If People Were Stray Animals

Stray Dog

If people were stray animals, wandering alone and hungry, how long would one range before her protruding ribs and sunken eyes betrayed her as rejected, unwanted, alone? How long would she dart in and out of traffic, looking for water or rest before some kindly motorist stopped, called out, and tried to entice her to safety with some morsel of food?

If people were dogs and cats, and you were to see one eating from a trash can, or skulking into the crawl space under your house, would you feed him? Would you try? Would you?

You think you would. You say you would. Yet you pass by daily. You avert your gaze from the halt step, the shriveled limb protectively hidden, the fear in the eyes.

“My life,” you Tweet, “My life is so full. I’m so blessed.”


Stray Cat

Second Chance Animal Sanctuary

At Second Chance Animal Sanctuary, volunteers visit the animals daily. They walk the dogs. They play with the kittens and name them. They freshen the water, play tug-o’-war with the puppies. They fill index cards with descriptions that prospective adopters read:

REX is playful and outgoing. He is good with children and other animals. Best suited for a family.

CHLOE was feral but rescued along with her kittens and brought here. She needs a subdued environment. A single owner, child-free household would be best for her.

RUFUS is a mature pit bull-lab mix who enjoys a romp in the yard and a good scratch behind the ears. He’s extremely patient and even-tempered and would adapt well to households with older children, or perhaps an older couple.

If people were stray animals, we would all be worth rescuing. Groups of rescuers would band together, forming networks whose only purpose is to give care and comfort to the abandoned. We would form 501(c)(3) organizations for the rescue, feeding, and care of the lost.

ALICE was married 48 years and her husband died. She raised eight children and was Red Cross volunteer for 25 years. She enjoys reading Emily Dickinson, takes a walk every evening, and is a fan of Gunsmoke. She needs a gentle friend, preferably a single person with a wry sense of humor, who shares some of her interests and can drive.

TREVOR never knew his father. His mother’s drug habit rendered them homeless. Trevor dropped out of school and went to work to support himself and his mother’s habit. He needs a strong male friend who tolerates (and even uses) coarse language, and can teach him a trade.

TAYLOR is transgender. Her family rejected her and she hasn’t seen them in four years. Taylor is startled each morning when she has to shave her beard stubble. Lacking the means to use hormones, she makes do with what she has, but feels a sense of disconnection from herself and everyone around her. She needs hormone treatment and a group of understanding, loyal friends who will stick with her.

If Lost People were Stray Animals

If lost grownups were stray animals or abandoned children, we’d understand. We’d know right away what was needed. We would approach with all gentleness the person whose way of life and way of being had been shattered. Moved by pity, we would patiently entice the starving-hearted with choice morsels. We would keep our distance but watch daily for the slightest sign that the traumatized were able to trust again. Small victories would be worthy of celebration. “She approached me in public today,” your status update would say, “She hesitated before declining my invitation to dinner at my home. I can tell she’s starting to rely on our weekly coffees at Starbucks. Some day she’ll be able to trust me enough to accept that dinner invitation.”

How lovely, if each traumatized person were valued as much as a stray animal. How the abandoned and unwanted must long to be loved when they cannot love themselves. How they must long to have someone whose first act of love is to see, the next to listen. To be noticed is to have value; to be worthy of patient outreach and rescue is to be given hope. What if teams of volunteers sought out the shattered sufferers, removing them from their cages, taming them, showing them love?

If you could see her abandonment, his feral wildness—how they snarl at the traps that snapped them in two and have them bound—you would see that they may die from it. You would see that one person in her life would make a difference, two would be able to bear his litter to the place where angels stir the healing waters, and three would be wise men bearing healing salves and the most subtle spices to return flavor and beauty to her life.

I wish you could look past our bared teeth and growls with eyes of faith, love, and unreasoning hope, envisioning what might happen if we were fed, and gentled, and loved day by day until we could relax, even play again.  I wish you would see that every animal deserves a second chance.

Stray Pup

Where Is My Home?

If you were a child in a happy flock
How could you possibly understand
How it was that I grew to hate the day,
A constant hostile danger,
And felt abandoned: a stranger.

Only perhaps on some night in May,
With the scents of Spring, would I be
Secretly content.

By day imprisoned by the tight ring
Of cowardly duty, devotedly performed;
Escaping in the evenings, not hearing
The sound of a tiny window opening
And a butterfly taking my longing
On a silent voyage to the stars to ask:
Where is my home?

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

So many fortunate people were raised “in a happy flock.” I often think about how different they are from those who were raised with the constant threat of the wolf because they lacked shepherding, or perhaps were even raised by wolves.

Rilke’s poem so beautifully expresses how difficult it is to be happy or content as a state of mind when one’s soul was schooled in loneliness, anxiety, and abandonment. With such a history, a person has to work to establish and maintain an inner hearth offering nurture and warmth.

We are always seeking home.

By the Throat

From time to time throughout life, things happen that get you by the throat and threaten to squeeze the life out of you. If you don’t find a way to break the stranglehold, you’ll stop breathing and die. The stranglehold can be the care of a disabled child, or that you long for a child and have been trying to get pregnant but can’t, or a protracted and costly legal problem, a disease or aftermath of an accident or the result of someone else’s negligence. What throttles you may come from an ex-spouse, a former friend, a child who turned out badly, an alcoholic parent, someone else’s addiction or your own, a layoff or lost job or a terrible economy that drains your profits and renders your business impotent.

Everyone has these terrible events and circumstances that come through their lives, but not everyone has them regularly or often, and some people seem to live much of their lives without suffering, only to have it suddenly come upon them when they’re in late middle age and have no coping skills. I know some people like that. Still, everyone experiences real suffering at some point (as opposed to neurotic or self-created suffering). What then? What does one do when disasater strikes and the suffering begins?

Breaking the Stranglehold

When disaster first strikes, you go reeling. Eventually, worries, anxiety, and despair can get a person in a stranglehold that can claim your soul. The fact is that what we fear the most is death, and your death and mine are inevitabilities. Being in romantic denial about the limited time we have in this lifetime is the gift of youth. As a commenter to one of my previous blogs wrote, opportunity and wide open horizons are the fantasies of youth. Though the American dream is one of unlimited opportunities and vast horizons, the truth is that this type of Jupiterian expansiveness decimated entire peoples, produced slaves, and has led to the highest depression, anxiety, and addiction rates in the western world. This type of expansiveness isn’t advisable, for we are ever only as large as the health of our bodies and the amount of money available to us. We all tend to forget this every day, which explains why Home Shopping Network and eBay are so wildly popular, for when we can buy stuff we feel powerful and are reminded that the possibilities are endless. This is the power of an addiction: it numbs us and deludes us into thinking that we have control when, in fact, it has us by the throat.

As Jo Coudert writes, “of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.” You will never lose yourself, that is, as long as you hang onto yourself.

Hanging onto Oneself

When facing hardship, loss, or tragedy, we all tend to focus on what has happened to us–what’s in the past, in other words. We can’t change it, but we ruminate on it anyway. What of the things I can change? These things would include my own psychological state, the philosophy I live by, my values, my actions, where I put my body, what I put into my body, the thoughts I cling to and entertain, and the ones I dismiss.

Given the responsibility I have for my own life, I ask myself questions when I’m in crisis, questions such as: What are my psychological survival tools? What will help me maintain my sense of self? What will I need to believe, think, or do that will help me keep hope and joy alive? What will help me live with the sadness I feel all the time, the grief over my lost dreams, my lost life? How must I live if I want to be alive today? These are the questions to grapple with when crisis hits.

Master, Mentor, Teacher, Guide

And so we have sat with the baby, calling to mind how small and helpless we were so long ago, how patterns we have had in our lives since infancy and early childhood have stuck with us, in some cases crippling or hindering us in ways we do not wish–in ways that we can’t seem to quite overcome just yet. Just days after my own birthday, I thought about my experiences in the hours, days, and weeks following my premature birth and subsequent lengthy hospitalization, and I have looked at the patterns I began to learn then, and wondered. I wonder because in our Jungian studies classes, over and over again the seasoned analysts, writers, and scholars who teach us say that even their clients in their 50s, 60s, and 70s haven’t been able to adequately compensate for the patterns stamped indelibly on their souls, patterns that give them problems their entire lives and which, in later ages, bring them to the analyst’s office.

“Given how difficult it is to change,” I ask, “do people really change? And if so, how?”

I direct this to Dr. Hollis, whose presence and generous contributions of self I so appreciate, who replies that yes, people do change sometimes, but change is difficult if it occurs, and it cannot occur unless a person has a mentor of sorts, a conscious, wise, and mature counselor to whom one is accountable. This someone is there to ask after the what and wherefore of one’s actions, to gently point out the pattern and how it lames a person or hinders her, and to listen. This mentor is one who sees and hears you, and tries to understand. Without this person in your life, you are flying blind and without adequate training to make it through.

Another analyst who is also a priest taught us that he was taught that one in a hundred people are actually analyzable. What does this mean? It means that most people don’t consider unconscious motivations, don’t believe they have patterns that drive them to repeat and revisit their wounds over and over again, and will not cooperate with any kind of analysis of the evidence of their unconscious. They don’t want to see and therefore there is nothing to be seen, no matter how in-your-face the obvious is to the observer. We are being slapped in the face with the other person’s unconscious patterns, but they’re oblivious. It’s painful to experience, and out of necessity one has to move outside the range of the flailing if one hopes to escape harm.

A person who changes lifelong patterns does it through consistent, wise, reliable accountability to another, and also by having the structure that supports the pattern systematically dismantled. This dismantling is easiest to observe in addiction recovery, where the first thing that happens is an addict is removed from his usual environment and put into a treatment facility. There, his old friends and haunts and substances are not available. He has no familiar tools or routines, nor access to the destructive treatment program he’s designed for himself. We remove the structure supporting the addiction and then we look at what remains. What remains is what we’re after. An addiction functions very much like a complex, or what Buddhists call a knot, in that it has a cold, calculating, and single-minded obsession with serving itself. It seems to have a life of its own, which is why it’s called a disease. The addiction, like the neurosis, complex, or mental illness is very much like a wicked witch who has cast a spell over a person and holds him in her thrall. We are helpless in the face of its power unless someone comes to our aid, some elixir is found, some rescue attempted.

A prince goes by and hears Rapunzel singing; the prince kisses the Sleeping Beauty–something happens with a force of “Otherness” to it that on an archetypal level is about an imprisoned, poisoned, sleeping part of ourselves that needs rescuing by the awake, alive, and virile part. This is one reason why we love a good romance, long for the knight in shining armor to come over the hill on his white horse bearing his coat of arms. We sense that the power of rescue is within us, but we can’t do it alone. We need help. We need a force stronger than ourselves to get us out of the clutches of our own destructive process.

And so the addict goes to treatment. There he eats new food, does not use harmful substances but is given new substances, new tools, even a new language for conceptualizing life and communicating with others. He is given a new peer group and, yes, a sponsor. In every single system of recovery, recovery and consciousness begin with a mentor and a big change that puts the old habit pattern on its ear. But even this isn’t enough; we hear all too often about addicts relapsing, because the power of the old pattern is so much stronger than the loose and frightening feeling of being uncontained after being released from treatment. Therapy, group work, or analysis may provide enough of a constant context of care to counterbalance a person’s lifelong patterns; but more often than not, people regress or fall back into the hole again. Anyone who has tried to stop smoking, to diet, or to change any habit or reoccurring pattern of relating or reacting knows how hard-won any change is.

Though I use addictions as an example, what I mean to say is that change is difficult for anyone. We really can’t do it without an accountability partner and mentor. We also need a friend or friends with whom we can partner, if possible. But we need a teacher. We need the Zen master, priest, rabbi, mentor, counselor, crone, analyst, therapist to whom we are accountable over time–over a long period of time. The pattern that your mother and father set going in you from infancy onward is not going to be modified, corrected, improved, much less eradicated if we are lone wolves, loping off into the dark night on our own. We are likely to remain predators or even become prey, doing things that way.

If Ever Bliss Was

Whence that three-cornered smile of bliss?
Three angels gave me at once a kiss.
~ George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind

First things first, as they say in the 12-step programs. My new granddaughter is a “first thing,” and here’s a photo my daughter captured of the baby smiling in her sleep. Pause a moment, and think of sleeping, smiling babies.

There are so many states of being, longings, imaginings, memories, and feelings that one can project on a sleeping, smiling baby. What do you see when you see this smiling baby? What do you feel? What comes to mind, to heart? Do you have wishes or feelings, intentions or memories, perhaps some sorrow or anger, now that you settle in with the image?

Among all I might project onto this image, the idea that carries the most power for me is the warmth, unity, and fellowship of the family my husband and I have built over the years. Here is my granddaughter, on the one hand: sleeping contentedly on the bed in which she was born, her mother only a sigh away, exactly where she has been for the two weeks since the baby was born. The baby hasn’t left her mother’s side for any reason. She’s nursed whenever she needs or wants it, day and night. The entire universe revolves around this baby, as far as the baby’s concerned. Even as far as my daughter and her husband and the rest of us are concerned, too.

One rarely sees a better situation for setting the foundations for a healthy human being. Conceived inside a loving, devoted marriage, my granddaughter was nourished and nurtured from the time she was first known. Privileged to be at her home birth with a seasoned midwife, I caught her with my own hands as she came sliding into this world like a little league player running for home.

Once here, she was warmly welcomed by a huge family. Four generations on both sides of her family were at hand to rejoice, pray, cook, clean, babysit big sister, do laundry, or be called for advice in the wee hours. Great-grandma visits several times a week to help; grandparents are at hand because we live within minutes of my daughter and son-in-law.

When my dear young friend Ruth had her first child, the outpouring of love and support from her family members and friends was similarly impressive. Two sides of the family paced the waiting room while Ruth groaned and grunted, her mother at one elbow, I at the other, while the new daddy reassured her, his big hand supporting her, rubbing her back, urging her to push. Push! Push!

Later, after I witnessed and was part of the happy party that welcomed her perfect son into the world, I felt weepy over the majesty and beauty of it all, the power of birth and those transcendent moments so necessary to continuing our sense of community and belonging. I felt weepy with gratitude and longing, for I had never had that level of support although both my parents waited anxiously nearby at each of my births, and for the birth of one son my mother was in the room. Ruth told me later that her mother, too, had reflected on the lack of support in her own life when she’d been a young mother, and had told Ruth how grateful she was that Ruth had what she herself never did. Ruth’s mother, who lives just across town and is an almost daily presence in the lives of her grandchildren, does for her daughter what was not done for her. She’s there. She is present.

Birth is important, and what happened before birth is important, but most important of all is what happens afterward. If a baby is welcomed into a real family, and is wanted and loved by his parents, then he has a wonderful start. If hour after hour and day after day his needs and wants are catered to, he gets the idea that the universe is benevolent, good, safe, and there to meet him. If too much doted upon, we call him King Baby, as we called my late-born son who is still King Baby and a delight to all of us because he goes through life to this day with a sense of grace, strength, and compassion that few people have.

In my very large family where the majority of the children are now grown, we’ve had the opportunity to witness the nurturing and growth of not only always-wanted and well-received children, but also of children who were set adrift moments after birth, who didn’t have what my own grandchildren have all had, which is nurturing parents and families from the moment they were conceived. I’ve had the privilege of seeing what helps and what doesn’t, what grows a healthy person and what hinders, over the years. I have seen that people can and do heal from early trauma, and I have seen that some do not, cannot, or will not.

The Sleeping, Smiling Baby

For now, for today, hold an image in your mind: a sleeping, smiling baby. Ask yourself today where you were on the day of your birth. What was your own birth like, do you think? Do you know the story of your first day? Do you have a living mother who will tell you about her memories? As Mother’s Day approaches, there’s no better time than this to ask.

Take what you learn and look at it. Be there in the room where you were born. Imagine it; conjure it up in your mind, according to what facts you do have. Be the baby, and be there with the baby. Since I know you see them coming already, go ahead and add the images you associate with infancy and early childhood. Imagine that child growing up with the parents you had. Take him or her to about age five and stop the camera. Sit with that little person from birth to about age five, and be ready to go with me on a journey of discovery.

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