulgaria dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC. Genghis Khan had traipsed through the region with his bloody band and left his influence everywhere. The severity of the subsequent Roman occupation altered the social fabric as well as the landscape. The remains of Roman walls, forts, ports, and coliseums are abundant. The Ottoman Turks later raped the women, pillaged the economy, and defaced the real estate, as did the Communists more recently. While visiting the thriving cities of Plovdiv, Sofia, and Bourgas, I pledged that I would one day return on my own time and purchase some antiques.

One Tuesday was spent assessing a medical facility in the area of Starosel. Near the site was an ancient ruin that had recently been unearthed. It dated back to the sixth century B.C., and consisted of some cult temples and wine-making operations of the Thracian sect. The Bulgarian landscape in that district was punctuated with earthen mounds that the farmers had plowed around for many centuries.

Their curiosity had recently driven them to dig up some of the mounds and explore the contents. Consequently they discovered evidence of rumored traditions from past centuries.

Tradition held that the Turks had multiple wives. But when a husband was killed, or died of natural causes, his favorite wife would be buried with him. Since it was a great honor for a wife to be buried with her husband and thereby seal her place of honor and importance in history, disputes would often break out among the surviving wives as to who was the favorite and who would be first in line to be buried with the husband.

So, to settle disputes in a terminal way, the two top contenders would be bound together by leather straps at one ankle and one wrist. There was no way to get away from each other. Then they would each be given a dagger and be allowed to settle the dispute by death. The one successful survivor would then be killed as well and placed in the tomb with the husband in perpetuity as the most honored wife. 

Many of the earthen mounds have been excavated now, and scientists indeed have found such fatal wounds as knife punctures to the skull in the wives’ skeletons.


When I heard of this morbid tradition, I thought to myself, There surely must have been a diplomatic way for a wife to defer all that posterity and glory to the other jealous contender by simply acknowledging that she was definitely not the most favored, and even share some anecdotal stories of how she had messed up along the way and not fully satisfied the husband at some point!

Demanding to always be first in line seems to me to be pretty costly and may deserve the consideration of at least another thirty-minute rethink. Sometimes it just might be more prudent to be the second mouse and keep the cheese.