I Want to Be a Shepherd

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

How D’Ya Like Them Apples? IQ and Education

Someone asked me last week if I think the bell curve of intelligence quotient scores is even across political parties and political positions.  Without hesitation I said yes.  I don’t see any reasonable explanation for why IQ scores would necessary correlate to a person’s political opinions.  I do think, though, that the likelihood that our nation can even out with some moderate positioning on a range of issues is hampered by our struggles with educational attainment rates and public education dynamics in general.

How can we ever expect to communicate with each other to achieve more balanced and reasoned understanding when test scores and drop out rates indicate we are failing to establish even basic language skills?  And if we never leave the communities where we grew up to learn in an environment with a diverse representation of people from around the country and even the world, how can we develop appreciation for diversity and what people different from ourselves have to teach us?

In the midst of my pondering, I turned to Will.  Will always helps me figure things out.

Good Will Hunting is a favorite film in our house.  We ping back to it often, from personal reasons to conceptual storytelling to a love of Robin Williams in dramatic roles.  A quote that gets a lot of play on a regular basis is, “How d’ya like them apples?”

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll recall Will (Matt Damon) is trying to get the attention and admiration of Sklyar (Minnie Driver) in a bar frequented by Harvard University students.  An arrogant pretty-boy tries to embarrass him by asking him questions about books he’s sure Will has never heard of, let alone read.  Much to his dismay, Will knows the books.  Very well.  Well enough to end up humiliating the other guy, and well enough to get Sklyar’s phone number on a cocktail napkin before she leaves.  Outside the bar, Will knocks on the glass to get stuck-up’s attention.  “Do you like apples?” Will asks.  “What?”  the guy insides replies.  “I said, do you like apples?”  The guy shrugs and nods, confused.  Will slams the napkin with the newly inked phone number up on the glass and into his face.  “Well, I got her number.  How d’ya like them apples?”

The scene is a classic illustration of the disconnect between education and intelligence.  The entire movie pivots around questions of what it means to know anything.  In the apples scene, Will comes out on top.  He has exposed himself to great works of art, and he has a photographic memory that allows him to regurgitate on cue lengthy analyses of everything from sculpture to political theory.  What’s brewing underneath his cocky persona, however, is anything but educated.  We find out later in the story that he has, for good reasons, completely isolated himself from real life experience.  He lives in his head with the thoughts and lives of others running roughshod over his courage to engage life on his own terms, and to have a true education.

Sean (Robin Williams) nails him on it with this memorable monologue:

So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny… on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations. Him and the pope. Sexual orientation. The whole works, right? I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seeing that. If I ask you about women, you’ll probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites…… But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman… and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. I look at you. I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid. But you’re a genius, Will. No one denies that.

Will is a smart kid.  Smarter than smart.  But he is lashing out with information as a weapon rather than being willing to let other people teach him anything, and rather than allowing himself to be vulnerable to the many possibilities that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thinks he does about what life is really about.

Intelligence can be a wonderful thing, and fortunately we know now that there is more than one way to measure it.  Intelligence of any kind, however, requires the humility and depth that only participating in a shared environment of respect for real learning can deliver.  It starts in school, but it hardly ends there.

Actually, if you do it right, it never ends. And that mindset is the one that has the unique power to moderate the sound and fury of today’s political climate, regardless of what else a person believes.