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  • Writer's pictureDan FitzPatrick

The Bad Shepherd

There once was a countryside in which a flock of sheep lived happily and comfortably under the supervision of a succession of fairly capable shepherds. They grazed contentedly by day on good grass under the watchful care of loyal sheepdogs, and slept safely and securely each night in a strong sheepfold made of stone impenetrable by the many wolves who yearned to do them harm. Life for the sheep was relatively carefree and they were content with their lot.

One day, a new shepherd was appointed to lead the flock. Not actually new, this shepherd had for many years worked in the countryside sometimes with, sometimes not with, the previous shepherds. At first the sheep welcomed the new shepherd, whose avuncular demeanor seemed to promise a somewhat calmer and more traditional continuation of the way of life to which they had become accustomed.

But soon it became clear that the new shepherd had novel opinions about shepherding and the proper relationship between shepherd and sheep. He wasted no time implementing his new ideas, some of which seemed fairly radical to a significant number of the sheep.

He decided that he would erect a large tent-like covering over most of the best grazing fields in order to protect the sheep and himself from the potentially harmful effects of long-term exposure to the rays of the sun, and expected the sheep to be grateful for his beneficence, wisdom and farsightedness.

He instructed the sheepdogs to be more tolerant and less aggressive towards the wolves, as the wolves could not be faulted for the predatory nature with which they were born or the hardships they endured living in such close proximity to their preferred source of sustenance, the sheep.

He considered the imposing stone walls of the sheepfold to be antiquated symbols of paternalistic oppression from which he could liberate the sheep to pursue their individual expressions of freedom and personal liberty, and so he tore down great portions of them.

And the new shepherd looked upon all that he had done, and saw that it felt good.

But all was not good in the countryside. Predictably, the tenting over the grazing fields stunted the growth of the grass, making successful grazing very much harder for the sheep. Also predicably, the wolves, newly emboldened by the enfeebled enforcement efforts of the sheepdogs, undertook increasingly brazen attempts to attack the flock in broad daylight, carrying off many a sheep to its unfortunate fate. And of course, again predictably, the open sheepfold walls left the sheep in bodily peril all night long.

It soon became clear that the grazing lands were not producing enough grass to sustain the flock, but the new shepherd rebuffed any suggestion that the tenting be removed. Instead, he approached the owners of other adjacent countrysides, asking them to share their surplus grasses with his flock. The shepherd then reluctantly entered into an agreement with the wolves to transport the grasses to his flock, for which the wolves demanded payment in sheep.

The sheep naturally became very upset upon learning of this arrangement, and asked the shepherd to reverse his policies and revert back to the practices which had served the flock so well in the past. But the shepherd in his pride refused, warning the dissenting sheep that if they continued to object to his leadership, he would withhold from them the imported grasses which he alone now controlled. The shepherd then turned the sheepdogs against the sheep by reminding them that they also depended upon him for their food.

The sheep were despondent. Was this to be their fate for the foreseeable future?

Fortunately for the flock, there were a number of sheep who thought clearly and saw past the immediate challenges. They realized that, in the grand scheme of things, it was actually the flock that mattered most: but for the sheep, the shepherd would have no job, nor would the sheepdogs, and the wolves would have no reason to remain in the countryside. The sheep held the power! But the question remained: how to leverage that power in order to improve their lot?

One thoughtful sheep spoke up: “Why are we acting as if the shepherd is the ultimate authority over our flock? Is he not selected by and accountable to the owner of our countryside? Cannot the owner remove and replace him at will? Our concerns are legitimate and the owner should see that our best interest and the owner’s are aligned. Let us petition the owner for relief.”

So the flock decided to send a delegation to the owner. But the trip across the countryside would be dangerous, with wolves everywhere waiting to pounce on any unprotected sheep. Fortunately, some of the sheepdogs, troubled in conscience by the actions of the shepherd, agreed to accompany and defend them on the journey. And so they left. And, safely, arrived.

The owner, marveling at the unexpected arrival of the animal supplicants, welcomed the sheep and dogs warmly and listened intently to their tale. “I am greatly distressed,” said the owner. “I had entrusted this shepherd with the care, nurture and protection of my prosperity, but he has betrayed that trust by placing his foolish ideas and obdurate pride above his responsibilities to me and to you. He has thus forfeited his position and shall be replaced. Henceforth, I will identify a new set of candidates from whom you may select a new shepherd, so that at all times the shepherd will realize and remember his proper role in the management of my countryside. Go now and deliver my judgement.”

The delegation returned to the flock. The bad shepherd was replaced, the tenting was removed from the grasslands, the sheepdogs returned to their natural guardian role (much to the dismay of the wolves) and the sheepfold wall was restored. While it took time for the grasses to revive, they eventually did, and a sense of normalcy returned to the countryside.

The thoughtful sheep then observed: “How fortunate are we, simple sheep that we are, to benefit from the wisdom and benevolence of humans, who would obviously never permit themselves to be or remain in the absurd predicament unfairly imposed upon us!”

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