(A European Folktale)
Long ago, as the Lord was creating the world, the donkey came to him and asked, “How long will I live?”
The Lord had not considered this question and wasn’t sure of the proper number for each creature. It was a difficult thing to consider, and so the Lord said, “Well, donkey, how would you feel about 30 years?”
The donkey thought about this for a while. He decided that 30 years was a long, long time, and so he shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not,” he said. “My life is tiring. I carry heavy bags of grain to the mill so that others may make and eat bread. But does anyone thank me? No. Instead, the people kick me and whip me and yank on my ears and tail. Please spare me some of those 30 years. I believe that’s far too long for me.”
The Lord thought about this and decided to take away 18 years from the donkey. “You will live 12 years,” he said.
The donkey was satisfied and trotted away, thinking of those 18 years of struggle he had saved himself. He was very grateful to the Lord.
Next, the dog came to see the Lord. He, too, wished to know how long he would live.
“How long do you want to live?” the Lord asked. “The donkey did not wish to live 30 years. How would you like to live that long?”
“Oh, no!” the dog shivered at the thought. “My feet will never last. Think of all the running I do! And my throat will be sore and tired, for I bark and bark. After 30 years, every limb will ache. I cannot possibly last that long.”
The Lord thought for a while and said, “I shall take away 16 years and give you 14.”
The dog was satisfied with this decision.
Then the monkey came along. The Lord asked him if he would like to live 30 years. “You carry no heavy loads. You do not run far, and you do not bark. You seem to be having fun just swinging from the trees and eating. Thirty years sounds just about right, don’t you think?”
But the monkey shook his head. “I may look like I’m having fun,” he said, “but I’m supposed to make people laugh so they’ll give me treats. The truth is that I often feel sad, but I must hide my sorrow behind my tricks and treats and grins. To be honest, I cannot imagine putting up with that for 30 years!”
The Lord understood and said, “I shall take away 10 and leave you 20.”
The monkey skipped away, satisfied.
Now it was time for the man to appear before the Lord. He had overheard the others’ conversations. When his turn came, he asked, “How long will I live?”
“How does 30 years sound?” the Lord asked. He wished to be fair and to give man the same opportunities he had offered the others.
But the man began to frown. “Lord, you are telling me that as soon as I am finished with my carefree youth, the moment I start a family and plant trees that are blossoming with fruit — just as I am beginning to enjoy the world in my maturity — I shall have to say farewell? Please reconsider your decision here. Thirty years is not enough. Please, give me more.”
The Lord thought about this. The man’s argument made sense. “I shall add the donkey’s 18 years to yours. How does that sound?”
“Forty-eight!” the man said, shaking his head. “Only then will my house be as comfortable as I worked all those years to make it. Please, I’d like more.”
“Then I shall give you the dog’s 16 years,” the Lord said. “That should satisfy your every desire.”
The man shook his head. “Sixty-four is not long enough. I will be just starting to relax, watching my grandchildren grow. I’m afraid I’ll need more.”
The Lord agreed. “Then you shall have the monkey’s 10 years, too. But that is all I can offer you. That is all that remains.”
The man understood. He nodded and walked away. He wasn’t entirely satisfied. He always longed for more.
But ever since that time, it is understood that the first 30 years of man’s life are his human years. These are the years when he is healthy and strong. The donkey’s years follow. In the donkey’s years, man carries burdens and cares for and feeds others. Often he receives no thanks. When the dog’s years come, man often lies in a corner sleeping. Sometimes he growls, sometimes he sighs.
And then come the last 10 years, the monkey’s years. In those years, man often does silly things. He makes others laugh. He seems to be happy and carefree, but as he contemplates his time in this world, he often feels sad, for he knows the monkey’s years are his last.