I Am a Sheep
I am a sheep. Like the fluffy blobs of wool sprinkled across fertile farmland, I like to be part of a group. That’s the nature of domesticated sheep: to gather.
I also run away from scary things like sheep do. I’m not a ninja and have absolutely no bow hunting skills. I can’t protect myself, so I run.
Another interesting thing I have in common with sheep: I don’t walk in a straight line. Sheep do it so they can watch behind themselves with one eye at all times. I don’t walk in a straight line because I’m not always sure of where I’m going and am easily distracted (while writing that last line I went to check Facebook, proving my point).
You can see why sheep need a shepherd, and so do I.
I’m a follower. If I find a good person, someone who walks a little straighter than I do, I’ll get behind them on a narrow sheep path. Eventually, I notice how their tracks don’t make a straight line either, their fluffy butt is blocking my view, and they’re leaving “deposits” on the trail that I have to walk through.
I don’t need another sheep to follow, I need a shepherd. Someone who isn’t as distracted as I am with looking behind me, instead they look ahead and stay focused. Shepherds are also taller than sheep and so they have a better perspective. Also, their view isn’t blocked by the fluffy sheep butt in front of them.
The analogy of sheep as followers of Christ has been well-used since Christ spoke of himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Since that time followers of Christ have proclaimed themselves as in the fold, or one of the ninety and nine, which are references to sheep herding. This idea of being a sheep, a follower of Christ, has also taken on negative connotations. Modern conversations about religion usually involve at least one mention of sheep-like mentality among believers, and it is not meant to be a compliment.
As with any assault on my intelligence (sheep have some pride) I get defensive when people give sheep a bad name. Blind follower, simpleton, spineless cowards, unthinking dolts, subservient… you get the idea. Many of these accusations against sheep involve lacking thought, as if in choosing to follow I hand over my brain.
My herd reads the same set of scriptures every day. We sit in a congregational meeting every week where we just listen, except for when we sing hymns, which are chosen by someone else for us to sing. Sounds like a lot of sheep-like behavior. It may even sound boring.
The amazing thing is that it’s not! Every week something teaches my soul, which helps me continue striving for another week. Not feeling guilted into being a good person, but feeling loved and valued for just trying. Despite all of the things I do that are exactly the same as other Mormons, I feel important as an individual. I wonder if it is a contradiction that can only be believed with first hand experience. (I don’t think it’s exclusive to Mormons.)
Last week I read a scripture about prayer that expressed the kind of individual relationship I strive to have with God. It touched my heart, as if God understood that I want this even if I’m often incapable of achieving it.
Ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness. Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you. (Alma 43:17)
A week later I sat in our congregation listening to a speaker and I heard this scripture again, but in a different context. He spoke about sharing, living a charitable life, and quoted this same scripture but included the next verse:
And now behold, my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in need—I say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold, your prayer is vain, and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.
In hearing another person’s view of this scripture I understood more about how prayer is not just words and thoughts, it is also actions. Of course this touched my soul as I thought about the times in my life that I have tried to live my prayers, not just say them. It is also interesting that these scriptures touch on the value of the individual and of the individual’s role in his or her larger community. Both the individual and the group are valuable.
This scripture reminded me of my son’s recent prayers. He added a phrase to his prayers: “Bless people who do not have homes.” It seems that through our experiences with moving, being foster parents, and other service, he understands more about what it means to not have a home. I can see something happening in his heart: he is developing charity. He is connecting personal individual experiences to his larger community, sheep and herd.
Another good outcome of the speaker quoting the previous scripture was the encouragement of a greater feeling of community in my mind. On some level he and I understand each other. Even though we fall short of this ideal, we both embrace it and support one another in reaching for greater capacity to help our herd. As individuals we connected for the good of the group.
Maybe I can explain these ideas about groups and individuals better if I use an experience we are all familiar with: food.
If I walk down a busy downtown street during the lunch hour most of the people I see are eating! It’s crazy, all these people doing the exact same thing, what mindless followers!
Of course I’m being facetious. We eat because we need to to survive. But think about how we eat, the cultural norms that surround food – three meals a day, sweets after savory, a beverage, napkins, silverware, table manners- there is a lot about eating which we do because it’s what everyone else does.
Why does everyone else do it?
Food is a delicious perk of living! Think of how many times you’ve eaten something wonderful – your eyes close as your whole being focuses on the taste – rich deep rolling flavors. The texture, slight resistance, silky smooth. (I’m thinking of French Silk pie, but feel free to insert the characteristics of your own desirable treat.) The smell almost as good as the taste, with layers falling over you. Then the feeling of fullness that we crave as human beings, satiation. It is so enjoyable that a few hours later we want to do it again- the same thing that everyone else is doing.
A mob mentality is a factor to be aware of when you are part of a group, but it is rare in comparison to the widespread positive effect of social groups. I think it can be argued that religion is the largest source of positive social groups. If you’re going to be a part of a social group, why not be a part of one the very emphasis of which is the betterment of the group and its treatment of individuals? Besides, I can’t think of the last time I heard of a group of sheep carrying torches and pitchforks… but then again the Crusades is a popular example for opponents of religion.
We seem to have a negative association with doing things that others do. Modern society emphasizes being different, unique, one of a kind; which seems like something a wolf would say to lure a sheep from the protection of the shepherd. While our individuality is of value, the fact remains that being part of a group is good for us. Multitudes of scientific studies have proven that being part of a social group improves our health and mental well-being (just a few: Stone & Aneshensel 1982, Speigel 2012, Frasure-Smith et al 2000).
I will go on being a sheep, despite the wolves (in and out of sheep’s clothing) who whisper that the safety of the herd is an illusion.
Image credits: Springwools Ireland, Antibes Travel Guide