Unspoken

ScanWhen I was a young child, I loved going for a pony ride.  In those days, even big cities had “pony tracks” where kids could ride a pony a few laps around an oval track, and my parents took us to one on a regular basis.  The ponies would line up at the rail at the end of the track, and we would go stand next to the pony we wanted to ride until the track manager lifted us up into the saddle.  When everyone was ready, he would signal to the ponies and they’d all walk or trot around the track while he stood in the center, directing them.  It was usually the highlight of my week.

My favorite pony was a sweet brown one named “Cricket,” and I always headed straight for him.  But one day I was shocked to find myself being scooped up and plunked down on the pony next to Cricket.  Before I knew what was happening, I was riding around the pony track on a strange pony while poor Cricket was still standing at the rail, riderless.  It wasn’t long before I started crying, for myself because I wasn’t on my favorite pony, and for Cricket, because I was sure his feelings were terribly hurt by being left behind.

The man in the center ring asked why I was crying, but I didn’t answer him.  Worried that the ponies were going too fast, he had them go slower and slower, but I just kept crying.  I could tell he was getting frustrated with me, yet I just couldn’t manage to tell him what was wrong.  I cried for the entire ride, and for most of the car ride home as well, but I never told anyone that I was upset simply because they had put me on the wrong pony.

That was a long time ago, but there have been many times in my life when I just couldn’t find the words to tell people what was bothering me, no matter how much I wanted to.  Sometimes I didn’t even understand exactly why I was sad or upset, and other times I was embarrassed or worried that I’d hurt someone’s feelings.  And I think this is a problem that most of us have now and then.  How many times have you noticed someone who is obviously unhappy, but when you ask what’s wrong, they tell you they’re just fine?

The truth is that everyone faces challenges from time to time, and everyone is struggling with something almost all of the time.  We can usually talk about those things with our friends and loved ones, but there are times when that struggle is something that we face alone, at least for a little while.  But even when people don’t talk about what’s bothering them, their behavior almost always reflects it.  Which is something we need to bear in mind when we’re dealing with people who act in ways we find baffling or annoying.

It’s so easy to get frustrated when people say and do things that make no sense to us, and it’s even easier to lash out at them with ridicule and condemnation.  But I think we need to remember that at one time or another, we were all that little kid crying on a pony for reasons she couldn’t begin to explain.  And all that kid really needs is a little patience and compassion…….

Be The Light

yDorA4p2SaOYhlQ0x1KkqAI’m never in a hurry to take my Christmas tree down.  I just love sitting in my living room on a cold Winter’s night, basking in the warm glow of the soft, colored lights.  The world seems to be a just a little more cheerful when I’m in the presence of a well-lit Christmas tree, and after the crazy year we’ve just endured, I’ve especially appreciated the comfortable coziness that it offers.  But it’s been up for almost two months now, so I’ve finally hauled my ornament boxes out of the basement so I can pack everything  away for next year.  I can’t say I’m especially happy about it, but it’s time.

Thankfully, my Christmas tree isn’t the only thing in my life that provides comfort and cheer.  Little things, such as reading a favorite book or sharing a delicious meal, always lift my spirits too.  And then there are those special people who have the ability to light up even the darkest of times with their generosity, compassion, humor, and just plain goodness.  They are the ones I turn to when I need help or advice, or even just a sympathetic ear.  They seem to know just what to say to make an overwhelming situation manageable, and can make us laugh when we need it most.  In short, they’re willing to shine their light into even the darkest corners of our lives, letting us see that maybe things aren’t quite so bad as we thought.

There was a time in my life when I thought that success was measured mainly in material things, like having a big house, a comfortable savings account and an impressive career.  But I’m older now, and I’ve come to realize that “successful” living really isn’t about any of that.  It’s about being the kind of person who makes a positive difference to others, and who manages to leave the world an even slightly better place than she found it.  Or at least those are the people I admire the most these days.

The fact is we are only on this earth for a short period of time, and many of the people we love the most leave us far too soon.  When we’re gone, we’re not really going to be remembered for how many awards we won or how much wealth we managed to accumulate.  And we’re certainly not going to be remembered fondly for all the times we indulged in one-upmanship or petty bickering about religion or politics.  It’s the times we helped someone who needed it, offered a friend a shoulder to cry on without judgement or shame, or just plain figured out a way to lighten someone’s load that will be our true legacy.

I have spent countless hours enjoying looking at my Christmas tree, but I couldn’t begin to tell you how many ornaments it has and I wouldn’t dream of comparing it’s beauty to any other tree.  When it’s been taken down and no longer graces my living room, it’s the warm light of the tree that I miss and remember so fondly.  Because ultimately, all that ever really matters is the light we shine on others.

Legacy

fullsizeoutput_b0When I was a kid, I often heard my grandparents talk about the Great Depression.  I grew up knowing that my grandfather felt very fortunate to be a dentist, because that was something that was always needed, even in hard times.  He had to keep his prices extremely low, but he said he was grateful to be able to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.  I knew that my grandmother always made sandwiches for the people who knocked on their door, asking for help.  She said she didn’t have any money to spare, but she could make sure that no one went away hungry.

Listening to those stories shaped how I understood my grandparents.  I grew up knowing that they were grateful for what they had, and willing to share with others in need.  I’m sure they had their moments of worry, fear and frustration as they lived through those dire times, but my general impression was that they were essentially strong and caring people.

I know we will be talking about this current pandemic for a long time to come, and that for many of us, this will be the defining crisis of our lives.  And that made me wonder what I’ll be able to say about how I coped with this, and even more importantly, how I’ll know I reacted to it.

When this is over (and it will be, even though no one knows exactly when), I’m going to look back on this time and ask myself, “Was I brave or fearful?  Was I wise or foolish?  Did I make the best of a bad situation, or did I made a bad situation even worse?”  And I’m going to have to live with those answers for a very long time.

I know I won’t always like my own answers, if I’m brave enough to be completely honest with myself.  I’ve had my moments of fear, frustration and self-pity, and I suspect that most everyone else has too.  We’re human, and we can’t possibly be strong all the time, especially with a crisis that just seems to go on and on.  But when I’m feeling down, it does help to remember my grandparents and how they somehow managed to stay in touch with their best selves even at a time when it must have seemed as if their entire world was falling apart.

And so I’ll try to do the same.  I’ll try to find things to be grateful for, every single day.  I’ll resist the urge to lash out at others who say things that “trigger” my own fears, and I’ll refuse to use this pandemic as an excuse to attack those whose politics, religion, or any other belief system is different from mine.  I won’t remind anyone that their predictions about how this crisis was going to play out were wrong.  And most importantly, I won’t let the uncertainty about how long this will last and how much damage it will do to our society to push me into stockpiling supplies so that others have to do without.

Because some day I will be asked about how I handled this dark time, and I’d like to think that I learned a thing or two from my grandparents. Which means that I want to follow their example, and try to stay in touch with my best self too.

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