I love paradoxes, aphorisms, proverbs, and teaching stories of all kinds. So, of course, I love a fable.
One of my favorites is the fable of “The Dog in the Manger,” which neatly illustrates an important aspect of human nature.
You may know this story well, or you may have heard someone referred to as a “dog in the manger” without knowing quite what that means. Or maybe you’ve never even heard this story! In the United States, at least, research suggests that this fable has largely been forgotten in recent years. When I asked my husband Jamie if he knew any good examples of someone acting like the dog in the manger, he didn’t recognize the reference.
Here’s my version of the old story:
Once upon a time, a farmer’s dog headed to the barn and settled himself for a late-afternoon nap on an ox’s hay-filled manger.
The dog woke up when the ox came in from the field, and when the ox came close to try to eat, the dog barked and snapped. He acted as angry as if he were defending his own dinner.
The ox was hungry and tired. “You’re so unkind,” he said to the dog. “You can’t enjoy any of this nice hay. Why won’t you let me eat it?”
The moral of the story is “We often begrudge others what we can’t enjoy ourselves.”
I love identifying examples of a fable’s moral from my own life.
In college, I had a friend who really didn’t seem to like his girlfriend very much. I asked him, “Why don’t you break up with her?” He launched into a long explanation, then started to laugh. “Actually,” he said, “as I’m talking to you, I’m realizing that the only reason I don’t want to break up with her is because I don’t want to see her date anyone else.”
The fable of “The Dog in the Manger” also reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Oscar Wilde’s brilliant novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (Amazon, Bookshop). In it, the character Harry observes, “There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.”
I remind myself: If there’s something I can’t enjoy or make use of, I should back off and let go, so that someone else can enjoy the benefit. I gain nothing from holding on to something that’s useless to me.