The Men Who Did Nothing

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. A cautionary tale, it is (or ought to be) familiar to us all — a boy is tasked with watching the flocks for a certain village. In his boredom, he decides to cry, “Wolf, wolf!” as a prank, and laughs himself silly when the townspeople show up with arms, ready to defend their flock. Pleased with himself, he does it again, with the same results. Then again a third time.

At this point, the villagers are fed up with the foolishness of this boy, so the next time they hear him call, “Wolf, wolf,” they ignore his cries and go about their business. Unfortunately, this time the boy was telling the truth — there was, in fact, a wolf. But since no one believed him anymore, he was forced to stand by, helpless, as the wolf devoured the flock.

The moral of the story, obviously, is that known liars won’t be believed even when they are telling the truth, and it is a good one. But I think there is a second lesson to be taken from this story, and for that we must have another look at the villagers. We can call this lesson the story of The Men Who Did Nothing. 

That the men of this village were justified in their disdain for this foolish, dishonest boy is beyond dispute. He had interrupted their work multiple times with false alarms, making them look and feel silly for his own amusement. No one could possibly blame them for not coming running that fourth time he cried, “Wolf!” You could even argue that the boy’s frantic cries when the wolf did come could be interpreted as the boy just trying harder to fool them.

But what of the sounds of the wolf among the sheep — the growls of the wolf, the panicked bleating of the sheep. Would not those noises carry just as well as the shouts of one boy? What justification can the men of the village have for ignoring those sounds?

In the story of the boy who cried wolf, we meet an abysmally foolish boy who destroys his own trustworthiness in an idle search for amusement. But we also meet a group of men who let their disdain for this boy interfere with their job of protecting the interests of their village — including its flocks. The sounds of the wolf among the sheep were their own witness, separate from that of the boy, that these men were needed; they ignored that witness out of pride and spite. In so doing, they let a thing they hated become more important than a thing they loved, and became just as culpable — if not more so — in the loss of the flock as the very boy they so justifiably despised.

The obvious lesson of the boy who cried wolf is a good one, and worth remembering: Liars will be disbelieved, even when telling an important truth. But the other, more subtle lesson is just as worthwhile: Sometimes liars do tell the truth, and ignoring the evidence of your own senses to feed a grudge against said liar is a folly equal to or greater than that of the boy who destroyed his credibility for nothing.

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