There’s an old parable attributed to the Cherokee Indians of the two wolves. An old Cherokee chiefs sits with his grandson and tells him, “A terrible fight going on inside of me. It’s a terrible fight. And it’s between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, sorrow, hate, greed, self pity, lies and ego.” As his grandson looks on the chief continues, “The other is good. He is love, compassion, joy, peace, serenity, generosity, truth and faith. That same fight is going on inside of you,” the chief says to his grandson. “And it’s going on inside every other person too.”

The young warrior thought in silence for a minute before asking the chief, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Sheepdog, wolf, thin blue line

I like this parable because it seems so perfectly suited for us in law enforcement. It’s a reminder not to become that which we are surrounded with in our work. It’s easy to feed the evil wolf off the table scraps of our shift: the domestics, the child abuse, and the general stupidity of the human race make the evil wolf salivate for an easy meal.

We can’t feed that wolf.

We are, at our core a good wolf. We come into this job with that heart. You may not be comfortable being all touchy feely, so I’ll do it for you. Despite any gruff exteriors you may impose or walls you build, as a peace officer you have immense love in your heart for your fellow human beings, even the stupid ones.

With the exception of our military personnel, there is no other calling in which you will be asked to potentially lay down your life in violent defense of complete strangers. You may not see it but if that’s not love, compassion, joy, peace, serenity, generosity, truth and faith, than I don’t know what is. You are a good wolf. But that wolf has to eat.

Even the best intentions fall apart when the body and mind begin to starve. So we must feed the good wolf to stave off – and starve off – the evil wolf. But how do we do that? We all have different ways of recharging our batteries. We might seek fellowship, or solitude of the outdoors. We focus our off time to the family and kids and loved ones. We have hobbies to take us away from the places where the evil wolf might eat.

The poignancy of this parable is doubly impactful when considered through the lens of our favorite nickname: that of the “sheepdog.” That lesson by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman needs no retelling here but the commonalities and the correlates to the “one you feed” parable are striking.

Both have a wolf that is good; the sheepdog in the sense of the police. Both have a wolf that is bad. I don’t think there’s a more appropriate commentary on the challenges of police work and this lesson teaches on so many levels.

First is the obvious one. We fight the good fight against the bad wolf. But if the parable is correct, we must be fed – satiated – through some means. This is obviously a metaphor and not a literal feeding. So how do you feed? Accolades, awards, recognition, and stats? Sure, those things will feed us temporarily. But what about honor, purpose, service, strength? Those are far more satiating to the heart of the good wolf.

As noted, the good wolf is full of love, compassion, joy, peace, serenity, generosity, truth and faith. When that wolf is fed with honor, purpose, service and strength, I suspect it is invincible from the deceits of the evil wolf. The challenge for all of us in the current climate is to resolve to continue to feed the good wolf a healthy diet.

If the good wolf is allowed to subsist on media scrutiny, confrontational cop blockers, political maneuverings, riots with hashtags, etc. – than the good wolf is going to starve. The good wolf needs a good diet.

The second parallel between the two wolves parable and Grossman’s essay is the observation that the sheep remain timid and reluctant to acknowledge and admit the sheepdog’s presence. In this sense, I see that the reluctance to support law enforcement in some areas of society as a reluctance to feed the good wolf the healthy diet it needs. Accolades, awards and recognition are withheld for fear of encouraging the good wolf to be, well a wolf! The wolf, starved of this positive attention begins to wither away until there’s nothing left to receive from the outside world.

So I suggest that it’s better that we find ways to feed our good wolf from internal sources of strength; from those ideas of honor, purpose, service, and strength. That is, after all, where the good food quality lies.

Third, if we take the idea of the two wolves from a struggle inside each individual person and expand that to a struggle inside the entirety of society, I think we’d see that we are collectively feeding the evil wolf. For reasons far too great to enumerate here, we’ve been feeding our evil wolf, to the point that his belly is engorged, his mind is full of lethargy, and he’s in a food coma of mega proportions.

How do we continue to feed the good wolf in a world that is so intent on stuffing our nemesis? We must find that from each other. From the amazing feats of bravery and the intense acts of selflessness that occur dozens or hundreds and probably thousands of times a day by our partners and ourselves. We must rally our collective honor, our collective purpose, service and strength in some sort of mental potluck. So acknowledge each other, and the amazing acts of love that you witness day in and day out from each other and other sheepdogs. If you feed another’s good wolf, your own will be satiated as well and when the gift is returned in your direction you will find that you yourself are also full.

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Sergeant Garrett TeSlaa is a 13-year veteran of a Southern California sheriff’s department.  He is the founder and host of The Squad Room Podcast, which supports leaders in law enforcement through self-development. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and is a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute. Learn more at thesquadroom.net.