Sancho Panza, the comical squire of the illustrious Don Quixote who vowed to restore knight-errantry into a debased world and recover the Golden Age, once told his master, “An ass will carry his load but not a double load.” As a loyal servant to his fearless knight-errant, Sancho performed his duties faithfully, but he never hesitated to remind his idealistic, visionary knight of the limits of human nature and the distinction between the normal and the abnormal demands of work. If Sancho were hungry, thirsty, sleepy, or in pain, Quixote heard the complaints of his squire that he often expressed in the proverbs that flowed from his tongue. This traditional wisdom also appears in proverbs from other older cultures. A famous Armenian proverb states, “No one can carry two watermelons at the same time.”
Self-knowledge demands that persons acknowledge their limitations and not attempt the impossible or the unreasonable—even though the world demands or expects it. The donkey will do an honest day’s work but not two days’ work in one. A squire will follow his knight in many battles and long travels but not go without food, drink, and rest without complaint.
In a “workaholic” society that requires long hours, encourages overtime pay, exceeds forty-hour weeks of labor, and carries on business as usual even on Sundays, it is imperative to recall the wisdom of the donkey who suddenly stops carrying his load because Mother Nature says no. Even God does not ask the impossible. Yet the nature of modern life continually makes more and more demands on those who earn a living. In a modern capitalistic economy based on two incomes, a woman often imagines that she can manage a home, raise a family, and have a career without suffering any adverse effects upon her health, marriage, or spirit. The temptation to earn additional family income by overtime hours—a fifty or sixty hour week of work—often blinds men to the toll these supplementary earnings exact of their family life and of the state of their soul.
No one can flout the laws of nature and escape the consequences. As proverbial wisdom teaches, while God always forgives and man sometimes forgives, “Mother Nature never forgives.” To neglect the body does not benefit the soul. To neglect the spirit does not improve the budget. To ignore leisure and play does not enhance intellectual life. Any form of work—whether in or out of the home—that does not afford a person time to enjoy his family, to pursue a hobby or recreation, to read and to pray, or to welcome guests and enjoy their company and conversation is dehumanizing activity.
In The Way of a Storyteller Ruth Sawyer tells of a master carpenter renowned for his craftsmanship who pauses from his workaday world each year to participate in an amateur opera performed by the artisans of the village. One of the carpenter’s disgruntled customers who commissioned him to build a beautiful sofa scolded him for the delay of his work, complaining that he was losing business and disappointing his patrons. He replied in German, “Gnadige Frau [Dear Lady], something of those operas will go into your sofa.” The beauty and joy of singing the music of the opera inspired him to do his work of carpentry as a labor of love filled with divine energy. He assured his unhappy customer, “All the goodness, all the lift of the heart we got out of playing in those operas, we would put back into our work… Nothing was lost. That is how it should be when you have experienced something great and beautiful.”
This master carpenter did not allow the demands of work to rob him of a human life uplifted by his passion for opera that rejuvenated his heart and soul and produced his great art. Cardinal Newman spoke of an “overflow” that comes from the enjoyment of leisurely recreations loved for their own sake that are unrelated to the business of earning a livelihood but are always “reproductive” of good. Because man by nature is a unity of soul and body, the nourishment and care of the soul naturally affects the performance of the body as the carpenter’s words explain, and the neglect of the body of course interferes with the work of the mind and the state of the soul as Sancho insists.
The great wisdom of Cervantes’ Don Quixote consists of the indissoluble friendship of the knight and his squire who illuminate this intricate relationship of body and soul that must always be kept in harmonious balance. While Quixote leads his squire to transcend the body and to follow the highest spiritual ideals of truth, honor, chivalry, and beauty, the squire reminds his master that man is flesh and bones as well as spiritual and intellectual. There is a time to be lifted up, and there is a time to be brought down to earth.
Sancho reminds his Master that man is “animal” as well as “rational” and thus needs to learn of the jackass when to stop, protest, refuse, and say no. Man is created to do an honest day’s work but not to be a slave to work. Man is created not only to produce but also to sing. Without the wisdom of Sancho and the carpenter, man falls prey to another one of the addictions and excesses of modernity that urges man to eat too much, consume too much, spend too much, and work too much.