I’ve mentioned here before my utter love of the film Good Will Hunting. Most of that love is connected to the depth of acting performance by Robin Williams, but the character of Will, the plot line, and the dialogue are major drivers of my adoration as well.
Some of the dialogue is heavy and deep, and some is just snappy and delivered with spot-on timing. It’s interesting how even the silly lines will crop up for me as I interpret and consider the characters and plot of my life. There is a pivotal scene in the film where Sean (Robin Williams) is pressing Will (Matt Damon) to connect with himself on a level deeper than any he previously has allowed. Will’s entire persona is a mask, an armor against the vulnerability of life alone, truly alone and exposed as someone no one understands, loves, or cares about in any regard. As long as that person is not exposed, he preserves his illusion that he is alone by choice, and that he does not care what anyone thinks of him.
After multiple generous attempts to pry some genuine self-examination from Will, Sean tries again. “What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?” Will says with false sincerity, “I want to be a shepherd. I want to get some sheep and tend to them.” Finally at the end of his tolerance rope, Sean kicks Will out of the therapy session and directs him not to come back. The scene ends with what I am sure must be a highlight of Williams’ legendary ad-lib tradition, when Will drops a “F*ck you” to which Sean replies seamlessly as he closes the door in Will’s face, “You’re the shepherd.”
This is all preamble to an epiphany I had listening to a friend’s teenage son bemoan the hard choices of adolescent social life. In a half-hearted defense of some peers who harshly criticized one another online he said, “It’s just the way it is. You all don’t understand. You’re either a wolf or you’re a lamb.” The implicit judgement was clear: Only an idiot would be a lamb by choice. It’s best to take others down first and establish oneself as a wolf not to be messed with, rather than to take a placid and passive approach to negotiating relationships and reputations. One travels that route at his or her own peril.
Many people see the world this way, and frankly for good reason. They have not been presented with many other choices, and the adolescent world is notorious for exacerbating these human tendencies. I think it must be because I know the adult leadership in the mix so well that Will’s choice, facetious as it is in the film, popped into my mind. There is another choice, and it is a genuine choice.
We can be wolves, we can be sheep, or we can be shepherds.
The image of The Good Shepherd is sacred in my faith tradition. My parents made a point of making sure I understood — really understood via trips to a Pocahontas County farm on an annual basis growing up — what it means to be a shepherd. Sheep, God bless them, are about as impossible to manage and care for as livestock comes. If you’ve been around sheep to any extent, you know what I’m saying. They are darling, and hopelessly dense and reactionary. They get a lot of nasty stuff stuck to them as they bumble around, and they can’t clean themselves. They have no idea how to take care of themselves at all. They are nearly defenseless against predators and they couldn’t find their way home with a compass, a map, and a flashlight. This is for starters.
It’s important to understand the nature of sheep if you want to really understand the nature of a shepherd. Sheep need a lot of help, and they will never stop needing help. Somewhere along the line someone decided they were worth it, and that the effort required to help them along was important. I think of that when I am presented with false choices about lambs and wolves.
It’s a dangerous job. It’s an exhausting job. It’s a thankless job. But when the flock is all accounted for, and the fire burns low and a friend is on watch, I’m not sure there’s a better rest to be had.
I want to be a shepherd.
Image credit: Silver Valley Stories