The Fable of the Harsh Master

This story is older than the needles on the pine tree. Or, it could have happened just yesterday...

Once there was a man who owned a donkey. The man made his living transporting goods from town to town, goods carried on the donkey's back. He was a difficult master, never happy with the donkey's progress, despite how hard she worked. He would frequently overload, insult, and beat her when he was angry. He complained constantly about the donkey's failings.


Despite the harsh treatment, the donkey was a magnificent creature. Her ears were long and pointed. Her neck was straight, as was her back, the perfect architecture for carrying food, supplies and anything else you would ever need. She was surefooted, even in the mud. The donkey's eyes, mane and tale were a luxuriant brown. She was loyal, hardworking and tenacious, especially when the going got tough. She never complained. She was an excellent donkey.

One day at the entrance to a town, the donkey stumbled over a rock on the road. The man took his stick and began to beat the donkey without mercy. Angry, he cursed her for the mistake and continued to beat her until she regained her balance. By now a crowd had gathered. One of the men in the crowd called to the donkey's owner: "What's wrong with you? Why are you beating that poor animal? All she did was stumble on a rock?" 

The owner, incensed, called back: "Mind your own business!" "This stupid animal made me look bad," he snarled. "Who will buy my goods after such an embarrassing entrance into town?" 

The man and the donkey disappeared into the marketplace.

A year later the man and the donkey returned to the town. The man was even angrier than last year! His curses could be heard by the townspeople long before he and the donkey could be seen. A large crowd was gathering at the village gate, straining to see what could be causing such a commotion. Finally, the man and the donkey came into view. The poor donkey had changed dramatically! The luster was gone from her mane and coat; her eyes were dull and bloodshot. Her back was bowed and her gait listless. The man was beating her with a stick, denouncing her shortcomings. Well, some things hadn't changed! Again, someone in the crowd called to the man. "Why do you beat that poor animal?" 

"Can't you see," said the man? "This donkey is useless. Look at it: it's ugly and slow. Who will buy goods from a man with a donkey as ugly and useless as this one?" Like before the man and the donkey disappeared into the marketplace.

In the third year, the harsh master and the donkey appeared at the gate to the town. Things had gone from bad to worse. The donkey's sweet face had been turned into an angry scowl. She was mangy, emaciated and covered in scars. Where the donkey had been calm and surefooted before, she was now nervous and tentative on her feet. She attempted to bite and kick her master whenever he came into range. The man beat her with a longer stick, afraid to come close to the animal. "See?" he called to anyone who would listen. "This is a dangerous animal. I must protect myself and all of you from her outbursts!" The man and the angry donkey went into the town to sell their wares.

In the fourth year, the man appeared at the market. He was grey, disheveled and shrunken. He limped along on feet bloodied from his walk. Behind him he pulled a heavy cart. As in past a crowd gathered to view the poor fellow. Someone seemed to recognize him from previous visits. "Hey, aren't you the man with the donkey? Where is your animal? How come you aren't travelling with her? 

The man dropped the heavy cart down raising a cloud of dust from the road. "That useless donkey," he began, "she up and died! Stupid animal! She ruined me! Now, I have to pull this heavy cart from town to town. It's killing me!"

"Maybe you should have thought of that before you beat your donkey," said a woman with disdain. Those gathered gave each other knowing looks. 

"Maybe you should mind your own business," said the man with a cry. "You don't know what I have been through!" He picked up the heavy cart and pulled it into the marketplace with all his remaining strength.


The Fable of the Harsh Master can be read as a treatise on the ethical treatment of animals. More importantly, it is an allegory on the ethical treatment of the Self.  

By now you have probably concluded the Harsh Master is the villain of this piece and the good donkey the victim. Really, they are two aspects of the self, two sides of a single tragic dynamic. This dynamic plays out every day in the inner life of many people.

We talk to ourselves all the time. Our private, internal monologue is either a constructive narrative or a means of self-harm. The Harsh Master in the story represents the self-critic. The donkey represents the faithful Self, beaten down over time by the harsh critic. The critic seizes on every mistake, perceived flaw, and performance fear. It is always comparing the Self to others, and measuring and comparing it in a self-diminishing way. It second-guesses, mistrusts, and self-flagellates. Worse yet, we mistrust the honest intentions and support of others. Even small mistakes - our own or those of others - become fodder for criticism. Eventually, like the donkey, we decline, become aggressive and finally succumb to defeat by our own hand.


How do we interrupt this pattern of self-abuse?

Self worth is an appreciation of one's own value. Neither vainglorious nor overly meek, self-worth helps us acquire a sense of quiet confidence. The three aspects of self worth, according to author Angeles Arrien, are self-love, self-trust and self-respect.  

Self-love means that we have a healthy level of affection and compassion for ourselves. We are not overly harsh or critical of our abilities and although we are always striving to be and do our best, we allow ourselves to learn from mistakes. The key to self-love is accepting we are enough, a concept Angeles Arrien refers to as "original medicine". 

"Many indigenous societies believe that we all possess 'original medicine': personal power, duplicated nowhere else on the planet. No two individuals carry the same combination of talents or challenges; therefore, when we compare ourselves to others, native peoples see this as a sign that we do not believe that we have original medicine."

Claiming our positive gifts, talents and character qualities, as well as our contributions to relationships, work, the community and the wider world is an act of self-love. One concrete way to begin a practice of self-love is to start a daily journal. Identifying and recording the gifts applied during the day, the positive impact those gifts created, and the outcomes that resulted anchors the practice. Recognizing all that is working in our nature can shift our focus from self-diminishment to positive self-talk. 

Self-trust means we have confidence in our own abilities. We must learn to trust that we can meet and respond to the opportunities and challenges that occur on our life journey. We must also learn to trust that our gifts and resourcefulness will carry the day. The word "learn" is operative. Self-trust grows as a result of facing and overcoming tests, challenges and adversity. Through such difficulties we are initiated into deeper levels of faith in ourselves. Such tests also uncover hidden gifts, gifts that are concealed until the moment they are most needed or have been earned.  

As self-trust grows, we can better face the unfamiliar circumstances knowing that we can handle whatever happens. Through our own labors, we come to recognize the folly of taking our direction from the Self Critic instead of following the guiding hand of self-trust. The Self Critic misleads us through fear and rebuke; self-trust leads us through encouragement and affirmation. "We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be," wrote Jane Austin in Mansfield Park. Self-trust is the practice of affirming the voice of that inner guide, a voice that grows stronger with conscious and consistent attention. 

Self-respect is the belief in our own worth and dignity. We value ourselves but never from a place of unhealthy pride or conceit. We can celebrate our accomplishments and provide a fair and honest assessment of our mistakes for the purpose of continuous improvement. When we have a healthy regard for ourselves, there is no need to brag about accomplishments or to be jealous or comparative of others. We stop depending on others to make us feel good about ourselves and we stop allowing their opinions to diminish us. We take full responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. 

These three practices Self-love, Self-trust and Self-respect have the power to interrupt the Harsh Master and enter into a more healthy relationship with the self, one that contributes to our sense of purpose and well being.

Posted on March 16, 2016 .