Can I Help?

A few days ago, I had oral surgery to address an ongoing infection in one of my upper molars.  The procedure involved cutting through my gums and manually removing the infection and the tips of the molar’s roots before sealing them off.  I’m not going to lie and say it was fun, or even no big deal.  I don’t like even simple dental procedures, and this one was a doozie, any way you looked at it.  But I can say that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as I had anticipated, for one reason and one reason only:  the terrific attitude of the endodontist and her staff.

From the minute I walked into the office, I was treated with compassion, patience and encouragement.  Did I want a blanket to cover up in?  Did I have any questions before we began?  Would I like the chair set to massage during the procedure?  Of course I wanted all of it, especially the chance to ask some last-minute questions.  And by the time the procedure began, I was much calmer more relaxed than I would ever have thought possible in those circumstances.  By the time it was over, I was actually kind of proud of myself for how well I handled it.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my pride was misplaced.  Yes, I had done a good job of managing my nerves in the days before the procedure, but by the time of the actual appointment, I was both nervous and scared.  If the staff had been hurried and abrupt, brushing off my questions, rolling their eyes at my request for a last-minute bathroom break, or acting as if there was no reason for me to be apprehensive, my entire experience would have been very, very, different.  If I had even stuck around long enough for them to do it.  (I may be old, but I can still run pretty fast when I have to.)

The reason I was so calm during the procedure was because the endodontist and her staff did everything in their power to settle my nerves and allow me to get through it with as much dignity as possible.  And that is a gift that I will not soon forget.

I’m sure I was just one of a series of scared and nervous people that the endodontist’s staff has dealt with, and that the way I was treated was their normal routine.  But their patience and encouragement made a world of difference to me.  Which just goes to show that how we treat other people really is a very big deal.

It really doesn’t take that much effort to offer someone an encouraging word, or to listen when someone needs to express their fears and concerns.  It isn’t that hard to smile at a newcomer, to talk to someone who is lonely, or to offer our sympathy to someone who is grieving.  Yet each and every time we do these things, we may well be giving someone else that little bit of help they need to get them through whatever difficulty they happen to be facing at the time.  And what could be more important than that?

No Contest

IMG_2401I’m worried about my dog.  Last Friday, she had what appeared to be a stroke and we rushed her to the emergency vet clinic, thinking that the end had come.  It turned out to be Vestibular Syndrome, which looks like a stroke, but the vet said her chances of recovery are actually quite good.  The problem is that Lucy is 15-years old and so far, her recovery has been very slow.

Her eyes are no longer twitching, she’s no longer drooling non-stop and she has regained control of her bladder.  But she’s still lurching around with her head twisted sharply to the right, can’t manage stairs, wipes out completely now and then, and is eating only sporadically.  Lucy is usually fiercely independent, and although she has mellowed somewhat with age, she has always been a sassy little hell-raiser.  So it is hard to see her so tired and bewildered, so unsure of her movements, and so completely dependent on our help.  I cling to the hope that the vets are right and she will continue to improve.  But meanwhile, I worry.

At first, I was reluctant to tell anyone what I was feeling, because I was afraid of the responses I would get.  Yes, I know she’s “just a dog,” and there are people who are suffering from much worse,  and there are even more people out there who are watching loved ones suffer from painful and potentially fatal diseases.  I also know that among my fellow dog-lovers there are many who have watched their own dog suffer, and sometimes even die, of much worse things .  But eventually, I came to the conclusion that even though I feel genuinely sorry for what other people are going through, that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to worry about my dog’s bout with Vestibular Syndrome.

Worry, like grief, is personal.  There’s no competition for who is dealing with the worst hardship or the greatest tragedy.  Whatever it is that I’m coping with, there will always be someone out there coping with something much worse.  But that doesn’t diminish my feelings.

I remember when I was planning my father’s memorial service, and in the midst of trying to make so many decisions, I blurted out the to minister, “This is just so hard!”  He  reminded me that my father was old and sick when he died, so I didn’t have it nearly so bad as people who were planning a funeral for someone who had died young and suddenly.  And you know what?  That response didn’t help at all.   My father may have been old and sick, but my grief was still real, and so was my frustration at trying to figure out the right way to honor his memory.

I know the minister didn’t mean to dismiss my feelings (aside from that remark, he was quite helpful and supportive), but he made the common mistake of trying to rate the bad stuff that happens in our lives on some sort of world-wide scale.  And that’s not helpful.  If I’m upset about something, I don’t benefit from being told it’s a “First-world problem.”  A mother grieving for her dead baby doesn’t need to have someone point out to her that, unlike some other grieving mothers, she has still has another child to love.  A man standing next to the concrete slab where his house used to be doesn’t want to be told, “you’re one of the lucky ones, because the tornado missed your barn.”  Those may be true statements, but they only serve to tell someone that they shouldn’t be feeling what they actually are feeling.

I believe that each of us is allowed to be upset, to worry, and to grieve exactly the way we want to and need to, without being judged or corrected.  There is no prize for the one suffering from the biggest tragedy, and no one deserves to have their feelings dismissed for being too trivial.  Our emotions are real and need to be dealt with as such, even if they don’t make much sense to others.  Because when it comes to feelings, there really is no contest at all.

Now That’s Impressive!

img_4884The older I get, the less easily I am impressed.  Gone are the days when I got really excited by a grand-slam home run in a baseball game, or envy a friend’s beautiful new piece of jewelry, or even believe that winning the lottery would be the nicest thing that could ever happen to me.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy those things anymore, because I do.  (Note to my readers: if one of you ever does win the lottery and are looking for someone to share all that loot, I’ll gladly step up.)  It’s just that I have gotten to the point where I no longer find those things particularly impressive.

More and more, I find myself paying attention to, and often admiring, not so much what people have or what they do, but how they treat others.  It’s wonderful when a professional athlete is able to help his team win an important game, but it’s impressive when he uses his fame to help out a worthy cause.  It’s great when the new company that someone has poured their heart and soul into finally takes off and makes a lot of money, but it’s impressive when the owner of that company uses their money to give back to the community and create opportunities for others to succeed as well.

I especially admire people who are thoughtful and generous towards others when no one is looking and when they have nothing to gain from their kindness.  I will always be grateful to the surgeon who operated on my husband’s knee, because after the operation was over, he took the time to come into the waiting room and not only tell me everything went well, but also to sit down beside me and ask if I had any questions.  I’m sure he had a very busy schedule that day, but he acted as if he had all the time in the world to reassure an anxious spouse.  It was a small kindness, but at the time, it made all the difference.

It’s not always easy to be kind, especially when we are bombarded with things on the news, social media, etc. that make us frustrated, angry and afraid.  And it’s hard to be kind when we’re rushing through our days, trying to keep up with our hectic schedules.  But often in life, what is hard is also exactly what needs to be done.  We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems, or even fix all the issues in our own lives, but what we can do is remember that kindness truly does help make things better.  And to do our best to practice it as often as we possibly can.

And when we are able to be kind, and when we are able to treat others with the same degree of compassion and tolerance that we want shown to us, then that is truly impressive.  Each and every time we do it.

Time Well Spent

I was hurrying to my car early yesterday when I heard someone call, “Good morning!”  Looking around, I saw that my neighbors, whom I know only slightly, were in their back yard with their toddler son.  As I waved back at them, they scooped up their son and brought him over to the fence for me to see.  “He’s going to be one-year old this coming Tuesday,” they told me proudly.  I admit that I hesitated for a few seconds, because I was running late for church, and didn’t really have time to stop and talk.  But then I did the right thing and went over to meet them at the backyard fence to admire their son and chat a bit.   I ended up being even later for church than I usually am, but it was more than worth not hurting the feelings of the very nice young parents who live behind us.

We rarely have enough people on our walking shifts at the local animal shelter where I volunteer,  which means we are usually working as fast as we can to make sure all the dogs get out for their daily walk.  Often, people visiting the shelter will approach us with their questions, and our usual response is to direct them to the staff at the front desk, who are happy to help them.  But every once in a while, we are approached by someone who wants to tell us about a beloved pet that has recently passed away, because it’s not uncommon for people to look for a new pet while they are still grieving for their old one.  And when that happens, we pause for a little while to hear their stories.  Grieving people need the chance to express their sorrow, and that can only happen if we take the time to listen.

Of course there are times when we truly are too busy to pause, even for a couple of minutes, just because someone wants our attention.  But I also believe that there are many times when we just hurry on our way, believing that we don’t have the time to deal with someone else’s problems, or can’t possibly spare a moment on someone who isn’t an integral part of our day-to-day life.  And that’s a shame, because that means we’ve lost an opportunity to form a real connection to another human being, especially at a time when the other person desperately needs that connection.

IMG_1767Most of us do live busy lives and keep hectic schedules, and aren’t always able to “stop and smell the roses” as the old saying goes.  That means time is a precious commodity, and like all precious commodities, it should be spent wisely.  But there is a difference between spending our time wisely and hoarding our time with little or no regard for the needs of others.  And when we are able to be generous with our time, and use it to truly help someone else, then that is always time well spent.

Necessary Filters

Whenever I hear the term “personal filter,” I immediately think of the filter that needs to exist between our brain and our mouth.  You know, the filter that keeps us from saying out loud every single thought that crosses our brain, especially if our words can hurt someone else.  It’s what helps us simply think, but not say, “Wow, those pants make your butt look even bigger than it actually is!” whenever one of our friends makes an unfortunate fashion choice.  If we want to maintain healthy and positive relationships with other people, having a personal filter is not only a good thing, it’s also a necessary thing.

But lately, I have come to believe that the filter between our brain and our mouth is not the only necessary filter we need.  We live in an age of information overload, thanks to twenty-four hour news channels, social media, our cell phones and any other screen device that keeps us constantly in touch with the outside world.  And sadly, a lot of the information we receive is not just negative, it’s so negative that it leaves us frightened, angry and depressed.

I was talking to a friend the other day who works for the animal shelter where I volunteer, and she told me that she has begun limiting her exposure to the news, because she already sees the result of too much animal abuse and neglect in the course of her job.  It’s not that she doesn’t want to know what is going on in the world, because she does.  It’s just that she has learned that there are limits to the amount of negative information she can safely process at one time, so she has become intentional about filtering the amount and type of information that she is receiving.  I suspect that is a common trait among those who works in fields where they routinely deal with suffering, human or animal.

I’m not saying that I think we should all “bury our heads in the sand” and ignore the very real problems that exist in the world.  Of course we need to know about problems in order to simply protect ourselves, much less actually try to help with the tragedies and solve the problems.  But I am saying that I believe it is okay to decide how much negative news I can handle at any given time without being completely overwhelmed, and to filter what I watch, hear and read accordingly.

Personally, I have decided to discern between the news that I need to know because it either effects me and the people I know or because I have the ability to do something about the problem or crisis, and the news that is horrible but I know I can’t do a single thing about it.  Even then, I believe it’s is okay for me to screen what I actually see and read about each issue.  I want to know about something as horrific as the Yulin Dog Meat Festival so that I can join in the voices of protest against it, but that doesn’t mean I have  to actually watch a video of a dog being tortured.  Similarly, I can read about the latest terrorist atrocity without actually seeing a photo of a person being burned alive.  I don’t need to see all the details to know that there are horrible things going on that need to be stopped.

Having a filter in place between me and all the troubles of the world doesn’t mean I don’t care.  It just means that I am recognizing the limitations of my own coping skills, and that I respect everyone else’s right to do the same thing.

Just Be There

When I was a child, my best friend’s pet rabbit got sick, and my friend was very worried about her.  So when I stopped by my friend’s house on my way to school one bright sunny morning, the first thing I asked was, “How’s Jessica doing?”

“She’s dead,” my friend answered, looking away. “But at least it’s a nice day for a funeral.”  Then she reached out and took my hand, and together we ran the whole way to school.  I made sure I sat next to her at lunch, and afterward, stood with her in the corner of the playground while the other children ran around, playing games and shouting.  Neither of us said a word about her rabbit.

Sometimes I wonder exactly when it was that I forgot how to comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with a major personal catastrophe.  I wonder when I decided that my job in those instances is to offer the perfect words of comfort, to try to smooth away the rough edges, or to explain the tragedy.  In other words, I wonder when I got the idea that I had both the duty and the ability to make things right for people who are going through major emotional loss.

As a child, I seemed to know intuitively that what people need most when they are suffering is for someone to simply be there with them.  There are no perfect words that are going to take away the pain, but there are a lot of imperfect words that can make things so much worse, such as: “Remember, everything happens for a reason.”  And someone coping with an overwhelming problem, like a loved one’s terminal illness or a life-changing tragedy, doesn’t need my advice or instructions on exactly how they ought to deal with it all.  They just need my caring support as they make their own choices.

Years ago, when my son was just about two years old, the father of a good friend died rather suddenly.  The funeral was on a weekday afternoon, smack in the middle of my son’s normal nap time, and my son didn’t handle missing naps well.  But I couldn’t find a sitter, and I wanted to support my friend.  So I went anyway, armed with a bag of quiet toys, and sat in the back of the church in case my son became too loud and we needed to make a hasty exit, hoping I was doing the right thing.  When the family was walking out at the end of the service, my friend looked over and saw us sitting there.  We locked eyes for a few seconds, and she smiled, ever so faintly and briefly.  And in that moment I was very glad I had come, even with a toddler in tow.

IMG_4471Being me, I’m sure I said a lot of things to my friend about her father’s death, but I don’t remember them and I doubt that they provided her with any comfort.  What gave her comfort was seeing my son and me in that church, supporting her in her loss.  Because what people who are overwhelmed or grieving really need is simply the assurance that you are there with them in their time of trouble, right beside them as they walk that difficult path.  Just like my childhood friend and I, running hand-in-hand to school all those years ago.

 

Be Beautiful

I really have to get over my habit of reading the comment sections of internet news stories.  It’s sort of like driving by the scene of a car accident:  I know I’m going to be upset by what I see, but I look anyway.  Maybe I’m hoping that for once I will see mostly reasonable comments by people who are expressing their opinion in a civil way, or maybe I’m just morbidly interested in how quickly people turn on anyone who expresses a different point of view.  (I like to think it’s the former.)

Usually, there are three distinct groups of people on any comment feed.  The first, and smallest, group consists of a few twisted souls who seem to be posting the most offensive comments they can think of, just to pick a fight.  They’re easy to ignore, because it’s so obvious that their only goal is to upset other people, and the less attention they get, the better.  The other group is only slightly larger, and those are the people who are the voice of reason, always expressing their views in a civil and respectful way, often trying to find common ground to reconcile the opposing sides.  Their comments are few and far between, but always a welcome reprieve from the vitriol surrounding them.

Sadly, the largest group of comments are from the angry, self-righteous people who are absolutely incensed that anyone, anywhere, does not see the world exactly the same way they do.  They know, without a doubt, that they are absolutely right, on any subject that is being discussed.  This group includes both liberals and conservatives, religious people and atheists, etc.  They aren’t trying to be mean, but in their zeal to prove their point, they are still rather brutal.  Many tend to use a lot of CAPS when typing their comments, just to be sure to drive their point home.

It bothers me to see so many comments from people who truly seem to have lost the ability to listen to, or even tolerate, people who disagree with them.  Every day, it seems to be more socially acceptable to choose to interact only with those who think and act just like us.  The internet may have given us access to people all over the world, but most of us seem to prefer to stay in our tight little circles, populated by our “own kind.”  We  are careful to watch only the news shows that reflect our opinions back at us, join groups consisting only of people who think just like us, and in general make sure we don’t ever have to be challenged to acknowledge the basic worth and dignity of anyone whose views we find offensive.

I get that for most of us, our natural reaction to someone who challenges our basic values is to lash out in self-defense.  I’m guilty of that more than I’d care to admit.  But the reality is that the world is getting smaller, the internet does bring us into regular contact with people who are very different from us, and if we are not all going to drown in a sea of anger, hate and fear, we have got to get our act together.

We need to remember that when we are lashing out or putting someone down, we are only making ourselves ugly.  If you don’t believe that, say something mean and hurtful while looking in a mirror.  No matter how good-looking you usually are, all you will see looking back at you is ugliness.  Then, still looking in that mirror, say something kind and compassionate, and I guarantee you will see nothing but beauty.  I know none of us are, or will ever be, perfect or even nearly as good as we want to be.   But I also know that the time has come when we all need to try our best to be more beautiful, as often as humanly possible.IMG_0716

A New Perspective

Last Monday did not go well for me.  I had spent the morning walking shelter dogs in cold and driving rain, and by the time I got home, I was soaked to the skin and miserable.  I changed to dry clothes, but decided to eat a hot lunch before showering.  That turned out to be a big mistake, since our power went out as soon as I was done eating, meaning there was no way I could dry my hair after a shower.  And since I was still chilled to the bone, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in my rapidly cooling house with a headful of wet hair.

The rain finally stopped, but the sky was so grey and gloomy that it was dark in our house even though it was still midday.  As the afternoon wore on, the house got steadily colder and darker, so I hauled out our stash of flashlights and candles, only to discover that half the flashlights didn’t work, most of the batteries had expired, and one of them had leaked some nasty looking stuff all over the candles.  To make matters worse, we were expected for dinner at a friend’s house, and I still had to make the salad I was supposed to bring.  Overwhelmed, I sat huddled in a blanket on the couch, deeply unhappy, and thinking dark thoughts about our electric company.

But the thing about pity parties is that they grow boring rather quickly.  Faced with the choice of sitting at home in a dark and cold house, trying to read by the light of a Coleman lantern, or going to a dinner party with friends at a house that had both light and heat, I figured out a way to cope.  I showered at home, then drove to a nearby friend’s house to dry my hair and get ready for dinner.  My husband and I stopped at a grocery store to get salad supplies and I simply made the salad when we got to the dinner party, with my friend who was hosting providing the dishes and a much appreciated glass of wine.  We ended up having a wonderful evening with good friends, and returned later that night to a house that had its power restored.  Life was, once again, worth living.

IMG_0034In the past week, my home town of St. Louis has been hit with steady, torrential rain and record flooding in many areas.  People have lost their homes, their businesses, their treasured personal possessions, and as anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of a natural disaster knows, their pain and suffering will continue for quite some time.  We will all do what we can to help, but it’s still a life-changing tragedy for many, many people.

I know that my brief afternoon of cold and wet discomfort is nothing compared to what the flood victims are going through.  I’m not apologizing for how I felt that afternoon, as I don’t believe in apologizing for emotions.  Emotions are like those obnoxious distant relatives we all seem to have:  they just show up, uninvited and often amazingly inappropriate.  But I do hope that I can remember, the next time life is inconvenient and uncomfortable, that this difficult time will soon pass and that, in the grand scheme of things, I have very little to complain about.

My hope for this coming year is that I will finally be wise enough to put my troubles into perspective, to not get dragged down by the temporary and manageable problems that are a normal part of life.  And I hope that I will remember how I felt when I was discouraged and overwhelmed, not as an excuse for self-pity, but as a way to be even more empathetic to the people in this world who are experiencing real tragedy.  Because the more I understand their pain, the more I’m willing to lend a much needed helping hand.

Happy New Year!