Are you the Donkey?

The Boy, the Man and the Donkey is a very old ‘parable or story’ that was originally written by Aesop in the Sixth century B.C. Aesop’s Fables have been translated far and wide and most every culture had its own version of this story as a means to teach or guide behaviours. The moral of the story is – TRY TO PLEASE ALL, AND YOU WILL PLEASE NONE.

A MAN and his son were once going with their Donkey to market. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: “You fools, what is a Donkey for but to ride upon?” 

So the Man put the Boy on the Donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: “See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides.”  

So the Man ordered his Boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn’t gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along.”     

Well, the Man didn’t know what to do, but at last he took his Boy up before him on the Donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The Man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor Donkey of yours—you and your hulking son?”  

The Man and Boy got off and tried to think what to do. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the Donkey’s feet to it, and raised the pole and the Donkey to their shoulders.

They went along amid the laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the Donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the Boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the Donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

“That will teach you,” said an old man who had followed them:

So what does this story mean?

It means that failure to focus on the greater good whereby everyone wins – is fraught with angst, hideous behaviours and a bunch of unhappy and disgruntled people creating dramas to feed their own egos.

Does this happen in your workplace, family or groups of friends?

I would hazard a guess that everyone (unless they are a total narcissist or sycophant) would say yes.

How do we learn from this story?

We apply a filter of the ‘greater good’ with all our judgments and subsequent words, behaviours and actions. We park our own self-importance and ego, increase our tolerance of differences – as long as others behaviours are contributing to the greater good. Then you won’t feel like the donkey, or be treated like the donkey – poor donkey.

I can’t do that…..What will they think?

Why do so many people spend their lives in various states of ‘fear’ about what other people think of them?

For most people, their behaviours and actions are directed and determined by a set of ‘rules’ that are derived from a mixture of societal, religious, cultural, legal or family rules about what to do and how to behave. Sadly people self-adjust their behaviours because they are fearful of the disastrous consequences that WILL result from any deviation from these rules. Even the so-called ‘individuals who ‘do their own thing, still look for feedback and desperately want their ‘tribe’ to like them. Really they are not so independent, rather they vie for position on the ‘I’m an individual ranking’ – the more out there the cooler they are.

The knots people get themselves into, the level of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, unfulfilled goals and dreams because of these rules, is staggering. In fact, as a behaviourist working with people/businesses on modifying their behaviours to achieve their best outcome day in and day out, most of what I do is around working with people to let go of these rules and stories. The amount of stress, anxiety and ‘depression’ I see with people because they emphatically ‘believe they have no choice’ but to live their lives according to these rules, is alarming.

When people are challenged about their belief in and adherence to these rules, most people believe they have no other option but to ‘follow the rules’. Moreover, they have concocted a whole set of catastrophic consequences that absolutely will occur, just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow if they don’t abide by the rules. There is no rationale, proof or actual evidence for their ‘fixed beliefs’ that these consequences WILL happen, it is the ‘truth’.

Think about a time you did something you didn’t want to do and made you pretty unhappy – but you did it anyway. What is worse is that you then spent the next countless hours, days or longer, justifying and rationalising why you did something you really didn’t want to do.

A further alarming factor is that social media and the need for ‘likes’ has grossly exacerbated this problem. People have literally become ‘like’ junkies which take the whole thing of ‘what will they think of me’, to a new level. Social media, in the beginning, served as somewhat of an antidote to these rules as people felt freer online than they did in ‘real life’, and would post things that they would not ‘normally’ be brave enough to say face to face. However, once the ‘negative’ feedback either real or perceived – ironically according to ‘rules’ – started to kick in and the whole obsession with ‘likes’ was ignited, we now have an added level of complexity to the ‘rules’ that people behave by.

This is particularly prevalent in cultures within businesses, where people behave according to ‘unwritten ground rules’. Behaving according to ‘rules’ at work are often the most stressful as people’s job security and stability is linked to the ‘adherence’ to these rules. However, in most cases, managers and employers are shocked when they learn about the unwritten ground rules within their business.

So how do people let go of the ‘rules’?

The first thing people need to do is challenge why they believe the rules are true? They need to look at what the rule they believe to be true makes them do, and what they want to do – provided it is fair and reasonable. Then they need to look at how big the gap is between ‘the rule behaviour’ and what they want to do. Generally speaking the wider the gap the greater the ‘fear’ and also the more likely it is that the ‘so-called rule’ is a perceived truth rather than actual truth. Then an open, honest and direct conversation is needed with the person/persons who are ‘setting the rule’ to assess whether it is, in fact, the ‘truth’. In all cases involving reasonable people – these rules are unfounded. The cases where it is not, involve narcissists and other unpleasant characters.

When people have done this once they can begin to look at other area’s of their lives where they behave according to ‘rules’ and apply the same process. The key to doing things differently and feeling a whole lot better is open, transparent and honest communication. These ‘rules’ serve to create ‘false stories’ that people live their lives by, because they become whom they think they are, that is another post.

Who are you?

Just an aside on ‘reading people’ – we can all read people – it is perhaps the most important innate skill we have because the most ‘dangerous thing’ to us is actually other people. It has been a while since I saw a ‘threatening animal, bird or inspect’ wandering about, Hitchcock’s The Birds was fantasy – I believe. Most people are completely unaware of this ability in ‘normal’ situations, however, there is a growing group who have become excessively sensitive to perceived criticism or negative sentiments toward them, which I would hazard a guess was the case with a lot of people in the train carriage. This is not conscious awareness, but rather unconscious ‘distrust’ and it is determined by people’s default mood (negative) rather than truth in most cases.

I feel that the modern day interpretation of quiet desperation is more about dissatisfaction and a sense of being on a treadmill of ever-escalating empty promises that wear people down. I sensed in the train on that Monday morning when the weather had turned cold, that for many it was going to be a long winter. The morning and evening commute would increasingly be taken in the dark and the absence of sunshine and daylight is well known to decrease people moods. This ever-escalating treadmill of empty promises has been borne out of technology decimating ‘time’. Ironically if people could re-learn to savour experiences and interactions with people and slow things down a bit, the difference it would make would be phenomenal. But many people have resigned themselves to ‘this is the way it is’, and take this on as their story. They fully own their “I have no choice but to stay on the treadmill because this is the way it is”.

It doesn’t have to be this way and the reason that the collective sentiment in the train carriage was so easy to read, was because of emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is well understood and it is what drives the popularity of ‘stuff’ and big corporations understand and use it to promote their products/services with great success. It took an effort to stand apart from the collective ‘feeling’ in the train carriage, however, I am well practised in deliberately not sliding down a slippery negative emotional slope. It starts with learning to be consciously aware, which is much easier said than done when so many people are ‘asleep’ (unaware) for want of a better word. Once you learn to pay attention and notice the prevailing sentiments/moods – you can then consciously choose to feel differently. Being wired for sound (as at least half the carriage was) does not work to immune people from the collective mood, as it only serves as a temporary, thinly veiled distraction. What happens when you increase your awareness and notice what is around you – is that you step into the present. The present is all there is, there is no past – it has gone, and there is no future – it’s not here yet.

The irony is that most people have no clue how to be ‘present’ despite the popularity of mindfulness etc. Actually being able to ‘be present at all times’ is extremely difficult. Vigilant awareness is the only thing you need, and once you have mastered it you will realise that you are not the ‘prevailing sentiment of resignation’ on a Monday morning – you have a choiceYou can choose exactly who you are and how you are going to feel. Who are you going to be? Choose the one thing that actually matters, how you feel, you are not the story of this is the way it is – you are in control of writing your own story.