The Parable of the Truffle Diggers

Something Even a Child Might Understand

Once upon a time, on a beautiful island in the South Pacific, there lived a tribe of truffle diggers.  A hundred families lived in the tribe, and every morning when the sun came up they would all go out into the woods to dig for truffles.  Truffles were their only food, and digging truffles from under the trees where they grew was the only work they had to do.

Even so the life of the truffle diggers was not easy.  The ground was very hard around the trees where the truffles grew and the people had only their bare hands with which to dig.  A man and his wife had to dig with their fingers as hard as they could all day long just to get enough truffles to eat.  And when they got home at the end of the day they were so tired they could hardly stand up.

Then one day a French merchant arrived on the island bearing fifty iron shovels in a big wooden chest.  He dragged his chest into the village square where the truffle-diggers lived and offered a deal to the first fifty families he saw:

"You can use one of these shovels to dig with,” he said, “but only if you promise to give me a truffle for every day that you use it.  When I come back in a year I expect three-hundred-and-sixty-five truffles, one for every day in the year. If you fail I shall take my shovel back and you shall have to go back to digging with your fingers."

Seeing they had nothing to lose the fifty families agreed to his terms.  Next day they took their shovels into the woods to dig. They soon discovered that using a shovel it was easy to dig enough truffles to eat in half a day.  If they worked the whole day they could dig more than twice as many truffles as they could possibly eat.

Nonetheless the fifty families with shovels kept on digging all day long.  They were used to digging twelve hours a day and, besides, hard work was a sacred tradition in the tribe.  For as long as anyone could remember people who did not work all day every day ended up starving.  So the fifty families with shovels continued working just as they always had, and pretty soon a mountain of truffles began to pile up around their huts.  

Meanwhile life went on just as it always had for the fifty families without shovels.  They spent all day every day digging with their fingers and could barely get enough truffles to eat.  And when they got home in the evenings they were so tired they could hardly stand up. 

Then, one morning, a villager from one of the families that didn’t have a shovel approached the hut of a family who did, around whose door the truffles were by now piled so high you could barely see the roof. 

"Dear neighbor,” he begged, “you have more truffles than you know what to do with.   Would you be so kind as to give me a few of your extra ones for my family?  Why should I and my wife have to work so hard digging truffles with our bare hands when you can dig them so easily with a shovel?"

The neighbor felt pity for his fellow tribesman and decided to share some of his truffles.  When the other families without shovels saw this they too began to ask their neighbors for truffles.  It wasn’t long before the fifty families without shovels stopped going out into the woods altogether.  Instead of getting up in the morning they slept in until noon and then lounged around the village square until evening. Only when their neighbors came home from work at the end of the day did they bother to get up and beg for something to eat.

Well, it was not long before the fifty families with shovels noticed what was happening, at which point they began to confer among themselves. "This won’t do!" they all agreed.  "It is not fair for our neighbors to loaf around all day and then expect us to feed them when we come home from work.  Let us hire them instead.  We can use our extra truffles for money.  They can build our fires for us when we come home, and cook our food, and fetch water from the well.  And while they are at it they might as well do a little something to make our huts bigger and more comfortable.  Hell, why don’t we make them massage our bodies with palm oil before we go to bed in the evening, which feels so good after a hard day’s work.”

So the fifty families who didn’t have shovels became the servants of the fifty families who did. They worked on their huts, cooked their food, fetched their water, massaged their bodies before bedtime, and in general made life for them as comfortable and luxurious as it was possible to be. 

At first the families who didn’t have shovels were grateful for their new jobs.   They had something to do for a change, and it was a lot easier to be a servant than to dig truffles with your hands.  But as time passed they began to feel resentful.  They noticed that when all was said and done their neighbors had a lot better deal than they did. They lived in big houses, didn’t have to cook or fetch water anymore, and had servants to wait on them hand and foot and do their every bidding.  Mutterings of discontent began to be heard throughout the village.

Now when the village chief got wind of these mutterings he became worried lest the peace of his village be destroyed.  He listened to the complaints of the families without shovels, and after hearing them out he gathered all of the people of the village together in the square and issued the following proclamation:

“From now on no family shall be compelled to perform menial tasks for another.  We shall have no servants among us!  Neither shall any family be compelled to dig truffles with its bare hands. It is demeaning and unnecessary.  Instead I shall feed those families myself.  To do this I am going to tax the families with shovels, who, after all, have more truffles now than they know what to do with."

Not surprisingly the chief’s new policy was very popular among the families without shovels.  Among those families who did have shovels, however, it had just the opposite affect.  Again they conferred among themselves:
“To have had beggars on your doorstep is one thing,” they all agreed.  “At least then we fed them out of the goodness of our hearts.  But just look at them now!   They still get our truffles for free!  Not out of charity, but as matter of right!  They aren’t even grateful anymore!  Why should we work hard all the time just so they can loaf around just like they did in the old days?” 

Once again the peace of the village was threatened.  Only this time the chief hadn’t the foggiest idea what to do about it.  In his perplexity he went to the village medicine man who lived in a hut on the side of the mountain in the middle of the island.  He told the medicine man the whole story from beginning to end, of how the Frenchman had shown up one day with his shovels, and of all the troubles that followed in his wake  

After listening carefully to the chief’s story the medicine man sat down on the ground and mixed some herbs together in a pipe.  He smoked these herbs, whatever they were, and went into a deep trance.  Time passed.  Then, very slowly, from the depths of his trance, the medicine man spoke these mysterious words: 

"There are only so many shovels and everybody has to dig."
After that he spoke not another word. After waiting for more than an hour the chief finally got up and headed back to his village.  On his way home he kept pondering those words: 

"There are only so many shovels and everybody has to dig.?” 
What in the world could they possibly mean?  Then, all of sudden, as if struck by lightening, the chief jumped into the air and shouted: "I have it!" 
He ran back to his village and summoned all the people together in the village square.  He asked them all to be seated and to listen carefully to what he was about to say: 

"We have a hundred families in our tribe," he began, "but we have only fifty iron shovels to dig with.”  

The crowd murmured, and the chief paused briefly before continuing. “From this day forward,” he announced, every family shall have the use of one shovel for one half of each day.  Half the families in our village will dig in the morning and the other half will dig in the afternoon.  That way every family can easily dig enough truffles to eat. No family will be made to dig with its bare hands.  No family will be forced to beg for food.  No family will be forced to become the menial servant of another.  And no family will be forced to feed those who don’t work” 

“Best of all,” he concluded, “for the first time in memory all the people in our tribe will have enough leisure to enjoy this beautiful island on which we are so lucky to live.”  And so it was from that day forward.

A few weeks later, upon further reflection, the chief decided that it might not be such a bad idea to increase the Frenchman’s share as well.  Instead of just a truffle a day for each of his shovels he would henceforth get two. 
When the Frenchman returned at the end of a year he was naturally delighted with the new arrange-ment, even if it had been made in his absence.

  “Just look at all my extra truffles!” he exclaimed.

  Thereupon he cheerfully packed them up in boxes and shipped them back to Paris, where they fetched a very handsome fortune.