Most of what I know about sheep is hearsay, undocumented, and not flattering. They are reputed to be stupid, lacking in initiative, and likely to fall over cliffs or entangle themselves in brush. They are not playful. Lambs have an innocent charm, but the adult animal is stolid and a little boring. Rams are distinguished by their horns, and there may be some variation in color; but the average sheep looks just like the rest of the flock. To look into the face of one sheep is to have seen them all.
I am not really pleased to be grouped with the sheep. In this I suspect that I am not alone. We live in a society that places high value on ingenuity, creativity, and individuality. It is better to be a leader than a follower—can you imagine parents urging their children to be good sheep, to aim for mediocrity in things academic and athletic? We admire people with high levels of energy and a zest for exploration. No, to be a good sheep is not part of the American Dream.
Most significantly, sheep need a shepherd. There is no such thing as an independent or self-made sheep. They need the shepherd if they are to be guided and cared for, and—in dire straits—to be rescued. There is nothing sentimental about this relationship: for the sheep it is a matter of survival, and for the shepherd it is a matter of economy. The sheep are not pets, to be cuddled and cosseted; rather, they are valuable property. The shepherd’s treasure, if you will.
There are no sheep on the streets of my neighborhood, but I am increasingly and keenly aware of those people whom we so easily turn into sheep, those people who “all look alike,” who are indistinguishable to the unloving eye. The boisterous, slightly threatening teenagers who rush onto the subway when school is out at three o’clock, the homeless who warm themselves on sidewalk grates and huddle in doorways, the frail aged lined up in their wheelchairs in nursing home corridors, the caged young men in our jails and prisons—they can become sheep, one like another, and easily replaceable. Or not missed, if one disappears. When I see pictures of refugees, those victims of indescribable suffering, they blur and begin to look alike. Even the individual child, with great pleading eyes and the bloated belly of starvation, begins to look like every other starving child, while the mother holding the body of her dead infant looks like all the other mothers.
I want to turn people into sheep because it is easier that way. It shields me from being touched by the depths of their pain and need, and it helps me deny my kinship with them. It lets me forget that I am a sheep too.
From “Sheep” in Just Passing Through: Notes from a Sojourner by Margaret Guenther