Once upon a time, there was an old, very wealthy Bedouin. Well, not wealthy by American standards, perhaps, but in his world, by his own standards, quite wealthy indeed, because he lived in a world where a man is measured by the number of his sheep. And he had many sons and daughters — and many, many sheep.
He had so many sheep that one man could not watch them all, and so he called for two of his sons to come before him. He said to them, “I have many sheep, and I cannot watch them all by myself. And so I’ll give each of you a portion of my flock to tend. Keep them fed and watered, safe from wolves, and bring them back here in time for shearing season with an increase in number and in wool. Remember: while I own many things, my most precious possessions are these sheep.”
One son allowed his sheep to graze in the wilderness, moving from spot to spot to follow the greening of the grass and to seek clean water. He often found himself sharing a pasture with other shepherds, and his sheep freely mingled with the others. But when he whistled for his sheep, they recognized his voice and followed him to the sheepfold each night.
He lost a couple of sheep to wolves, but many more lambs were born, and his flock grew and flourished.
But his brother made a very different plan. He thought to himself, “Why would I want to be like everyone else? Why follow the patterns of the other shepherds? My father chose me because he knew I loved him with a zeal that allows me to be different from everyone else — better than everyone else.”
Soon he realized that the sheep from other shepherds that wandered into the fields where he was pasturing his sheep were eating grass and drinking water in competition with his sheep. He realized that if he could separate the flocks, his flocks would no longer suffer the competition from the other sheep.
So he built a wall around his pasture. There were plenty of rocks in the wilderness to build with. And soon the fence was very tall and completely surrounded his sheep.
The other sheep never bothered his flock again. Neither did the wolves. And he realized that he was indeed smarter than the other shepherds. He’d found a better way — the right way! His father would be so proud!
Soon the sheep ate all the grass inside the fence he’d built, and soon the water was fouled from the dead vegetation caused by the trampling of the same old ground week after week after week. And some of the sheep died of starvation.
And then a truly dreadful thing happened. The sheep became so hungry that they began to eat the carcasses of the dead sheep. And when the carcasses had been picked clean, they began to bite and devour each other. They turned into wolves. Well, they were still sheep, but sheep that had developed a taste for blood, hunting and eating other sheep as wolves do. In fact, they became so vicious that even the wolves were glad that the shepherd had built that wall.
Stressed by lack of food and water and afraid of the sheep-wolves, the ewes no longer became pregnant, and the flock began to shrink — slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, and then very quickly.
And then came the day for shearing. The first brother came to his father with his flock. A couple of weak sheep has wandered off, not following their shepherd, and been killed by wolves, but the rest of the sheep were well-fed, watered, and content — and nearly every ewe brought forth a healthy lamb, very nearly doubling the flock. Each sheep has a coat of lush, soft wool ready for the father to shear. The father was delighted with his son.
The second son came forward with his flock. For most of the year he’d been away, he’d looked forward to this day. He imagined the praise he’d receive because he’d found a better way, a pattern that no one else was smart enough to see. He was the one who realized that the other flocks were competing for food and water and had to be kept separate, and his father would surely reward him generously.
But as he walked back to his father with most of the herd dead or sick from starvation, and the few remaining having blood on their lips from attacking the other sheep, with hardly any lambs and with the sheep’s wool scoured from the their backs by attacks made by the other sheep, well, he wished he’d never been asked to be a shepherd.
And as he approached his father, he found the old man in tears, mourning the loss of his flock, a flock that had been in his family for generations.
The son began to blurt out the explanation he’d been rehearsing all the way home: “Father, the other sheep were competing …”
The father interrupted him with a look of unspeakable pain. “Son, those other sheep, they are my sheep, too. Their shepherds are your other brothers and sisters.”