The Father, The Son, And The Donkey

Alex Chen
7 min readApr 22, 2024


Once, a father and his son went to another village to purchase a donkey. They were walking back with their new donkey when a passerby commented, “What foolish people. They have a donkey, yet they are still walking!”

The son then invited his father to ride the donkey. A short while later, some passersby commented, “What an unkind father, riding the donkey by himself while making his son walk!”

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The father then got off the donkey and told his son to ride it. They continued walking, when another passerby said, “What a rude child, riding the donkey by himself while making his father walk!”

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The father then got on the donkey with the son, and they both rode the donkey for a while. Soon, another passerby said, “What cruel people! The donkey is clearly overburdened. Poor donkey!”

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The father and son then got off the donkey and decided to carry the donkey. They arrived home shortly after, and everyone laughed at the sight of these two carrying a donkey.

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The village elder came and asked them why they were carrying a donkey. The father explained what had happened.

The village elder said, “Those who seek to please everybody please nobody.”


This is a famous fable that has different versions, but the main message is always the same: If you try to please everyone, you’ll please no one. However, I think there are other important lessons worth mentioning.

1: Intention matters more than action

Oftentimes, there is no right or wrong action, only right or wrong intention.

The book Liao Fan’s Four Lessons explains this concept in detail:

“To do things with the intention of benefiting others is good. To do things with the intention of only benefiting oneself is evil. If through methods such as beating or scolding, you’ve truly benefited others, then that is still goodness. If using methods such as showing respect and courtesy, you’re only focused on self-benefit, then that is still evil. Therefore, when one does things solely to benefit others, that is selfless, and that is real goodness. If one acts to benefit oneself, then that is selfish, and that is false goodness. Moreover, when kindness arises from deep within one’s heart, that is real goodness; if one does a good deed simply because others are doing it, that is false goodness. Furthermore, to do good deeds naturally without expecting anything in return is real goodness; to do good deeds with expectations of reward or certain outcomes is false goodness. These differences should all be carefully pondered.”

(Original text: 有益於人,是善;有益於己,是惡。有益於人,則毆人,詈人皆善也;有益於己,則敬人、禮人皆惡也。是故人之行善,利人者公,公則為真;利己者私,私則為假。又根心者真,襲跡者假;又無為而為者真,有為而為者假;皆當自考。)

Unfortunately, people often judge themselves and others by visible actions instead of invisible intentions. That’s why the father and son kept changing their behavior after each passerby’s criticism.

As for the passersby, they criticized without understanding the intentions of the father and son. If they had first understood that the father and son had good intentions, then instead of criticizing, they could praise the father’s kindness and the son’s respectfulness. People are all sensitive to other people’s opinions, so we should try to positively interpret others’ intentions and encourage others more.

2: Responding effectively to criticisms

Although we need to be strict with ourselves to not criticize others unfairly, we need to accept the reality that there will always be people who misjudge us and criticize us without understanding our situation fully. We shouldn’t be so surprised or upset when this happens; it’s a normal part of life for every single person.

When this happens, it’s important for us to judge ourselves based on our intentions. Did I truly have truly good intentions? If so, then I can have peace of mind regardless of others’ misjudgments.

If someone inappropriately criticizes our behavior, we have two options. First, we could try to explain the intention or reason for doing what we are doing. But we have to make a judgment call about whether or not it is worth the effort to do this communication, and we should communicate in a calm and humble manner, not in a defensive manner. If the other person is rather important, then it is probably worth the effort to do this communication.

Another option is simply to smile and thank them for their advice, while knowing in our hearts that we have sound reasoning for doing what we do.

This is practicing humility and not sweating the small stuff. When others see us being able to accept others’ criticisms humbly, they will be more willing to advise us in the future. Moreover, the person who misjudged us will probably learn the truth sooner or later, and when they do, they will feel ashamed for unfairly criticizing, and they will change their ways for the better.

3: What’s appropriate or right for a situation is complex and fluid

Ultimately, what is right or appropriate depends on the specifics of the situation at hand:

  • If the father is tired and the son and donkey are not, then of course the father should ride the donkey.
  • If the son is tired and the father and donkey are not, then of course the son should ride the donkey.
  • If the father and son are not tired, but the donkey is, then of course neither of them should ride the donkey.
  • If the father and son simply want to walk and get some exercise, then of course they should walk with the donkey.
  • If none of them are tired, then none of them need to ride the donkey, but either one or both of them could ride the donkey. There isn’t one “correct” answer.

Who feels tired and who feels rested will change with time, so who should ride the donkey will also change as the situation changes. Thus, we cannot apply a universal rule about which action is right or which is wrong; we have to consider the specifics of the situation and the intention behind the action.

When we understand how complex situations can be, we won’t so easily judge others’ behavior as right or wrong because there are probably many aspects to the situation that we don’t know. We also won’t take other people’s opinions too heavily since we know that there are many aspects of the situation that they don’t understand.

4: Be thoughtful about whose opinions you care about

If a key message of the story is “Those who seek to please everybody please nobody,” then that begs the question, “Who should we try to please?”

After all, someone who doesn’t care about what anyone thinks would be rather selfish and inconsiderate, and no one would like such a person. But someone who cares about what everyone thinks becomes overly stressed and burns out. What is a suitable middle ground?

We should care about the opinion of wise people who truly care for us and understand our situation. Generally speaking, parents have much more life experience than children, making them wiser than children, and parents also know their children very well and always want the best for their children, so we should care about our parents’ opinions and advice. If you have the good fortune of having a mentor or good friend who is wise and caring, then their opinions are worth considering, and we should spend the time to communicate our situation with them and ask for their advice.

I also imagine what ancient sages would think of me because ancient sages are extremely wise, and they wish to help all humans flourish. I can know what these ancient sages would think of me by reading their books and teachings. I explained this in detail in the article Upgrade Your Thinking, so I won’t elaborate here. I know that if I follow the teachings of the ancient sages, not only would they be happy, but I would also make wise decisions, thereby improving my happiness and quality of life. Therefore, I think learning ancient philosophy (wisdom) is essential for having confidence in one’s decisions and for a happy life.


There will always be people who like to comment and criticize without understanding first. Let’s not be one of those people. When faced with such people, are we able to keep our peace of mind in the face of misjudgment? Are we able to have confidence in our good intentions and judgment? Are we able to respond in a humble and harmonious way? Although we shouldn’t try to please everyone, do we know who we should please?

Originally published at on April 21, 2024.



Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.