Handling the Loner

I whistled for our Border Collie, Abbie, to swing around and stop a bunch of sheep that were rounding the corner of the barn. Unfortunately, I whistled an instant too late and her quick movements caused the sheep to bolt away even faster. I could only hope that Abbie could head them off before they reached the traffic on Airport Road.

Good news; after a few moments Abbie was back and pushing the flock through the gate and into the pasture.

Bad news! After we got the sheep settled I happened to glance around and saw a lone ewe standing forlorn halfway down the lane.

That was when I made the classic mistake of leaving the flock and trying to get control of the loner. I sent Abbie as wide as I could around the single ewe to try to gather it toward its friends. But, of course she was worried about me and the dog and so wouldn’t look the other direction where the flock was. At one point I was in grabbing distance and so I caught hold of the lone ewe’s head and tried to make it look toward it’s friends, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with that either. It swung its head so violently away and back to toward the highway that it threw me to the ground.

By now I was tasting not only dirt, but embarrassment, frustration and not a little panic. And so I was greatly relieved when Abbie freelanced, walked in on the frazzled ewe, and persuaded her to look back up the lane and finally spot the bunch of sheep who were happily pawing through the snow and finding good grass to munch on. The loner ewe then ran to her friends and the day was saved.

I should have known better. The first rule a shepherd should learn is that since sheep are prey animals a single sheep is a desperate, crazy sheep that will not settle down until it finds its way to the safety of the flock. The right way to correct things when a single breaks away is to use your dog to gather the flock back to collect the loner.

In community life we humans behave both like prey and predator. Malcom Gladwell’s bestseller, Outliers, is all about those exceptional people who succeed creatively. But in my book even the most exceptional wants to belong. Meanwhile those of us in the “silent majority” can behave like enraged predators at times, and when we see someone break ranks, the threat to the cozy status quo can throw us into an embarrassed, frustrated panic. Then both rebellious outliers and enforcing pack dogs can make horrible things happen.

Quite a few pundits and politicians went at it like a pack of dogs after the Tuscon shooting that left six dead and 13 others wounded. They did so because of their panic over the acts of a crazed loner named Jared Lee Loughner. The irony is that, if parents, teachers and other community members had all understood just a little of the elementary rule of breakaway sheep, Jared might not have been pushed further and further from a sense of belonging. Or at least we may have learned from a crisis and not scattered our civic flock even more.