The Prize Cow (#698)

Personally, I love teaching stories. They enable people to hear things that are sometimes difficult to hear, and can often create what my friend Steve Chandler calls “mindshifts” at a level well below the surface. Once the mind has shifted, behavior shifts too, seemingly “all by itself” and without the effort or struggle often associated with changing old patterns of thinking and doing.

So when a potential client recently told me that his life was on hold until his lawyers were able to reach a large financial settlement with his former employer, I shared with him an old teaching story I first heard many years ago.


Once upon a time there was a wise old rabbi who traveled the land with his young apprentice. At each village they passed through, the rabbi would seek out the house of a family he had been guided through prayer to be of assistance to, and they would take up lodging with the family for the night. Sometimes the houses were grand and sometimes simple, but wherever they stayed, the families lives would in some way be transformed by his visit.One day, the rabbi and his apprentice arrived at a particularly poor village and to the apprentice’s dismay, the rabbi sought out the poorest home in the village to request lodging. Although the house itself was barely a shack, there was a healthy cow standing by itself, tethered to a post in the middle of the shack’s tiny, dirt filled yard. As was the custom, the rabbi and his apprentice were welcomed into the home of this poor but proud family and shared in what little food there was.

After the meal, the somewhat sickly head of the household explained how blessed they were that despite their abject poverty, they were able to maintain their prize milking cow who always provided them with just enough to get by. The lives of the family revolved around the care and feeding of this cow, with all their spare time and any spare money going towards its upkeep.

The rabbi nodded and smiled as he listened to their stories, and when the head of the household explained apologetically that he had to get up very early to feed and milk the cow, everyone went off to sleep. But in the middle of the night, the rabbi woke his apprentice and led him out to the small yard where the cow was tethered.

To the apprentice’s dismay, the rabbi swiftly killed the cow and they left the house before the sun had climbed up into the sky from its eastern bed. Despite all the apprentice’s entreaties, the rabbi refused to explain his actions, saying only that “things are not always as we think them to be.”

Several years passed, and the apprentice had abandoned his apprenticeship and begun traveling on his own. Although he had learned much from the wise old rabbi, he had never forgotten the incident with the cow, and he realized that he himself could never become a rabbi or truly be at peace with himself until he went back to the village and confessed what they had done. As he approached the village, the young man’s mind was filled to overflowing about what sad fate had befallen that poor but proud family after the death of their one and only prize cow. Yet when he arrived at the spot where the old shack had been, in it’s place stood a much nicer house, and what had been a small dirt yard was now a much larger field filled with corn and wheat.

Sure that the family had lost their home and it had been taken over by wealthy landowners, he approached a strong looking man walking through the field to find out what had become of the poor family. To his surprise, it was the same head of the household who had seemed so sickly when last they met, and when he explained who he was he was welcomed back with open arms and as was the custom, invited to share a hearty meal with the family and spend the night under their sturdy roof. Awed by the transformation in the family’s health and fortunes, the former apprentice asked, with some trepidation, what had become of their prize cow.

“Well,” said the head of the household with a twinkle in his eye, “it was the strangest thing. The very night you left we awoke to find our cow had been murdered, no doubt by some neighbors jealous of our prize possession. At first, of course, we were devastated, and we wondered if were being punished in some way for not being worthy of our good fortune. Then, of necessity, we began to explore a new way of taking care of ourselves. It was my daughter who first suggested that we attempt to grow vegetables in that small patch of dirt which had once been home to our cow, and that was successful beyond our wildest dreams.”

“Not only were we able to feed ourselves, but we had enough crop left over to sell at market. We reinvested our profits in the land and soon enough we were able to buy our neighbors plot as well. Creating our own farm reinvigorated my spirit, and soon my health began to return as well. Now, we are truly blessed in that we are able to bless others with our abundance.”

The former apprentice was stunned into silence, and after a long night in a warm, comfortable bed, he thanked the family for their kindness and returned to the road. As he contemplated all that had happened, he decided to return to the wise old rabbi to complete his training.

I was all set to offer up the moral of the story but my would-be client declined, having already realized what mortgaging his life to the care and upkeep of his own “prize cow” was costing him.


Today’s Experiment:

1. What are the “prize cows” in your life? That is, what are you spending your time and energy on which is preventing you from creating what you really want in your life?

A “prize cow” may look like a job, a relationship, or an opportunity that’s “too good to pass up”, even though it’s not the job, relationship, or opportunity you’d really like to have in your life. It might also look like an idea before the mind of how things “should” be or about what’s possible for “people like you”.

2. If your “prize cow died” (or was no longer available to you or no longer needed care and feeding for some reason), what would you do with your time and energy instead?

3. Consider doing it anyways and doing it now.

Have fun, learn heaps, and move on!


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