My father was a businessman, but he also raised beef cattle on the family farm. His wisdom came from these rural roots, and he enjoyed passing it along to his kids. He told me once about the difference between horses and mules. The smart farmer, my father said, would not buy a horse to plow his fields in the old days. Instead he would get a good mule if he could.
The benefit of a mule over a horse is the fact that a mule will stop when it tires while a horse will work itself to death. A wise farmer knew that for the momentary inconvenience of a stubborn mule that refused to work further, he got an automatic protection on his investment. A mule is not about to work until it expires.
A mule is not a beautiful animal. It is big like a horse, but not graceful, and donkey-like without being cute. What a mule does have is an uncompromising respect for its physical limits. In spite of its strength and hardiness, it balks at an overload. It does not care how mad you get or what you think of its character. If it is more than the mule can do, it won’t do it.
The horse, on the other hand, noble animal that it is, takes its cue from what its owner wants. If the job is to keep working no matter what, it will. Horses will work or race until they drop, just because they can. The horse will ignore its exhaustion in order to keep up. By the time a horse knows it has done too much, it is often too late.
This characteristic of horses is one reason why little girls on the cusp of puberty fall so deeply in love with these beautiful, big-hearted animals. Little girls are probably intuiting something they have in common with the sensitive horse: grace and power used unstintingly in the service of other people. Young females have an affinity for anything that gives up its wild freedom in order to belong to and care for others.
You don’t hear much about girls falling in love with mules, but maybe we ought to push this. Instead of encouraging little girls to focus on flowing manes and tails, we could tell them to use their strengths on their own behalf. Freed from the great distraction of being so beautiful, mules have learned to pay attention to their insides. Women can, too.
Whether daydreamers or tomboys, little girls are originally filled with their own agendas. Before they are taught to be so self-sacrificing, girls are as naturally full of themselves as anybody else. Like the mules, they have no interest in working long hours for nothing, and they are always looking for ways to enjoy themselves. But when the cultural pressure starts to define their worth by romance, girls lose their nerve. They start thinking they are going to be left behind in some great race if they don’t get other people to love them. Social belonging begins to matter so much that they will disregard how they really feel.
These girls turn into women who give up too much. They learn to feel proud of self-sacrifice, trying to be good wives and devoted mothers. They will keep going in the service of others until their big hearts break from the loss of themselves. Like the over-worked, loyal horse, they lose their spark and health, but do not understand why they feel so bad. Customs have fooled them into believing that if they do a good job sacrificing for others, they will be happier and more fulfilled. It is like telling a horse that the harder and longer he runs, the better he will feel.
Exhaustion and listlessness are nature’s way of saying you have given too much. Sickness is often the only guilt-free way a person can be excused from running herself to death. If you become mentally or physically ill, you finally have permission to pay attention to that little voice that told you years ago you should have stopped. Unfortunately, women hope that the people who love them will rein them in before it is too late. They wonder why no one is noticing they are about to drop. Is no one paying attention to what this race is costing them?
No. Nine times out of ten, no one is paying attention. Only they can do that. And that self-checking is just what horses do not do. Horses like to be forcibly prevented from running their hearts out; they prance and pull, asking for more when they should have quit hours ago. They love to look eager and strong, even when they are on their last atom of reserves. Think about the definition of a good woman. It is the woman who keeps on giving, not the woman who keeps on living.
I prefer the mule’s approach. The mule just stops. He might be willing to work more later, but for right now, he could not care less what that field looks like. His animal wisdom says that if he wants to live long, he better pay attention to what his muscles are saying.
Women need to do the same thing. The hard part is that so much of women’s energy is spent on emotional work. It is not like having a sore muscle or pulled tendon. Instead it is an energy experience of feeling emotionally drained, zapped, exhausted, or whipped. Women’s life force is experienced emotionally rather than physically. When she has given too much (or said too little), a woman feels the life seeping out of her. But because so much of what she does is not visible or measurable in terms of workload, she does not know how to justify stopping. No one but her can see what it is costing her. By the time others notice, it is probably showing up in the form of depression, anxiety, or a host of psychosomatic illnesses. By the time these symptoms arrive, I guarantee it is late in the last quarter of the race, and someone has kept moving her finish line further and further out.
To have a healthy mule mind, you have to keep asking yourself, is this too much? Am I getting tired? What is making me so tired, and how can I do less of it? Believe me, you do not have to worry about becoming a lazybones because family and culture will never stop driving you on. You are the only one who can plop your mule-behind down in the field and refuse to go further. Remember, no farmer is stronger than a mule that has had enough. It won’t kill the farmer to accommodate once in awhile, but it might kill the mule to do it all the time.
Pay attention to your inner signals of fatigue or depletion, and take them seriously. Nine-tenths of life is a field that can wait, not a race to be won.
Lindsay Gibson Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.