The Parable of the Donkey in the Endless Well

(Photo by Tom Sodoge)

(Photo by Tom Sodoge)

"If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There is this story we all know, there are many variations, sometimes it's a goat rather than a donkey, sometimes a pit rather than a well. No matter the version, the moral remains the same: a parable on life, the "can do" spirit, and "never say die." An inspirational story for those who are down. But there's also another layer.

The Donkey in the Well

One day a farmer’s donkey fell into a well. The animal cried for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up. It wasn’t worth the effort to retrieve the donkey.

The farmer invited all of his neighbors to help him. The farmer and his neighbors grabbed shovels and threw dirt into the well. In realizing what was happening, the donkey cried. Then, to everyone’s amazement, the donkey quieted down.

A few loads of dirt later, the farmer looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit the donkey's back, the donkey would shake it off and take a step up.

This continued as the farmer’s neighbors shoveled more dirt. Pretty soon, everyone was in amazement as the donkey stepped out of the well and happily trotted off.

The tale of the donkey can motivate us as individuals, that our independent decisions can overcome things that are seemingly beyond our control. Each problem, a stepping stone for success, until we are done. Until we are out. Until we win. Yet this is a narrow view of the world. In fact, it is adversarial: us vs. the world. The world, something to defeat, which conspires to keep us away from fulfilling our ambitions. But what makes humans so incredible is that, we are the most collaborative of species.

"The Donkey in the Well" is not merely a motto on living; it is also an allegory for progress. And since history is ongoing, there is no done. The well of history is an endless one.

The Donkey in the Endless Well

[My altered version]

One day a donkey fell into a well. The animal circled around the pit for hours, trying to figure out what to do. Then dirt began pouring into the well. In realizing what was happening, the donkey cried out, but no one was there. There was only dirt.

The donkey quieted down. From the dirt's perspective, it wasn't being buried; it was a rising tide, raising everything with it.

With every plop of dirt that hit the donkey's back, the donkey would shake it off and take a step up. As more dirt arrived, the donkey would shake and take another step.

The well began to change the higher the donkey rose, shifting from stone, to wood, to steel. Yet no matter how high the donkey got, the distance from the top remained the same. Eventually, the donkey died, but the dirt remained.

One day a donkey fell into a well. In it was his past, present, and future.

The Great Man Theory vs. Progress

The ground is the foundation for progress; the well is our history and our future. Every step we take builds on the previous. The past lays the groundwork. No single piece pulls us forward; it's all of history that moves us forward. History is not only a cycle; it is also a spiral that builds upon itself. Progress builds on the work of everything that came before it.

There is no "one" donkey; there is only progress, and progress is collective.

We get buried if we ignore what is already available to move ahead. Work with what you have to create something new. This is not only practical but also a matter of survival.

Progress doesn't care about best case scenarios or our wishes; it doesn't need belief, it just happens. Constantly. Things change, and we can't rely on systems that assume it doesn't. Whether the donkey lives or dies, it's still a part of progress.

If we stop keeping pace, if progress gets ahead of us — as it's done so many other times in our history — we'll get buried, and a new empire will rise. Just as more capable people can take our jobs. Our ideas will be usurped by better ideas, if we stop paying attention. We can lose our partners to more attentive partners. Trouble can brew and explode when we are ill-prepared.

And sometimes, regardless of what we do, a more advanced competitor will appear to stop our progress and take our resources. We will be what they read about in their history texts, a people entombed in antiquity. A cautionary tale of what happens when you think you have risen so high that you can step out of the well and end the story.

Stories will end. History never ends. (And it shouldn't, for, if it did, that would mean the end of all existence.)

Yet the donkey as a great hero speaks to us because we like to see ourselves as special and distinct. There are those like Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed history could be explained by the impact of "great men." Greatness in their context is anyone who single-handedly changes history. From Lincoln to Hitler. Greatness does not mean goodness, nor does being special or distinct.

Carlyle writes:

We cannot look, however imperfectly, upon a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness;—in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.

Carlyle is also famous for saying:

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.

We may fancy ourselves the hero but according to Nietzsche we are mostly the "bungled and botched" — consistently manipulated by great men to do their bidding.

However, Herbert Spencer believed great men are the products of their environments, and that their influence would be impossible without preexisting conditions. We all play a role in the future.

Spencer writes:

Progress ... is not an accident, but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of the embryo or the unfolding of a flower. The modifications mankind have undergone, and are still undergoing, result from a law underlying the whole organic creation; and provided the human race continues, and the constitution of things remains the same, those modifications must end in completeness.

The Spirit of the People

The moral of the donkey story is to never give up — not to avoid giving up for a while. Then why would the well end? There is no tipping point where all problems stop. The dirt, the well, falling, these are simply experiences in life and experiences do not end unless life ceases.

And if we are wise, experience builds upon itself. Our current problems create solutions for future problems. That's how experience works. Fleeing from experience and believing there is an end to the well, kills the "never give up" attitude.

There is no single solitary event that will solve all your problems and make life perfect. Problem solving will be something you will have to do daily. Building, growing, and overcoming is something that has to become a habit. Yes, shake it off and step up, and continue to do so, but never stop doing so. Never give up.

On this, Martin Luther King Jr., writes:

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.

Keep moving forward. Or don't, but prepare to step aside. This is not meant to be motivational, merely educational because this is not a story, this is how it is. We married time the moment we came into existence and time only moves one direction.

Making This Moment Count

Progress doesn't mean better or worse; progress just is. It indicates change from where we were to where we are. Even when it looks similar, it will only be that, similar.

You Can't Go Home Again is a book and an idiom made famous by American writer Thomas Wolfe. The protagonist of the novel, a writer, in realizing his hometown was not as he remembered laments:

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

Perhaps Wolfe was inspired by Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus and his doctrines on universal change:

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
— Heraclitus

You can never go back to that exact time and context. This can be distressing, a reminder of our mortality, but old ideas must constantly make room for new ones. (Could there be a Martin Luther King Jr. if slave owners of the Civil War never died.)

The Dirt in the Well

In the donkey fable, dirt itself is an essential character. The donkey is only reacting to dirt. And in that instance, the donkey is not only representative of us as individuals but also us as the collective.

Are the actions of the donkey "heroic" or is it simply survival? Perhaps the will to survive is heroic.

It's easy to do nothing.
It's easy to stop.
It's easy to die.
It's hard to live.
It's hard to continue.

Be buried or don't be. React to change or don't. See what's happening or ignore it.

It's natural to be myopic and think of our actions as only affecting ourselves. But the things we do or don't do, not only affects those around us, but also those after us. It can disrupt or create stability. It can clear a path or set up future barriers.

When the donkey dies, it will return to the dirt and become a piece of the groundwork for the next generation — this is true for us all. We all play a part in leaving a legacy for the next crop. We can leave a history that's worth remembering and a foundation that will not collapse, or we can do the opposite. We can do things now that can help us in the future or we can make things harder for ourselves. Our ceiling becomes their floor. That choice does not belong to "great men," that choice belongs to us all.

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