The straw that broke the donkey’s back

Random annoyances, incidental accidents and chance mistakes cause more upset in our lives than the catastrophes.

Big catastrophes: Death, debilitating disease, mental disorder or redundancy – at least one of these will affect all of us at some stage in our lives.  Somehow, though, when they strike we manage to cope don’t we?  We unearth whatever courage we have from deep inside, plod remorselessly through the mire and adapt to a new and different balance in our lives.

The “Big things” are starkly obvious and because of that, you can more easily understand their shape, scale and density.  Also, unless you are incredibly unfortunate, they tend to be loners.  They come along one at a time and when it arrives, whatever “it” might be, it galumphs around, following you everywhere.  Wherever you are, it’s there too , awkwardly clumsy and full of bluster, challenging you to confront it, demanding your devoted undivided attention, providing a legitimate reason to put your life on hold so you can deal with it exclusively.  Everyone understands.  In any case, people around you, the ones who really care, will do most of the worrying while you exist in a kind of bubble, living with it, putting “the thing” just over there, a little out of reach, whilst trying to seamlessly integrate its complications into your everyday life.On the other hand, the “little things,” the so called minor calamities, are the ultimate team players supporting and encouraging each other like a pack of malevolent sharp toothed  animals.  Working in unison, one of those nasty little critters will push its way to the front, then another mysteriously connected to the first, then another, until you start to think your brain is a permanently unlocked revolving door with a huge neon sign above it inviting all the nasty, condescending, awkward, rude, impenetrable bastards in the world to step right up and have a pop at you.  By the time you realise what’s going on and you hunt down the keys to lock the aforementioned door, it’s too late.  Your brain has been replaced with knitting.  There is no beginning or end and absolutely no way to unravel it all.

There is a commonality amongst all the “little things” in that they usually involve the shortcomings and unreasonable behaviour of other people.  Mostly people we don’t know – the bank, your boss, call centre staff, whoever – interfering, upsetting the apple cart and disrupting the constant happy thread of our life.  And, what’s more, we have to take it personally because unlike catastrophes, the “little things” don’t ever happen in quite the same way to anyone else.  It’s not the big catastrophes that get you – well, I suppose they do in the end; I mean being dead is a fairly big thing, right.  No, what I’m talking about here is not inevitability – unavoidable things that happen to everyone no matter how healthy or how rich – but the random, spiteful everyday miseries that seem to happen only to you.

You will have heard the idiom “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.  In a series of calamities, one too many “little things” have happened.  Already overloaded, someone dumps a last little blighter on top of the pile and the whole lot is suddenly unsupportable and collapses with tragic consequences.  It’s interesting to note there are no such sayings used in connection with big catastrophes.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back,” so many people say it and feel it.  Originally attributed to Charles Dickens who wrote in his novel Dombey and Son (1848): ‘As the last straw breaks the laden camel’s back, this piece of underground information crushed the sinking spirits of Mr Dombey’.  Dickens, in his books, was no stranger to commenting upon social and personal misery, but I do think he was wrong to imply a camel would allow itself to be so burdened its back would likely be broken.  By rights, it should be a donkey.  Camels are so resolutely proud, arrogant too.  I agree they can be compliant, but only in an “I’m helping you out because I can” sort of a way.

Would you even get the final straw onto a camel’s back in the first place?  Not a chance.  From hard won experience, the raggedy beast would remain kneeling, lugubriously eyeing you through lashes as long and gossamer as a spider’s web.  Take a step towards it and its protests will rumble as menacingly as a diesel engine.  Its lips will curl in defiance culminating in a glittering stream of evil smelling bile spat with such unavoidable accuracy through its teeth at anyone within six feet of it, holding a straw or not.

Donkeys on the other hand are hard wired to comply, without complaint, with all demands no matter how unreasonable or destructive.  We must assume donkeys accept the final straw because they have been told to do it by someone they regard as superior to themselves.

In dealing with life’s spiteful everyday troubles, are you a camel or a donkey?  I know which I would rather be and I’ve started to practice looking really disdainful and spitting profusely through my teeth.


  1. Interesting juxtaposition. Camel or Donkey? From your description, I would have to choose donkey; it seems to carry more than it thought it would ever be able to, unperturbed. Oh yes, a donkey, who then turns into a dolphin.


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