Commencement Parable: The Story of the Farmer and His Mule
This is an adaptation of a story I heard told by Bill McDonough (adapted because I don't remember exactly how he told it...)
There's an old story about a farmer and his mule.
The farmer loved this mule as he provided the only way the farmer could get his produce to market. During the harvest season, he would get up early in the morning and load up the old mule, which he called Buck. It was a strong animal and he was proud of the weight Buck could carry. The people at the market loved the farmer’s produce and he usually sold all that Buck could carry.
He would come home at the end of the day and show his wife the money that he had made. They made good money and had a good life.
Every night before bed, the farmer gave Buck a good grooming, the best oats money could buy, and the cleanest water. He would talk to him and he loved seeing the healthy spark in Buck’s eyes and the gleam of his coat. His kids thought he was crazy for attending to an animal in this way. The farmer saw it another way. He saw that his family's livelihood depended on Buck; the better he treated him, the better their life would be.
He saw that his family's livelihood depended on Buck; the better he treated him, the better their life would be.
Now there was one day at the marketplace, when a friend of his had a suggestion. He told the farmer that he could be making a lot more money if he didn't treat his mule so extravagantly. It was true. The farmer spent more than most would on feed for Buck. He spent more time than most would to take care of him. And he spent more time than most would checking his teeth and his ears and his hooves.
“Why are you wasting all this time and money on this miserable animal?” his friend admonished him. "Don't you see how much more money you could be keeping for yourself? How much more comfortable you could live?!"
The farmer thought: he could buy his wife the new cooking pot that she wanted. She deserved that didn't she? And didn’t she want a new bed also?
So the farmer thought he would give his friend's suggestion a try.
The next day he fed Buck a little bit less. Sure enough after a few days he did notice he had more money in his pocket. His friend was onto something! So he reduced the feed even more. And he started to buy the less expensive oats. And why should he stay up later grooming this miserable animal? And why should he go to such lengths to make sure that a mule has better water than his own children can enjoy.
This went on for days and weeks. The farmer liked the money he was making. He liked the way it made him feel. And he bought his wife that new pot and started saving for a new bed.
The farmer liked the money he was making. He liked the way it made him feel. And he bought his wife that new pot and started saving for a new bed.
Early one morning, the farmer didn’t find the mule standing and ready for work. He searched and found him still lying down. Enraged the farmer gave him a kick in the ribs.
“Come on, Buck! We have to get going!”
The mule struggled to his feet. You could see the poor creature's ribs and his breathing was shallow. The farmer didn’t seem to notice. He loaded it again with produce, more than usual this time, and they started off for the market. They had gone about a quarter of the distance when the mule's legs gave out. He collapsed into the dust on the road.
The farmer hit him with the reins. He kicked its sides, but it would not move. The farmer fell to his knees.
“Why me? Why am I stuck with such an animal as this!”
But when he looked at Buck, he suddenly noticed the spark in his eyes was gone. And he looked at his coat which he used to groom with such care. It was matted and blistered. He ran to a nearby stream for water. He ripped open a bag of oats Buck was carrying on his back. With his bare hands, he slowly fed him the oats and gave him water. It was late in the day when Buck began to regain some strength. They were late to the market and sold almost nothing.
When they arrived home, the farmer’s wife was worried. They were much later than usual. And she was dismayed at the few coins the farmer had gained all day. He sat down and put his head in his hands:
“I let a friend in town convince me I was spending too much on Buck. I have been feeding him less and that’s why we’ve gained more recently. But I was neglecting the very thing our family relies on for our livelihood. I will never let that happen again.”
This story has been used to illustrate our relationship with the planet. We are completely dependent on it for our livelihood but, like the farmer, have tried to get away with mistreating it for our short-term gain. In reality, the more benefit we provide to the earth, the more we protect our resources, other species, each other, our water, our air, the more we ourselves benefit. It’s a funny kind of irony. We can't help but gain the more we seek to serve.
That's why I tell my students: don't seek to be a leader. Determine to be a servant.
Those that serve become the best leaders.