Hardworking donkeys: just sound as though…
— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Sometimes out of the blues one hears a beautiful expression, and it happened to me when recently I heard someone referring to another person in his office as a ‘hardworking donkey (HWD).’ Everyone present had a spontaneous hearty laugh, seeming to know the person in question at the same time as understanding the import of that expression, to wit that it referred to someone who worked hard like a donkey.
A donkey does non-creative, repetitive work and in the particular context that this analogy was mentioned, the implication was that that person was known to be stubborn and of low intelligence (but aren’t we insulting donkeys here!!), and that was why he had to labour so hard to accomplish what his more intelligent colleagues could perform in lesser time. Besides, he had an obsession to show to the boss that he was very hardworking, and the latter too – who possessed an insufferable sense of personal vanity — was suitably impressed. Sort of the pot finding dark likeness in the kettle…
I am sure that many if not most of us have come across hardworking donkeys in our lives as students or workers. Psychologists will know better, but I have a hunch that the distribution of intelligence follows the bell-shaped curve too. At one end there will be the geniuses, at the other the morons. The majority, in whatever setting, will fall under the bell, excluding the tail ends. Some students seem to get away with studying only for minimum hours, and yet pass their exams with reasonable grades. Others slog hard, burning the midnight oil, and yet either just make it or have to repeat.
At the International Students’ Hostel where I used to stay when I was doing medicine, there was a Japanese who was pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology. One month before his final exams he shipped all his books to Japan, and spent his time going to the theatre, visiting local places of interest, engaging us in conversation from time to time but generally keeping much to his own occupations. He always had a smile on his face, and never seemed to get upset or angry. He flew off on the very day that the exam was over, and when the results came out, he passed with flying colours.
For me, he has always stood as an example of a quiet individual who toiled smartly to achieve success and attain his goal sans fanfare ni trompette. This is the opposite of what the human hardworking donkey (in particular the Mauritian species) does: it often brays to draw attention to itself. And to borrow from Joel Klein’s ‘The Awesome Column’ in the double issue of TIME magazine (28 Dec. 2009), there is an ‘inflated style’ accompanying such braying, ‘It doesn’t even have to make sense; it just has to sound as though it makes sense.’ Or, to quote a scientist who has served Mauritius for long and very ably, on having to listen to the bla-bla-bla of a guest at a dinner way back in the 1960s, ‘li pe resonne comma tambour!’ Another beautiful expression which I have since cherished and which has a place in my own book of quotations that I have compiled and keep adding to.
There are two reasons for this behaviour of the HWD which, incidentally in these days of political correctness and gender rights, must be acknowledged to be either a he or she — but we will use ‘he’ to keep matters simple. Burdened by the weight of the morass of details, and not being able to appreciate that ‘the devil is in the details,’ he only sees as far as the tip of his nose.
One can picture a heavily-laden donkey walking up or down a winding path, as donkeys often have to do: it can only concentrate on the narrowness that lies ahead. And so does the HWD, with the result that there is pretty soon a matching contraction of the mind. The logical sequel is a failure of perspective, so that the big picture is missed.
Further, the HWD often cannot understand clearly the core issue of a problem at hand, not having the ability or the perspicacity to do so. He wastes a lot of his and others’ energy trying to make out what is clear to everybody else, and the less he understands the more noise – equivalent to braying — he makes, to show that he is busy trying to do something about the problem, but in fact it all amounts in the end to ‘look busy do nothing.’ Or do something that is half-baked or inappropriate. This utter waste of time is what modern pundits allude to as inefficiency, which results in a loss of productivity.
Albert Camus, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize, lamented that we were living at a time when people tended to act more par réflexe que la réflexion, and his remarks seem to be as pertinent today as when he spoke them 50 years ago.
This applies spot on to the HWD, whose immaturity erupts into panic and hysteria, when he is suddenly faced with a problem. He will refuse to listen to the essentials, and cannot be made to engage in serious thinking about the various aspects that are of relevance before a decision can be taken. Instead, he flaps about, throwing up his hands, threatening left and right.
This irrational and Don Quixotic behaviour is evident to all but himself, and the worse is that he expects others to follow him down that path. So lacking is he in understanding and depth that, as often happens, he generates confusion rather than clarity.
Fortunately there are people who have a more enlightened approach to difficult or urgent situations. Once again, medicine leads with examples. Imagine a person injured in an accident being taken to hospital, having suffered major injuries and in severe pain. The accompanying relatives are naturally very upset, shouting for help, and some of them may be crying too.
Now picture the doctor, on receiving such a casualty, starting to shout too, and instead of attending to the patient he holds the hands of relatives and starts crying with them! How would an observer perceive such a scenario? He can only laugh at the ridiculousness, immaturity, inappropriateness and ineffectiveness of the doctor’s behaviour!
That is why doctors learn to develop what is known as clinical detachment: retaining their objectivity when handling any patient, even more important when they are faced with acute emergencies. They are trained to do quick thinking and take prompt action in a ordered sequence of measured steps which others refer to nowadays as SOPs – long before this term was invented, the medical profession already had its SOPs for given clinical situations which practised clinicians carry in their heads. And never make a show of it: you can’t be flapping about 24 hours a day!
For doctors, emergencies are a routine matter, and if they were to shout about instead of dealing rationally as they do with their patients, then there would be chaos. As it is, everywhere in the world it is common knowledge that such chaos is invariably the result of others meddling, hurling abuse noisily and vitiating the atmosphere, thus causing interference in the work being done. Again, it is fortunate for victims that the doctors keep their cool and act according to well established parameters. Under all situations it is important to first apprehend the essentials before getting down and attending to the details.
Back to our dear HWDs, on terra firma. Mahatma Gandhi observed about the book titled ‘Mother India,’ written by a journalist: ‘Instead of looking into the drawing rooms, she went around sniffing the gutters!’ So too do HWDs, always looking at only the negative aspects, wildly imagining rather than coolly reflecting.
And yet such reflection is so crucial, to allow us to get a sense of wholeness, to help us to understand with greater clarity matters of genuine relevance, to allow us to sift the wheat from the chaff and jettison the flotsam. When an eminent person recently cited the Greek philosopher Heraclitus during an opening address, I felt a sense of relief. Thank goodness, I told myself, that there are still people around who can raise us to heightened states of awareness, which pre-Socratic Heraclitus also aimed at in his own way, in our quest ‘to find a common humanity and to move closer to the truth of something.’
For that is what at all times is important, underpinning as it should do our daily actions and interactions. If we sincerely want to make progress, HWDs are not the role models to emulate. To me, the carry home message from that initial remark about someone being a hardworking donkey, and perhaps a resolution we can adopt for the new year is ‘don’t be a hardworking donkey, work smart instead!’
As we leave behind the decade of crisis and enter the dawn of a new decade, our greatest wish and prayer must surely be for an alliance of the working smart rather than a conspiracy of the HWDs and their likes.