Horses and Sheep

my drawing of a horse—symbol of freedom

I see horses everywhere these days, which is unusual because I live in a city, but hmmmm … I’m not so sure having stronger family ties will bring wholeness or well-being into my life. I see horses on beer commercials. Horses on book covers. Horses next to the supermarket. Policemen riding horses. Horses on football helmets. Horses everywhere, except in the wild where they should be.

What am I talking about?

I know it’s an odd way to start this but have you seen the movie Michael Clayton? If not, I don’t want to give the story away completely. Allow me to say that the protagonist (now known as MC and performed by George Clooney) has an epiphany at the beginning of the film, which is really the end of the film (e.g. Quentin Tarantino plot technique where the beginning is the end and the middle is the beginning). MC pulls his car over, ventures up a hillside, and stares deeply at three horses. This moment essentially saves his life and later he becomes reconnected to his estranged family. Well, actually, as MC is making this connection, we the viewers need to figure out what is going on. We don’t have enough information at this point in the film, but later we do, yet even then it’s one of those scenes that doesn't tell us what to think. Rather it is left open to interpretation. Good films do this. Recently I experienced this same open-for-interpretation quality when I watched Tony Takitani, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men.

Image of Michael Clayton acted by George Clooney
The film Michael Clayton (2007) performed by George Clooney

But let’s get back to MC. The film touches on a common American conflict (or theme): the dysfunctional family and how it is a microcosm of dysfunctional America (specifically government, law, and corporations). The reason we sometimes disconnect from family is because they don’t bring us well being. But it does depend on the family. Mine has some black sheep: Uncles committed to crime, cousins who have too many unplanned babies, and fathers who spend too much time in Las Vegas alone, have nasty drug habits, or drinking problems. Ya, I know, what else is new in America right? We are exceptionally talented at exercising the right and freedom to be, as the song goes, bad to the bone.


Of course, the hero concept applies to everyone. We all have the potential to be a hero in large or small ways.

When I think of my family I think of black sheep, not horses. If anything I might be the white sheep if I was a pure, whole being, but I’m not, so I’m more like a gray sheep. Nowadays, I think of my family as my wife first, my mother and father, and then lifelong friends (anyone I have a meaningful connection with). For me family doesn't necessarily need to be blood related. My friends are my family and essentially living in America we are a collective band of gray sheep (i.e. the middle class). We have a little bit of good and a little bit of bad, but mostly the former.

Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung suggest the mythical notion that every hero needs to leave one’s family (or home), go on a journey of self-discovery, and return with a boon. Of course, the hero concept applies to everyone. We all have the potential to be a hero in large or small ways. But when the world has become a trap (postmodern life as the novelist Milan Kundera argues) where can we journey to?

“A man has barricaded himself inside of his house,” the comedian George Carlin once said. “However, he is not armed, and nobody is paying any attention to him.” In this existential predicament the question becomes not only where do we journey, but does anyone care? Regardless, first steps must be taken: Get out of the house, the building, the car and shut down the computer. While we're at it turn off our smartphones too. The idea being to go backward, not forward, or go inward, not outward. At the minimum attempt to strike a balance.

What was powerful about MC, without the film stating it in an obvious manner, was how he connected with the horses and how simple and beautiful it was. In that moment—human eye to horses eye—MC discovers what has been missing in his life: Nature. But why horses? Symbolically they represent freedom without restraint and isn't this what MC is seeking in a world that has become a trap?

In our own lives many of us long for freedom, if not something real and meaningful. For some it might be nature. For others it might be family, relationships, religion, or work. For MC it was his connection to horses no longer as free or wild as they naturally were meant to be. This brief moment of empathy later provides the opportunity to connect with his family who in return save him.