“Sweetheart,” I advised, “you’re going to want to move out of the road. You could get hit by a car.”
I’d seen the little, white, fluffy dog from a distance – wondered briefly if it was a gigantic squirrel – and laughed at myself a bit as I moved toward the crest of a hill. I was walking east – directly into the rising sunlight – and had seen the basic shape of a creature in the middle of the road.
This isn’t unusual in my neighborhood. Just this morning, I saw three dogs running loose and it’s a symphony of barking each and every time Chienne and I embark on a meandering journey through the neighborhood. I live in a giant subdivision of single family homes in the south – we have a lot of dogs here.
Little, white, fluffy dog was a bit different in his firm refusal to move from his spot in the center of the street though. Most dogs – when faced with vehicles that are slowing – will scoot out of the way. The outcome of a tiny dog vs. giant truck battle is pretty predictable, after all. This little guy was eating some garbage out of the street and absolutely refused to budge. Two trucks reached the top of the hill, crept toward the dog, then stopped. I watched little, white and fluffy stare them down until they gently curved their path to avoid him and his garbagey snack.
I approached and offered my sage wisdom to the creature, scolding Chienne for lunging toward the garbage herself. I decided I’d scoot the gross delicacy over to the curb so the dog would at least be out of the way. But as I approached, I couldn’t keep complete control over my large hound and little, white and fluffy began to growl menacingly. If he hadn’t budged for the truck, there was no way in hell a woman and floppy eared animal were taking his snack.
“Chienne, no!” I jerked on her collar and rolled my eyes when she didn’t even glance at me – her laser-like focus was directed on this white canine and whatever he had found to eat. Chienne wanted both of them desperately. As little, white and fluffy bared its teeth, I gagged over whatever it was he was eating, then decided to say screw it.
I didn’t want to touch that grossness, even with my foot. It was gushy and icky and smelled bad. I’m not crazy about little lapdogs. Not that there’s anything wrong with the little, white, fluffy breeds – they’re just not my preferred sort of canine. I’m quite fond of the goofy mutts from the shelter – too big to pick up and tote around, but painfully sweet and smart. As little, white and fluffy crouched in preparation to lunge, teeth bared and impressively mean sounds emanating from its tiny body, I didn’t know what to do. It might bite me if I tried to move the grossness and if I got close enough to the grossness to move it, Chienne would certainly eat some and I would be forced to gag again. Plus, the little dog was mean!
“OK, I’m leaving.” I told little, white and fluffy - a bit irritated. “But you really should be careful.”
Chienne and I had made it maybe 25 yards when a turquoise sports car zipped past us. I waved my arm at the driver, hoping she would at least slow down so I could warn her about little, white and fluffy, but talking on the phone was apparently too distracting to notice me. I had time to brace myself and hope for the best before I heard the thud.
“Oh, no.” I whispered. “No, no, no.” Perhaps sensing my distress, Chienne abandoned the shrub she’d been sniffing and cuddled close to my leg. I lifted my hand – encased in a black, chenille glove – to my mouth and turned to watch little, white and fluffy hop and yelp as it moved out of the road and toward one of the houses.
Hop, yelp, hop, yelp, hop, yelp.
I continued to look up the hill as the turquoise car pulled into the nearest driveway and parked. I couldn’t see the woman get out – I was too far downhill as I stood on the opposite side of the street, some distance away, hand to mouth, dog leaning against my leg.
“I don’t know what to do.” I told Chienne. She tugged me away from the accident so we could continue along our route. Driven by indecision and intense guilt, I followed her and moved away from the injured animal. I felt sick.
Nothing good ever happens on this street! I vowed not to walk this way again – my desire to take different routes to break the boredom of my morning strolls had screwed me over. Now – once again – I felt sick with not doing what might have helped someone out. I’m a bad person, I told myself. A bad, bad person.
Well, selfish at least, I decided as I turned to head south, then made another movement right to return to my house. This strategy of mine – to just take care of what’s mine, to limit the scope of what’s mine and to remove anything unpleasant from my little sphere of ownership – can’t be applied broadly if I am to feel good about the person I’m becoming.
The world is big.
Lately - for months and months, actually, I’ve felt so very small.
Instead of trying to be bigger, I’ve decided to shrink the world. Or at least the world to which I attend.
“Do you remember [name I can’t remember]?” Friend asked this weekend as we drank coffee.
“It sounds familiar, but I can’t place it.” I said after wrinkling my nose in thought for a moment.
“He was involved with the dirty bomb plot, allegedly.” She informed me. “He’s been imprisoned for years.” She told me how many, but I was already tuning her out. “He can’t see anyone, read The Koran. He has no contact with other people. Even the guards who bring him food wear shields so he can’t see their faces.”
“La, la, la.” Went my brain. “That’s unpleasant. Don’t think about it. It’ll only make you feel badly. Think about something else. La, la, la.”
“Apparently he’s no longer sane.” She said, and I could see the concern and frustration on her face. I spared a moment – remembering when I would care passionately about such issues – then forcibly directed my attention elsewhere. Not my problem. Nothing I can do.
“People are scared.” I think I said. “We know people hate us and want to hurt us. We don’t know what to do. It’s terrible – absolutely inhumane and awful – but I don’t know what the answer is.”
And then I picked up some meager clutter in my kitchen, took out the trash and finished getting ready to go to Cousin’s house. I take care of what’s mine. The prisoner – whose name I don’t even remember – isn’t mine. Thinking about him makes me feel sick and sad. I don’t want to feel that way, so I won’t think about him.
I give money, I soothed myself. To lots of charities! Habitat for Humanity, Easter Seals, March of Dimes. Feed the Children, Leukemia & Lymphoma, Cystic Fibrosis, local food banks, my church, ASPCA. But it’s a few mouse clicks in the online banking system, then I toss away the request letter, never to think of it again.
I’m careless with people lately. I think I’ve subconsciously pushed Friend away a bit. Not a lot, mind you, and not on purpose. But she’s legitimately unhappy about a few things, and I don’t know how to help. Feel badly when I think about her problems. So I don’t think of them. She deserves better - I just don't provide it.
I didn’t respond to an email a week or so ago – not out of any malice. I just didn’t think about it. Had no idea it would matter. But it hurt someone's feelings when she needed support. And knowing I screwed up made me feel small and sad.
But rather than making myself bigger – more generous and attentive – I try to shrink my world so it fits me better. Shameful, I thought. Bad, bad person.
I arrived home from my walk, put a piece of cheese in my purse (to lure the dog if need be), a red blanket in the car and set off toward the crest of that hill. The turquoise car was still parked awkwardly in the yard and the front door was standing open. I assumed someone had cared for little, white and fluffy so I came home. I grabbed a quick shower, curled my hair, put on makeup and dressed for work. I arrived, walked to the office while admiring my pretty black flats with the little bow over the toes and sat at my desk, otherwise feeling very fragile and tiny. After answering a couple of emails, I went to my appointment.
I sat down, Dr. Counselor closed the door and faced me from across his desk. “Have you been good since I last saw you?”
“I saw a dog get hit by a car this morning.” I offered. He cocked his head at me, so I elaborated – talked of how I felt nothing over the paper, did little to help those who needed it, was becoming a bad person.
“I just don’t feel enough.” I whimpered, tossing away my fifth or sixth tissue I’d used since arriving minutes before. In our last two meetings, my tears have been mild. Easily wiped away, a couple of tissues per hour, then away I go. Not this time. “I thought about helping – I knew I should. But then the little dog irritated me, so I wrote it off. Just ignored it and moved on with my walk. I assumed it’d be fine, but I was naïve again! The world is mean! Bad things happen all the time! People lie and I’m heartbroken and then someone offers asinine advice. Someone leaves garbage in the street and the dog eats it and then someone hits him with a car! It’s awful and it hurts and I hate it.”
“Well,” Dr. Counselor offered after a moment, “I don’t think your problem is that you don’t feel enough. You appear to be feeling quite a bit right now.”
I took a break from wiping the continuous stream of tears away and blew my nose. Nodded.
Then we talked as I continued to cry. I’m angry, but I’m told that’s OK. “Be pissed off.” He said. “Then understand that the anger only hurts you. So push it away – as many times as you need to push – and make space for the good feelings.”
I’m scared, but he said that’s OK. It will pass. I won’t be like this forever – I’m not even as bad as I think I am now.
“I see no evidence that you’re a bad person.” He soothed. “It wasn’t your dog – you weren’t responsible for taking care of it. You didn’t put the garbage in the road. You weren’t the one who hit the dog. There were all sorts of people who could have done something differently.”
“But I was there. I knew I should help!” I insisted.
“You tried to help. It didn’t work out. You can’t save every stray animal.”
“I should try to keep the ones I see from getting hit by cars!”
“When you should yourself, you feel guilty. Feeling guilty isn’t so good for you, is it? Does it help you feel more open to helping people? Doing your work and providing support for your friends and family? Being open to feeling happy and useful and hopeful?”
I shook my head. Tossed a tissue in the trash and reached for a clean one.
“I’d like to see you again.” He said much later, as we neared the end of my session. I was gathering my composure but was startled into laughter.
“I bet you would.” I said, smiling and sniffling at the same time. "I’m not exactly the picture of emotional health.”
“Do you want to get better?” He asked, regarding me thoughtfully. Kindly.
“Very much.” I said immediately.
“Then you’re fine. And you will keep improving if that’s what you want.”
I just hope little, white and fluffy can say the same. I really hope that a lot.