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

The Value of Reflection

“In the absence of reflection, history often repeats itself and parents are vulnerable to passing on to their children unhealthy patterns from the past. Understanding our lives can free us from the otherwise predictable situation in which we recreate the damage to our children that was done to us in our own childhoods….By making sense of our lives we can deepen a capacity for self-understanding and bring coherence to our emotional experience, our views of the world, and our interactions with our children.” ~ Dr. Dan Siegel, Parenting from the Inside-Out.

Last week I commented about some of my readings in Freud, who developed the theory of the repetition compulsion which states that, absent significant efforts to overcome the programming established in infancy and toddlerhood, adults will compulsively repeat their trauma patterns throughout their lives. All the empirical evidence points to the need for substantial corrective and healing intervention over many years, for in addition to the obvious problems they create in interpersonal relationships, childhood trauma and neglect affect the brain in ways that can actually be seen and measured through brain imaging and psychological testing.

I’ve been working on a certificate in Jungian Studies through courses taught by several of the world’s most prominent psychiatrists, neurobiologists, and other experts on trauma. Thus far I’ve learned that there’s a large body of research that indicates beyond doubt that child abuse and neglect cause sobering and significant long-term effects. The only saving grace, they say, is the possibility of reflection–having a healthy human being who cares for you, reflects your dysfunctional belief systems and behaviors to you, and trains you in new and healthy ones. In short, what New Testament Christians refer to as “accountability” and what Buddhists refer to as living “in community” are much more than outdated means of healing: they are the way to healing. There is, as far as I’ve been able to learn in 20 years of study and experience, no other path to healing other than healing in community with others who are healthier and to whom we can be accountable.

I’m halfway through the coursework, and one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that chronic emotional neglect and verbal cruelty have far worse long-term effects than physical abuse, unless the physical abuse included repeated sexual molestation. For example, Bessel van der Kolk states that being told, “I wish you hadn’t been born, you’re a burden, your birth was a mistake,” and similar messages will have a far more deleterious effects in general than childhood physical abuse. Being treated as if you’re invisible, worth less than others, and being scapegoated as the “bad child” or “unwanted child” all have long-term effects that are as significant as those seen in children who were physically abused. “Words hurt” is true.

With regard to sexual abuse, brain structure and behavioral research has established that the form of sexual abuse matters less than other factors. It’s a common but mistaken idea that penetration is ‘worse’ than having been fondled or having had a parent or expose himself or engage in other violations of a child’s trust. One study at the University of Massachusetts found that as many as 90 percent of individuals who had been sexually abused or molested as children developed subsequent drug or alcohol addiction. The traumatized brain, damaged in its ability to regulate itself, sought any means of self-medication available. Those who did not self-medicate somatisized their traumas, with over one-third developing significant physical illness, chronic disease, or other bodily manifestations of trauma.  Many psychiatrists believe that only pharmacological intervention can change brain chemistry and help people regulate themselves, insisting that no one can change brain chemistry or cure brain damage by reason alone.

Shock reactions, fear, and shame throughout childhood inhibit brain development in areas that process perceptions of reality, the ability to relate to others, and the ability to reason. Individuals who lived much of their childhoods in fear and anxiety increasingly lose the ability to reason once aroused. Van der Kolk states that when the fight-flight reaction is aroused in neglect or abuse survivors, they need to be hugged and calmed before they can even begin to reason or perceive reality as it is. The idea of a hug as a prescription for healing makes me smile.

Over many years of living and working with traumatized people, I’ve seen that reality is malleable for the traumatized. They see what they need to see–it’s not a matter of choice, but of biological necessity. Healing is possible, but unlikely unless ongoing relationship with healers and a healthy community is established and continued in. I have known this from a religious perspective for many years, because the Bible is clear in its directives that Christians live with and love one another in mutually cooperative and accountable ways; Buddhists, too, teach the necessity of true community if one hopes to become whole. To hear this taught by psychiatrists, neurologists, and psychologists as well is to have come full circle as a person of faith. As Saint James wrote, “faith that is seen is not faith.” It’s science.


car00 by you.

Since I can’t do justice at the moment to a thoughtful article about what I learned through Olivia’s life, suffering, and death, I thought I’d post several photographs of my daughter’s car after her accident Friday night.

car02 by you.

My husband called me yesterday, saying, “Sweetie, you really need to go over to the wrecker service and look at her car in daylight. It made my knees go weak.” Since the last thing that made his knees go weak was me, I thought I’d better go have a look. He hadn’t seen the car at all, except on my iPhone photos, and I hadn’t seen it in daylight. The last time I saw her car, I only saw the driver’s side.

car07 by you.

Fern and I had gone to the scene of the accident and found the Ford emblem off her front grille. We also noticed that window glass was so deeply imbedded in the telephone pole they ran into that we couldn’t pick it out. The main reason that she and my son didn’t come away with multiple cuts and gashes seemed to be the window tinting film we’d had installed after we bought her car. Funny thing, isn’t it? Something we did to help cool and protect the interior in our sometimes extreme temperatures also contributed to their safety. I didn’t know that having one’s windows tinted could be one more safety feature to consider; but in the future I intend to tint all our kids’ window glass.

car06 by you.

Well, here are the photos. I’m flabbergasted as I look at these, wondering where my son’s almost 6-foot-tall frame was on the front passenger side, and wondering too how they walked away from this accident. And I have to wonder how long it will be before I stop having stressed reactions when the telephone rings late at night—such as the night after the accident, when the police department called me at 10:45 p.m. to ask about our insurance coverage. My heart was beating wildly when I looked at the caller ID and saw it was the police department; when the call turned out to be about something mundane, I wanted to yell at the cop who was calling me at 10:45 p.m. on a Saturday night, “WHAT ARE YOU THINKING, YOU NINCOMPOOP?! DON’T YOU REALIZE THAT YOU ALMOST GAVE ME HEART FAILURE, CALLING ME LIKE THIS?!”

car04 by you.

And then, yesterday the phone rang and I saw it was my son, Cedar, who left no message. So I called him back and when he picked up, he sounded breathless and I said, “What’s wrong?” and he replied, ” [something something] accident!”

“What?!” I exclaimed, “You’ve had an accident?!”

“No, no, Mom! Wow, bad choice of words! I said, ‘I called you by accident!'”

Wow, just wow.

car03 by you.

And then, this afternoon, my heart went to racing again when I heard that same fool son, shouting on the answering machine, “SOMEBODY ANSWER THE PHONE!!!” The lives of two chihuahuas were nearly sacrificed in my mad dash to the telephone.

“WHAT’S WRONG?!” I shouted.

“NOTHING!” he shouted.



“OH MY GOD!” I shouted, “Please drive home safely so I can strangle you when you get here!”

So, needless to say, there’s a bit of trauma going around in our household and I seem to be the one who has the worst case of it.

I’m going to go wrap myself in cotton and go sit in the corner and suck my thumb now.

See you all in a day or two.

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