“Do the careful, donkey-tending work.”
There are such vicious and empty flatterers
in your life. Do the careful,
Don’t trust that to anyone else.
– from “After the Meditation” by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
The 11th-century Persian poet Rumi lived and wrote a long way from the 21st-century Deep South, where we would simply say: if you want it done right, do it yourself. “Do the careful, donkey-tending work” is the way that Rumi put it. Though most of us don’t work with or even own a donkey – me included – for people of Rumi’s time, a donkey was an important animal, used in transport and agriculture, and taking good care of it was essential to survival.
Today, mired in convenience technology and disposable products, we expect that the “donkey-tending work” will either be easy or automated and that our possessions will break and have to be replaced. Though we employ them, we have little faith that these products were made well in the first place. We have become accustomed to recalls, legal disclaimers, and labyrinthine customer-service departments, all of which defend the people who don’t “do the careful, donkey-tending work.”
This issue of doing “the careful, donkey-tending work” ourselves comes up throughout life, throughout history, and throughout every kind of literature. In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus talks about being “the good shepherd,” he explains:
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I know that Jesus was making a metaphor here, but his metaphor works because there is truth in it. That “hired man” is the ancient equivalent of the lackadaisical employee who responds, “Don’t get mad at me. I just work here.”
To believe that work should be done right, a person must value the work that is to be done. But our culture leans heavily on a throwaway ethic, and that starts with the way we raise our young. I’ve been teaching high school students for fifteen years, and at the end of each semester, the most common question is: can we throw this stuff away now? Rather than answer, I usually retort with a question of my own: why would you want to? The blank stare in reply usually lets me know that I’ve breached some boundary into uncharted territory. No one urges young people to garner knowledge and wisdom, but instead to “get an education” and “make good grades” and “get a scholarship.” What underlies that education, those grades, and those scholarships is the “careful donkey-tending work” of learning that is seldom considered, much less celebrated. Year after year, more often than hearing gratitude for knowledge gained in May, I hear, “I just want to be done . . .”
In school, the best tangible benefit that students can gain is a high number in a grid that will keep them out of the doghouse at home. Closer to 100 is good; closer to 0 is bad. Though students are encouraged to “make good grades,” the quality of the work is not the issue— what is the issue: the letters C, D, and F mean angry parents, lost privileges, and other discomfort, so it is better to avoid those. I was not taught that I should write a damn fine essay so that I could look at that damn fine essay and be proud of it. So, the “careful, donkey-tending work” seemed like nothing more than the bullshit I had to navigate to keep trouble off my back. After an essay was marked with an A or B, I could throw it away and move on.
However, as a teenager, I got my first real experiences with taking pride in my work when I worked in the theatre. When we would build a vibrant and useful set and when we would handle our roles in the production effectively, it felt good. When we would finish a show, we knew that the applause came from our jobs well-done. We had done “the careful, donkey-tending work,” but back then, I thought I was just having fun. I never made the connection that what I was doing was work— and no one made it for me. (Had I displayed the same level of dedication and excellence in a sport, someone would have, but it was the arts, and this was the Deep South . . . so that was different.)
“Do the careful, donkey-tending work,” wrote Rumi a thousand years ago, and he was right. Just look at the great writer EB White. Or the larger-than-life actor Orson Welles. Or the infamous lover Casanova. If you still don’t believe that “the careful donkey-tending work” pays off, read about the fastidious editing of late Katharine White or about the rehearsal habits of Lynyrd Skynyrd or – Good Lord, I hate to admit this, but I have to – watch Nick Saban coach football. Saban is so good at what he does that he has effectively made the annual wonderment over the college football championship almost moot, but I have to give him props. If you listen when the old sour-puss talks to reporters, the words he uses over and over are: execute, process, plan, and – sadly for all of us who aren’t Alabama fans – next week.