Getting the stubborn cow into the barn, or be careful where you stand.

Milton H. Erickson was a famous psychologist, hypnotherapist, and story teller, though I think he would have referred to himself as a “change artist.” He used stories, especially those rich in metaphors, to reach and then teach his clients’ subconscious mind. My favorite of the quotes attributed to him is, “Until you are willing to be confused about what you already know, what you know will never grow bigger, better, or more useful.” My favorite story, by far, is one I seem to remember, though my own memory and my improvisational quirkiness might have embellished it somewhat. No matter, the lesson remains, so here it is:

Farmer Orville owned a dairy farm, and he loved his cows. He made up names for each of them, and unlike a lot of farmers who keep their cows penned up in the milking barn, Orville would allow his to run free in the pasture. Every afternoon, he would call his “bell cow”, or Belle, as he lovingly referred to her, into the barn, and the herd would dutifully follow her, which is the function of the bell cow after all. Belle was so well trained that she would circle back after the herd was in the barn, to make sure there were no stragglers. None at all, other than Sadie, that is. Sadie was the anti-bell cow, stubborn as all get out. If cows have thoughts, and those thoughts are translatable to English, Sadie would be thinking, as soon as she heard Orville call, and Belle’s bell tinkling, “ain’t nobody gonna tell me nothin’.”

Orville had fashioned a noose for Sadie’s head, and used it every afternoon as he struggled to pull Sadie into the barn, while she would placidly sit back on her 600 pound haunches, looking at him with the cow’s equivalent of a smirk, though considering the true state of bovine intelligence, the imagined smirk was probably just a response to the taste of regurgitated cud. This farmer-bovine wrestling match went on daily for years. Then one day, the aforementioned Mr. Erickson happened to stop at the dairy barn, where he observed the Orville-Sadie pas de deux. While Erickson was remarkably successful with human behavior, he had never challenged himself with a cow. He bet Orville that within five minutes, he could get Sadie to dash into the barn. While Orville was as stubborn as Sadie, years of struggling with an animal 400 pounds heavier had worn him down. That, and the selfish desire to see this city slicker embarrassed, led him to take the bet. What the heck, if he lost, at least Sadie would be in the barn.

So Milton began to slowly walk around Sadie’s perimeter, like Joshua’s forces around Jericho. Sadie’s liquid black bovine eyes followed his movements, as she became more and more unsettled by this strange behavior. Suddenly, Milton stopped behind her, and grabbing her tail, yanked hard. Orville had made the mistake of standing in front of Sadie, which was logically the place to stand when trying to drag her into the barn. But it was definitely not the place to stand when Sadie, responding to the tug on her tail, bovine synapses telling her that someone was trying to pull her away from the barn, bellowed and rushed pell mell in the opposite direction. That direction happened to be into the barn. Orville found himself in between Sadie and the barn. Sadie made no attempt to swerve. You can guess what happened to Orville.

As he lay in his hospital bed, Orville reflected on the lesson so painfully delivered. Did he lament that his daily efforts with Sadie, while building Popeye-like forearms, resulted in no change of her behavior? Did he regret his own stubbornness in fighting with the 600 pound bovine instead of trying Erickson’s reverse psychology? Was he reflecting on how people were much like cows, and rebellion against authority was a universal human trait? No, none of that. The lesson he learned, which he couldn’t wait to apply, once he was back on his feet, was “I’m making a list of all the dairy farmer buddies who ridiculed me about Sadie, and betting each of them that they can’t pull Sadie into the barn, while I casually line up behind her.”