Near the end of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and his donkey fall into a darkened pit, ending a series of misadventures in which he is tricked into believing that he is the governor of Insula Barataria (a non-existent realm). After being humbled by the demands of governorship, he flees, taking with him only a cheese wheel and some barley. He is further humiliated by his need for rescue at the hands of those who conspired to discomfit him, but Cervantes will not allow them the last word. His character, Sancho Panza, makes an impassioned defense of his actions, displaying an integrity, self-knowledge, and self-understanding lacking in most of the other characters.
It is here where Sancho utters one of the classic lines in the novel: “man proposes but God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him …” That is indeed a hard lesson to learn. As Sancho discovers, for our hopes and dreams to be fulfilling they must be consonant with not only our abilities but also our true selves. Sancho, the illiterate servant, is unprepared for public office, yet he is surprisingly wise, and in the end, far more admirable than those he attempts to govern and the duke and duchess whose private amusement he becomes. God does indeed know not only the plans of the duke and duchess but also the heart of Sancho Panza, and he allows the ruse to go forward. In the end, as Cervantes writes, “The duke and duchess did not repent of the joke played on Sancho Panza with regard to the governorship they had given him … giving them no small pleasure.” Yet Sancho remains to the end of the novel devoted and loyal to his master, and even though cast as a comedic foil, he retains a true dignity. He does so because even though he begins inexorably to share Don Quixote’s delusion, he never really forgets who and what he is.
This kind of self-knowledge is achievable by everyone, but it takes work, and it takes honesty. God does indeed dispose of things as he sees fit, and often it doesn’t matter to him how much planning and energy we have expended in an effort, because as Cervantes writes: “God knows what suits each man and what is best for him.” Learning to listen to our inner selves with discernment is the first step toward learning both what are our true desires and recognizing what God believes is best for us. If we seek him, as the Apostle James writes, he will be found. Yet far too often we are driven by other voices to seek places far removed from where God would have us be. Like Sancho Panza we will not be abandoned by God, who in his own time will place us squarely back on the path, but in the meantime, we may have to spend a disquieting time in a darkened pit with only our donkey for company.
There are Insula Baratarias in every life, calls to be who we were not meant to be. It is not an admission of inferiority or failure to turn away from such people, places, and things. It is wisdom.