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Socrates' Donkey Story

Socrates used to give public discourses about important subjects on life and philosophy while standing on a big stone in the corner of the market. People in the market would pass by and listen for a few minutes and then leave. They never paid much attention to his philosophy.

When he noticed that the people were not giving much attention to his philosophy, Socrates decided to try something different. He announced to the public that he is going to tell a very interesting story. Those who heard his announcement came near very eagerly to listen his story. He started his story like this:

“There was merchant who had a lot of merchandise to sell, and he decided to go to another bigger city to sell them. He packed his goods and carried them on his shoulder and left before daybreak. The only route to the city required him to climb a big mountain. While he was walking, he found another man with a donkey also heading to the same city. While walking together and talking, they become friends. Then the merchant asked the other man to rent his donkey to hold his merchandise until they reach the other city. The man agreed for a certain amount of money.”

At this point, Socrates found that a larger audience had gathered around him to listen the story, and lot of people forget their duties while listening to his story. The people who used to come and leave within a few minutes also forgot their business and stayed back to listen the story. Socrates continued his story:

“They have to climb a steep mountain to reach their destination. The merchant placed his merchandise on the donkey and they started out in the morning. It was easy to walk in the morning. As the day progressed, it became very tough for them to climb the mountain. They were sweating and become very tired. When the sun rose on top of their heads, they decided to take a rest.”

Socrates now had even more people gathered around him, eagerly listening his story.

He continued:

“It was noon and they were tired. They decided to take a break, but there were no trees or shade under which they could sit and rest. There was only the shade of donkey who was carrying the merchandise. Under the shade of that donkey, there was space for only one man. The owner of the donkey told the merchant that the shade of the donkey belongs to him as he is the owner of the donkey. But the merchant disagreed, saying that he hired the donkey, so the shade of the donkey belongs to him.

The owner of the donkey said he only rent out the donkey, not the shade. But the merchant said that when he hired the donkey, that includes the donkey's shade. Both men fell in to fierce argument for the shade of the donkey. Both argued that it belongs to him legally.”

By this point, there was a very large crowd gathered around Socrates. Then he climbed down from the stone where he was standing and walked away. People followed him, requesting to complete the story. He paid no attention to them and continued walking. People were following him and requesting him to complete the story all the more. They pressed him hard for the end of the story, so he stopped walking, turned to them and said,

“I was talking to you people about important and serious things like life and philosophy, but you were not paying any attention. But when I started telling an imaginative story of a donkey and its shade, you became very eager to listen. You are paying more attention to silly things and ignoring the important things in life. You ought to pay more attention to the important things in life rather than trivial matters.”


The key lesson for all of us is to reflect on whether we are spending too much time on "donkey stories" rather than important priorities. I'm actually impressed by how captivating that donkey story was! Indeed, so many non-important things are so captivating, such as TV shows or games or scrolling social media. It's up to us to spend our time and energy wisely.

Before listening to this story, I thought I prioritized my time pretty well, but Socrates probed me to reflect on whether I could actually stay focused on priorities in the face of enticing distractions. After all, you can't really say you focused on priorities if there weren't any enticing distractions for you to ignore. For example, while writing this article, I saw an unrelated email and wanted to check it. After opening it, I realized I didn't finish this article yet so I closed that email. My focus still has room for improvement!

A second lesson is to do the important things, whatever those are for you, every day. One useful habit I've been doing for over a year now is to journal about my day before bed. I just spend a couple minutes to write down the key things I did, such as work, meditation, books I read, chores I did, etc. This journal helps me keep a streak of the things I want to do, such as meditation and reading. I don't want to break any streaks, so the 2-minute journaling helps me keep the good habits going. I highly recommend this tactic for anyone who wants to start a habit streak.

A third lesson is that education is not just about talking, it's about showing. If Socrates had simply lectured people about living a life focused on priorities, people would disregard him and think they already do it. But by enticing people with this silly donkey story, he caught everyone off-guard, then he told them "Look, you're so captivated by a silly story. Don't you know that you should focus on important priorities in life?"

Concluding Thought

Am I spending too much time on "donkey stories" rather than important priorities?


Weekly Wisdom #163

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