by G. K. Chesterton
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
The Donkey by G. K. Chesterton reveals the danger of the human tendency to make superficial judgments of others based on stereotype. The danger of these quick judgments lies in our dismissal of the uniqueness and importance of an individual’s story.
The poem begins with the donkey’s description of the usual donkey stereotype. His birth is a cosmic mistake and his appearance like a four-legged devil. His melodramatic description ends by inviting verbal and physical abuse from the reader, as if to lead them into a trap. In the final stanza, the donkey reveals his secret and suddenly the reader discovers that this is no ordinary donkey. This donkey has a unique story that forms his identity. Far from ordinary, this donkey has played an integral role in the singular event of all history.
Human identity is complex and is formed in part through our experiences. If we never stop to listen to the stories of others, we will not be able to love them effectively in authentic relationships. Our reliance upon stereotype to make quick judgments forms a barrier that keeps us from knowing what is unique about others. Without a sense of their uniqueness, we will not give them the value and dignity they deserve as God’s image-bearers.
Too easily we take the other for granted and attempt to exert power over them when they remain a stereotype. Confronting our reliance upon stereotype is a confrontation with our fear of what we cannot ultimately control. Breaking through to authentic relationship means we must release the other from the cage we have forced on them with our stereotype. We must come to know them as they are, warts and all, if we ever hope to love them as Christ first loved us.