Recently I found myself tagging along again with my friend the philologist as he visited Ukraine. The Catholic University there is an amazing place—the top academic institution in the country—with a vibrant teaching faculty, a vivacious coterie of students, and a caring administration. Behind it a strong driving force has been a Harvard PhD named Jeffrey who has helped to shape and guide the university to ever higher ground, including, for its improved location, some fresh ground—literally—next to Lviv’s central park.
The beauty of the town, the joy of the students, the vim and vigor of Jeffrey himself easily outstripped my own jet-lagged energy, and in a way contrasted with it. But a deeper contrast was in the acute awareness I and, I think, everyone had of the soldiers on the other side of Ukraine fighting and dying against the pro-Russian factions (and even Russians) just as we were enjoying a lovely “dark prune” tort with raspberry tea. The blood red tea made me think of the blood being spilt by the noble Ukrainian soldiers at that very moment, the prune cake of the mire in which their bodies might just then be lying.
And as we visited church upon church, I though in brief prayers about those soldiers and about a dear friend’s mother who was even as I was praying for her dying. I thought about the inevitability of death, and that death is all around us. “Lo, that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And we do walk through that valley and beneath that shadow quite often in this life, all too often. Death is ubiquitous, too close at every moment.
The ancients knew this. Euripides devoted an entire drama to it entitled Alcestis, the story about a husband, Admetus, losing his wife to death only because she chose to undergo death’s penalty that her husband might live. And then it struck me: Death is seeking us to pay something, to give something back. Does he require that in return for life? I don’t think so, or at least not precisely. If that were the case we would not be so outraged by death, would not weep so bitterly; rather, Death is asking us to pay for our sins. You can see it in the sarcastic and pitiless way he looks at us. He comes with no care for “timing,” no sense of decency. Rather, he comes to punish us—not the person dying, but the people left behind—abandoned, orphaned by Death. He has come to punish us for our sins.
Which is why Euripides, as if enjoying a vision of a spiritual sea change to come, portrays Heracles defeating Death, beating him mercilessly as he deserves. In that play, Heracles brings Alcestis back to life for Admetus. And I think I know another “mythology” that teaches this same thing, boldly proclaiming redemption and resurrection as a historical event. In light of which I think that the next line of the old Psalm then makes sense: “I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Now I get it: the Psalmist is saying “Go to Hell, Death, or at least go back to Hell, for I am in a good state: ‘my cup runneth over’.” Is that the reasons those religious students at Catholic University in Lviv seemed so vibrant and alive, so optimistic even with Death knocking at another, not-so-far-away Ukrainian door? I’m not sure, but I am sure they at least know the twenty-third Psalm and, when the time comes in their life that Death draws nigh, they’ll remember what it means.
The topic of this week’s blog may appear, at first blush, a bit unlikely, for perhaps you’re wondering who would be so pretentious as to blog about the meaning of life? I must be kidding, right?
But I’m not. Rather, it donned on me (the meaning of life, I mean), when I saw a picture of a sheep named Christopher in the news. According to the Associated Press article, the poor fellow was lost for several years in the Australian scrubland—a land I had never hitherto known existed—and, when his wool was removed, it yielded roughly 89 pounds of the stuff. The article said it was about half the body weight of the animal. That’s a hefty animal and a lot of yarn. Such an amount of wool apparently can provide one sweater each for thirty people.
And that’s when it donned on me: I’d stumbled upon the meaning of life. And it’s not merely because I like sheep and can, thanks to Elaine Jakes’ having bought a farm (ch. 9 of The Curious Autobiography) when I was but a teenager, do a near perfect sheep voice imitation. Wherever I go, sheep are seriously impressed when I make a bleating sound (which, I’ve been told, echoes all too well the female mating-call). Nor is it because I happen to have been to Reykjavik, where I’ve seen and smelled some of the finest woolen sweaters in the world, sweaters that themselves still rather smell like sheep. (As I was but a student at the time, I hadn’t the money to purchase one; besides, it is normally far too hot in Texas to wear one). Nor is it because it is a Welsh family tradition to celebrate Easter with a meal of lamb. Nor is it because I am interested in metaphoric vocabulary derived from animal behavior: bull-headed (rather Minotaurish, isn’t it?); creepy (centipedish); catty (how fitting is that one?); jackass (need I say more?); mule-headed (definitely referring to the mentality); piggish (if you’ve seen a pig eat, you’d understand); rabbity (perhaps my favorite); birdlike (a bit too obvious, though “featherweight” is rather nice); squirrelly (entirely self-evident); lion-hearted (too little used any more); and, of course, sheepish. Yet I need not mention that one. And obviously none of these, nice as they are, sheds any light on the meaning of life. Rather, only this heavy-laden sheep does.
Now before I should dare divulge life’s meaning we need to consider something about sheep that is sometimes deemed offensive and certainly, among the most vociferous of sheep-rights activists, politically incorrect in the telling (non rectum reipublicae dictu). No, I do not mean to say here that sheep are stupid. That is a cliché; besides, to tell the truth, sheep have actually come out better than expected on their aptitude tests. There is no sense in perpetuating a false stereotype.
Besides, I would prefer to rehearse some interesting facts about sheep of which one might simply be unaware. First, even after many years, they have a remarkable memory, like elephants; they can also show emotion more readily than many other animals. And, apparently they can remember (or they know instinctively) which medicinal plants to eat when they are ill. Finally, they can even recognize (or at least mother ewes can) the bleat of their own offspring. In other words, sheep may not seem very much like us, but in many ways they are.
Which brings us back to the meaning of life. Before we can state in a mere blog in 1500 words or less what the meaning of life is, we must establish that sheep, like humans, no matter how stupid they may seem—and if one reads the news, it is not difficult to discover that we humans, even to our fellow human beings, can seem very stupid—are in fact not unintelligent. They are, in that sense, humanlike. I shan’t be sheepish about stating it plainly: a sheep can provide a very apt metaphor for a human being.
Unless we bear that in mind, we can’t discover the meaning of life, nor can we understand William Blake when he writes:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Blake, in his second most memorable poem—“The Tyger” being the most memorable, though “Jerusalem” is my favorite—long before the sheep intelligence study of scientists here tells us the same thing that the scientists have confirmed, namely that sheep are very much like human beings. When he writes “By the stream, and o’er the mead,” it is hard not to detect an allusion to the green pastures and still waters of the twenty-third Psalm, a poem that perhaps needs no introduction for most readers .
Both poems, Blake’s and King David’s, point in the same direction. They point toward the meaning of life. They suggest it, without quite stating it. But the oversized wandering Australian sheep perhaps says it better than even the psalm or Blake, or any scientific study about sheep, even the I.Q. test on which the sheep—and I assume there was more than one of them, for otherwise the results could be skewed, if Albert Einstein sheep happened to be the sole test-taker—out-performed, presumably, cows, goats and gazelles. And so it is that the sheep in question, the living Chia-pet king of wooliness, Chris, by his mere presence said, when he wandered back in sight of humankind, “I need help. Can you please shear me?”
And that is the answer to the riddle, “What is the meaning of life?” As without help Chris would surely have died, crushed under his own coat, the answer must be that we need each other; that we must help each other. We were born to do that. We reproduce, look after babies and care for our families simply to fulfill that unspoken charge. Many of us will be blessed to care for (sic) aging parents for whom we are privileged to do that. If we are living correctly, our lives won’t so much be about ourselves as about others. We will take the time to sheer each other’s wool, to gather it, to make sweaters for the poor; we will take the time to love each other from the heart. The world tells us “You, and you alone, matter, and you can do whatever you want in this moment.” But then it turns right around and says, “Get with the system, do the trendy.” The unstated premise is simply that so long as you stay current and don’t look back to the past or forward to the future, you’ll be okay.
But Chris the wandering sheep tells us something else. He says, “Remember me.” He says, “Help me.” He says, “Let me have a future, don’t let me die.” He also says, and Blake says it for him (and for the tiger), “The one who made you, made me; we are in this thing called life together.”
Yet I don’t mean to imply mere mammalian reciprocity. Again, the world might just settle for a bit of that. But Chris’ story is different: he is not offering reciprocity but is providing a metaphor for the relationship of the human and divine. Chris needs our help, and the mere fact that he exists demonstrates to us what we were made for and that we, too, have needs that only someone higher than us, in our case much higher, can fulfill. Our existence, our pathos, sorrow, grief, wretchedness, and—dare I say it?—sin shows our deficiency in the same way the Chris’ wool shows his ever-waxing need. How ironic, then, that Blake’s little ditty suggest, too, that the lamb should be, like King David in his youth (or a still greater king), a child.
You may yet be wondering about the meaning of life. In case I haven’t been clear, I shall be now. It is, from one point of view, denying yourself to serve others. From the other point of view, it is, simply put, acknowledging how wooly life can get. Blake says the rest; if you don’t like Blake, take heart, you’ll get another crack at it: Christmas season is just around the corner, the stuff of another blog—rather a series of blogs about life once upon a time in a little town beneath a great arbor. In the meantime, whether with a ringer’s precision or snagger’s compassion, he who has Wolseley’s to shear, let him shear.