When Tom Johnson tells people that his job is professional sheep shearer many of them get blank expressions and some have a laugh.
If they only knew.
Tom is our sheep shearer, and my wife and I know that although sheep are a distant third behind cattle and pigs in the livestock scene of Illinois, it is essential to have good shearers working. And we know that what Tom does is truly amazing—something I would liken to a fine ballet.
On our farm we have tough hill sheep that don’t submit to any handling without putting up a fight, and I get worn out on shearing day just catching the sheep to hand off to Tom. But what he has to do his ballet work with them.
You see, ballet artists must perform tremendously athletic moves like making flying leaps comparable to a long jumper’s in the Olympics; but they must do it gracefully. Compare that to a shearer who has to wrestle a thrashing animal that weighs 175 to 250 pounds to the ground and then keep it moving from side to side with one hand and a carefully placed knee, while simultaneously using the other hand to move a whirling blade in long strokes, following precisely the curvature of the beast’s body. Then, at the end of two spectacular minutes, a fleece comes off in one piece.
My wife, Connie, and I get to see this ballet each spring, but this year we took special delight in sharing it with Josh Bridge, a handy-man carpenter who has been working on an addition to our house. Josh is a craftsman himself and so it was quite fun to see him smile so broadly while he watched Tom do his magic on a few of our sheep.
In Josh’s admiring smile there was a flash of glory in the dust and sweat of that morning. One skilled workman took the time to be amazed at the craft of another.
I wondered though how many times each of us have shown our own ignorance and made the world a little poorer by failing to appreciate the fine points of what others do in their jobs or their hobbies. Years ago a wise Jewish educator gave some classroom management tips to Sunday school teachers under my supervision. He said the best tool to keep students motivated is for teachers to show genuine enthusiasm about the world, and added that anything can become boring when we don’t know enough about it. I would add only that the work of others always looks easy and unimportant when we know nothing of it.
Holding cheap the work of others gives us cheap comfort. We do it absent-mindedly to think better of ourselves. But it really only short-circuits our understanding of the world and flattens our character at the same time.
If only the next time we were tempted to sniff at the work of someone else we would catch ourselves, observe more closely, and ask a few questions. We would perhaps take more pride in our own duties. We would surely make our world richer and grow a bit nobler of character.