Teachings of Timothy Lamb

Timothy was the first lamb born on the sheep farm we started in 1980.  He grew fast, handsome, strong and intrepid.  His first weeks in the barn he thrived on his mom’s milk, then Spring came and the grass began to grow.  He wasn’t keen on the fibrous timothy-grass hay his mom enjoyed, but he was ecstatic about fresh grass.  That was what killed him.

Sheep produce carbon dioxide and methane as digestion by-products.  Rapid intake of green food before their digestive system has adapted can cause a build-up of gas that’s known as pasture bloat.  Bubbles form under a surface film on the liquid contents of their rumen.  There’s a build-up of gas pressure, the pH of the rumen drops, gas production further increases, the expanding rumen partially collapses the lungs and blood forced out of the body cavity to the extremities causes acidosis.  It’s a horrible way to die.

If you know, you can use a stomach tube to help release the gas, you can agitate the rumen contents, get the animal to take an anti-foaming agent or, in the last extremity, you can puncture the rumen from outside.  That results in an explosion of gas and liquid and requires the sheep to be cleaned and sutured.  I knew none of those things.

Something was terribly wrong when I took the sheep their hay and water that evening.  Timothy could hardly move.  All I could think of was bring him to the kitchen where it was less cold.  We put him on a blanket in a cardboard box on the floor and I sat with him.  Studying him was useless because in fact I knew nothing about sheep health.  There was no vet to call because vets in that town treated only cats and dogs or horses.  I just sat with him miserably feeling guilty.  At last, I had to go to bed.  In the morning he was dead.

Timothy did not think he was teaching me.  If you sit peacefully with sheep for a while and try to understand their experience you realize it’s probably not so very different from ours.  They’re easily panicked, as I was in I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There.  They don’t verbalize but they do stand nose to nose panting, exchanging pheromones.  The big difference is they do not have our gift for reflection.  Of course, they also cannot make and use tools but here I’m considering only activities of mind.

That Timothy was not trying to teach me does not mean I could not learn from him.  In fact, lessons from his life have continued to emerge even thirty years later.

The first thing I learned was, if you’re going to take responsibility for any other creatures, you should prepare so you can help them.  I could have prevented Timothy from pasture bloat if I’d known about it.  I could have saved him if I’d known how.  I studied, observed more closely and lost no more animals to bloat.  I eventually found a vet who only treated horses but who had grown up with sheep and was willing to teach me the basics.  I laid in a supply of medicines and grew adept with a syringe.

The most recent lesson, which only came clear to me in the last year, is the most important.  The compassion I felt for Timothy was good but it was mixed with suffering I was creating in myself.   The misery and guilt was all about me, not empathy but self-indulgence.   The compassion was what motivated me to recognize and work to overcome my ignorance.

2 comments on “Teachings of Timothy Lamb

  1. I know that Buddhism is all about suffering and how to end suffering, and while I feel there is some truth in its “Four Noble Truths”, there is something more, and your story about Timothy illustrates this. Timothy died horribly. You didn’t know what to do and therefore you “suffered” with guilt because had you educated yourself more thoroughly before taking on the responsibility of raising this lamb you might have avoided his unnecessary pain and death.

    If in fact there was nothing that could have been done about the problem, then that is the way things are and your guilt-suffering is purely self-administered self-indulgent mental anguish and has no use, so you should accept that that is the way of the world and you shouldn’t lose sleep over it. But if there was something that you could have done to avert this tragedy, then simple acceptance of what happened is insufficient. Animals can live in the moment and not obsess over past actions, but humans have a higher standard and a higher responsibility.

    Suffering does have a use. It was your guilt-suffering, not just your compassion that compelled you to learn more about how to properly tend to your animals. You didn’t want this to happen again which would have caused more mental anguish. Learning how to properly take care of your animals eased your mind – your guilt-suffering – because you now knew how to avoid the problem in the future. That ability to change what might happen is a uniquely human capability.

    Suffering can have a purpose. It can impel you to correct the cause of your suffering by taking a different path. Then you can be at peace, at least until the next anxiety-causing circumstance happens.

  2. Good point, John. Guilt-suffering was and regret still is a motivator for me although I’m lucky enough never to have been much afflicted by guilt. A few people I’ve met who’ve practiced Buddhism very diligently for many years do act solely from compassion, but I’m not one of them. One of those teachers told us: “Maybe your friends will ask what you were doing here. You can just tell them you are learning to become more happy and more kind.” Buddhism is really no more, or less than, a training program for kindness.

    Many years ago, probably around the time of my sheep farming episode, I ran across a thought experiment: “What if we live a succession of lives and in each one we should work to overcome a single great flaw?” Although reincarnation didn’t strike me as real, I liked the what-if and settled on selfishness as my target. I began trying to recognize when I acted that way. It was quite intellectual, but I did begin to notice more often the irritation or pain I absent mindedly caused others.

    It’s hard to absorb Buddhist philosophy. I rejected it along with every other kind I explored in my teens and early twenties when the urge for a theory tends to strike. It appears to me now that although my conceptualizing mind does still have to satisfy itself that the philosophy makes sense, all that’s really important is the training program.

    Everything we think and do has effects. As small children, we pretty much only notice the effects on our own life. Later, if we’re lucky, we start to notice how others are affected by what we do. We notice how by helping others to be happy, we are happy. If we’re lucky enough to get some control over our mind, we get better at knowing what really will promote happiness and more often act that way because we more often feel that way. The brain relaxes and the heart takes over so to say. Buddhism is actually selflessness.

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