We need more connection, more wholeness, more shepherds
Your image of a shepherd most likely brings forth a staffed figure amongst a field of wooly white sheep.
This is a fairytale image. The pastoral life looked much different and goes back as far as we have data which is around 5,000 to 9,000 years ago.
Today there are still 50 million pastoral shepherds who currently graze the forests and grasslands of India, Asia, and Africa.
Civilized society has tended to see shepherds as outcasts and pastoralism as an outmoded way of life. Some of our greatest scholars have used not-so-great adjectives to describe them.
In one of the great American films, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon (Will) jokingly said he wanted to be a shepherd and then Robin Williams (Sean) mocks him by calling him Little Bo Peep.
Shepherds are an enigma, but some have seen them as sacred. They can be set aside only for the most prestigious metaphors.
To agnostically quote the bible:
- “The Lord is my shepherd” Psalm of David: 23:1
In Latin, the word “pastor” stands for shepherd and means to “maintain, protect, and feed.”
Somewhere during our transition from hunter-gatherers to permanent settlements, shepherds emerged to work in harmony with mother nature (maintain, protect, and feed) instead of conquering it (deplete resources and relocate.)
This harmony didn’t last long. Society quickly nestled into their permanent settlements and the leftover shepherds turned into outcasts, or at best nostalgia.
One of our oldest pieces of literature, Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 BC), presents a ‘golden age’ of the past when people lived together in harmony with nature. It reflected an ideal pastoral life that they had already been lost to pain and toil.
Only in hindsight can we reflect on permanent settlements:
- “The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.” (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind)
Shepherds already knew this predicament, of course, and this is why we need more of them.
Let’s align on a definition of a shepherd:
- “Someone who is able to create order out of chaos, by aligning the natural inclinations of individuals within a whole — a symbiotic whole that none of the individuals would have been able to bring about. It is not simply an act of subduing, but rather that of bringing into synchronicity.” -source
Shepherds help make whole.
Humans, despite our hubris to think otherwise, are just parts of a larger whole. This whole can be succinctly described as “mother nature”, and it operated pretty well without us for billions of years.
Alan Watts explains:
- “We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
When humans separate themselves from mother nature we begin to lack wholeness and this translates into disorder and disease. Emphasis on the prefix “dis-”, meaning “lack of.”
We become disconnected, and this is a fundamental law of physics:
- “The Second Law of Thermodynamics is irrefutable. It says, “Any system put in isolation will increase its entropy.” Entropy is a physics term for chaos. Any system put in isolation will increase its chaos. If you take an atom, a molecule, a human cell and put it in isolation, it increases its chaos level. We’ve seen this as a form of punishment for thousands of years. The most severe punishment we can give is solitary confinement. In fact, cancer is a cell left in isolation. You can’t get cancer until that cell is completely isolated from all of its neighbors.” -Zach Bush
Disconnecting people from society used to be more brutal than death-it was called exile.
This was the extreme version of disconnection, but our potential for disconnection is endless because of the complexity of our whole:
- Humans are nothing without microorganisms.
- Microorganisms are nothing without a diversity of plants.
- Plants are nothing without soil.
- Soil is nothing without a complex ecosystem of bacteria and fungi networks.
- Soil’s complex ecosystem is nothing without nitrogen.
- Nitrogen is nothing without volcanoes and plate tectonics.
You get the point.
Technically speaking, isn’t it illogical for a part to completely understand a whole?
Despite this truism, humans will always create ways to deceive ourselves into a position of all-knowing.
In a world of uncertainty, we’ll do anything to feel certain.
Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, describes a path forward:
- “To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.”
Seek connection in a world of uncertainty.
A simple principle we can follow-where there’s disorder, there’s disconnection.
Smartphones are a great analogy. When they are disconnected they are useless. They turn into really expensive calculators and flashlights. Even when our phones are “connected” they have been shown to be catastrophic to anxiety and depression.
Here are some more examples. When humans moved into permanent settlements diseases emerged:
- “Most people in agricultural and industrial societies lived in dense, unhygienic permanent settlements — ideal hotbeds for disease. Foragers roamed the land in small bands that could not sustain epidemics.” (Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens)
When we existed as hunter-gatherers, we were deeply interconnected. We were whole.
The results illustrate this:
- “The natives were invariably cheerful and optimistic. Such people were characterized by “splendid physical development” and an almost complete absence of disease, even those living in physical environments that were extremely harsh.” -Weston A Price foundation
This included their mental health:
- “Researchers who study hunter-gatherers often comment on their extraordinary cheerfulness and stoicism.” (Peter Gray, Free to Learn)
Most illuminating is the story of the English settlers leaving their civilized lives for tribal Indian life. Almost lost in the annals of history, but told in the book Tribe by Sebastian Junger:
- “Emigration always seemed to go from the civilized to the tribal, and it left Western thinkers flummoxed about how to explain such an apparent rejection of their society.
- White captives who were liberated from the Indians were almost impossible to keep at home:
- “Tho’ ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
They were escaping to the woods in seek of connection. They wanted to be whole again.
To appease your inner cynic-it wasn’t all rainbows for tribal cultures. For one, they were prey as much as they were predators. Secondly, many did not survive infancy and childhood.
But, surviving infancy and childhood was a problem for our agricultural ancestors as well. And, judging history with a righteous eye is futile because if we fast forward another few centuries our era will be a victim of the same hindsight judgment.
Putting that tangent aside, we can draw our attention back to the analogy of a smartphone. When a smartphone doesn’t have service, it doesn’t have an electromagnetic connection.
We, too, can lose our electromagnetic connection but it’s more subtle. Not only is it subtle, but it’s also invisible to the naked eye so it’s not taken as seriously.
There are many ways to reconnect our electromagnetic connection:
- This is what drives the earthing and grounding movement.
- It is what drives countries like Japan to give out prescriptions for “ Forest Bathing.”
- It is why the book, The Invisible Rainbow: A History of Electricity and Life, and its 139-page bibliography showing the ill-effects of electricity on life and our environment, has risen to bestseller lists.
Our disconnection is why conventional Western medicine has failed us. Alternatives to Western medicine-like functional medicine, integrative medicine, and eastern medicine-seek to understand how the human body interacts with all aspects of life and the environment. They see the key to health as a harmonious and balanced functioning of body, mind, and spirit.
Mother nature shares these principles. This is why some of the best doctors in the world are exemplifying mother nature as their central tenet.
This is the work of the modern shepherd.
Modern shepherds seek to avoid the unintended consequences of making decisions without considering the whole.
Just look out your window at the trees that line your neighborhood. Many of these trees, and surrounding plants, are non-native species. Non-native species disrupt the health and habitat of many animals, especially birds.
Even the most harmless-looking plants, like the beautiful Kudzu, can have devastating unintended consequences.
If we want to alleviate the unintended consequences of our decisions, we have to include mother nature in all our decisions.
But, we continually exclude her. (insert patriarchal joke here)
Regenerative agriculture is a great example. It emerged as a replacement to traditional agriculture’s insidious unintended consequences.
What’s ironic about regenerative agriculture is that its principles are shared with pastoralism-like planned rotational grazing, animal integration, healthy soil, and biodiversity.
One of the biggest examples of failing to include mother nature involves electricity. Since electricity’s introduction, there have been many warning signs of its unintended consequences but now some experts are sounding the alarm bells on its devastating effects. Here are two illuminating stories:
- Sutro Tower stands tall in San Francisco and children who live less than one kilometer from the tower had 9 times the rate of leukemia, 15 times the rate of lymphoma, 31 times the rate of brain cancer, and 18 times the total cancer rate, as children in the rest of the city. — source
- The Philadelphia Zoo, prior to electricity, virtually had no cases of heart disease and cancers in the early 20th century. But, by 1963, over 90 percent of all mammals and 72 percent of all birds that died in the zoo had coronary disease. And, the rate of malignant tumors among mammals increased between two-and twenty-fold — source
We always need to be considering the whole and this is why we need more shepherds.
How about the herd?
We can’t discuss shepherds without discussing herds. It’s in the name for Pete’s sake.
Despite our unwillingness to be included in the animal kingdom, we homo sapiens sapiens are animals and we exhibit animalistic behavior. One of them is herd behavior. Another is tribal behavior.
We have a tendency to form groups and to be heavily influenced by those groups. We are also heavily influenced by the absence of those groups-aka social isolation-but the rest of the animal kingdom is, too-like mice, bees, horses, and swordtail fish.
As we discussed earlier, without our tribes and herds we will experience isolation and disorder.
Therefore, it is not an either-or question-should I shepherd or should I herd? It is a matter-of-when question:
When do I shepherd and when do I herd?
Being in a herd comes with a negative connotation but they provide protection from predators and reduce the time needed to search for resources. Being on the edge of a herd is much riskier, it is where predation is highest. This is what motivates all herd members to constantly be moving towards the center.
Therefore, as herd members, we have to continually be asking ourselves-are we headed to greener pastures?
Or, are we so far in the center that we are one step away from bowl-cutting our hair and lacing up our black Nikes?
To find out if we are headed to greener pastures, we have to continually be gaining an outside view of the inside.
Dr. Edwards Deming-responsible for Japan’s post-war rebirth, the Toyota Way, LEAN-explains:
- “Understanding comes from outside. An outside view provides a lens for examination of our present actions, policies. The outside view is the aim of my system of profound knowledge. Knowledge from the outside is necessary. Knowledge from outside gives us a view of what we’re doing, what we might do, a road to improvement, continual improvement.” -excerpt from his final interview
To get an outside view, it takes a process of continuous improvement from the inside out.
Dr. Deming goes on to say exactly this,
- “The first step is transformation of the individual. The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to their life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.”
We have to shepherd ourselves before we can shepherd the world.
Shepherding ourselves is the most difficult task because life comes with a lot of suffering. In 2019, there were 130 suicides a day and over 3.5 million Americans planned a suicide. And, in 2021 deaths from drug overdoses rose to over 100,000 annually.
Some have said, “It’s more difficult to rule yourself than to rule a city.”
Therefore, it would be wise to find the shepherds who have been successful in shepherding themselves. They shouldn’t be hard to find, they are all around us.
You don’t have to wait for any of this, though. You can become a shepherd today.
Just seek connection and consider the whole.
- “If the howl of a hyena panicked the herd in the dark of night, the shepherd’s calm reassuring voice would still them.” -source