I’ve been shepherding quite a long time: sixteen years next month. As I look back over that time, I have come to realize that during those years, not only have I formed our flock around our needs and vision, but the flock has also formed me. I am now a different person than I think I would have been had it not been for that fairly impulsive purchase of three sheep in May of 2000. I think I am better off because of it – I’ve learned a lot. I think much of it is due to the fact that this world we live in today is a very busy and fast-paced one, and my sheep force me to slow down. They’ve pushed me over the years to calm myself and learn to trust, both myself and the bigger picture. I now much better understand why spiritual images of the shepherd abound.
As I reflect on all of this, I know I’ve become much more patient. I have always been a patient person, but working with sheep has made me even more so. Sheep don’t understand the human concept of time – they do things according to their own time, and generally that isn’t particularly quickly. Also, keep in mind that sheep only deliver lambs once each year, so working towards any one genetic goal means that we only see movement forward once each year in the spring with the new lambs. If I don’t get what I was looking for this year, I must wait an entire year to try again – or another year again after that. As excited as I am to see our new lambs each year, I’ve come to learn to temper my enthusiasm a bit – I love the lambs and the excitement of what might be, but I know that I’m in it for the long haul. Every single year is simply that: a small fraction of the overall project that I have undertaken.
Long-term patience, for me, is different than short-term patience, however – and our flock has pushed me towards both. While awaiting a newborn lamb from a ewe in labor, it is very tempting to assist in the labor to finish things up and see those lambs! Yet, there are many reasons why it is in the best interest of both the ewe and her lamb(s) to allow labor to progress at its own pace. Where I used to sit in agony, wanting to bring this labor to a quick end and see the babies, I can now sit peacefully, watching it all unfold and knowing that my assistance isn’t necessarily a good thing. I can better control that impulse to take charge of something that has been happening without me for millenia – knowing when my assistance is actually needed and when it must be put aside to let things happen as nature intended.
That actually brings me to the next point – I am now better at paying attention. Sheep cannot tell me when they don’t feel well or when something is wrong. I’ve learned that every time I am around the flock, it is a good time to carefully look things over. I walk the longer route if it takes me past a good view of the flock – or make the drive in towards town along our southern border so that I can get a quick look over the entire flock as I leave. I don’t ever anticipate any particular thing – but if I don’t watch closely, I also will never know what I missed until it could be too late. I’ve learned to pay very close attention to what I am doing at the time that I am doing it, and this has spilled over into the rest of my life. I have become more aware of the here-and-now.
Over the years, I have also become so very familiar with the very close relationship between life and death – and accepting that with one, we always have the other. I’ve become more in tune with the many cycles found in nature, and am more accepting that this is how things are meant to be. I still have trouble with loss, yet I have learned from the flock that this is part and parcel of having life. Life and death come together, and as a result, the flock – and the world – are renewed and continue on, eventually without us.
As I’ve written this, I’ve realized that much of this is really about control. I have always been a woman who likes to be in control, yet the flock has taught me that usually, true control is a mirage. Yes, we can sometimes change the direction of what occurs around us with our actions, but in the end, we are not in control – we must accept how life unfolds and continue on the best we can. This is how the flock accepts life – and they have taught me well. For such a control freak as I was to realize that there is a larger plan – that I can only do what I can, and hope that it is enough – and then accept when it is not – well, that has been the hardest lesson of all. I do still like to imagine that I am in control, yet the flock has taught me that this is all an illusion that I have created. Yes, I am definitely changed by the flock – and, I believe, all the better for it.