Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Euthanizing Your Dog and Good Hair Days

I'm getting my hair cut tomorrow and I had decided I was going to whack a good bit of it. My hair grows like a bad weed, you see,  so it's really not that much of a life-altering decision. The Boyfriend jokes that it grows back by the end of the week.

The trouble with my hair is that I have a lot of it. Blondes have more hairs per square inch than brunettes. Did you know that? I have a fistful of hair, very thick stuff, and it is a wrestling match to blow it out in the morning. It is also very absorbent. I had one hairdresser tell me that she'd never seen anything quite like it. It takes a really long time to dry. So much so that my arm gets tired.

*Rubs arm and looks for sympathy. Finds none.*

And this hair is also unfortunately wavy, in all the wrong places, so I have to aggressively blow it out straight. I tug, I pull, repeatedly, trying to train it to lie straight. Then I flat iron the hell out of it, if I have time. On a humid August day like today, I walk out my door and the ends immediately start to curl, like the tendrils of a creeping vine.

So tomorrow is the hair appointment, and I've come to the momentous decision to cut quite a bit of it off. It goes past my shoulders right now, and I was thinking of even going to somewhere between my chin and shoulder.


Yes, above my shoulder. Scandalous.

Those of you who have made momentous decisions about your hair will not be surprised when I tell you what happened this morning. I blew out my hair, and it softly folded itself around my shoulders. The bangs that were in my eyes yesterday and curling up at the tips are now delicately framing my face. The back of my hair which is hard-to-reach and usually an unruly path of curls and frizz are now soft, golden waves of blondissimo.

In short, today I am Brigitte Bardot.


The day before my hair appointment. Isn't that always how it goes? You decide to cut your hair off and the day before the chopping block — your hair presents its best self. As if it is saying, "Look at how lovely I am! Look how soft! How perfect! How well-behaved! Please don't cut meeeeeeeee!"

The same thing happened with my dog.

I had a black lab named Odin who lived to be 16 years old. The last couple of years were rough, as you can imagine. He lost a lot of his muscle tone, he'd always been hard of hearing and now he'd gone completely deaf, and the cataracts in his eyes had rendered him legally blind (I'm guessing). I'm sure he couldn't drive.

But he was still my sweet black puppy and his tail would thump when he'd put his doggy head in my lap. It never seemed he was suffering to such an extent that I felt I was abusing him by prolonging his life. Besides, as a Buddhist, that whole "Do Not Kill" rule echoes in my mind, so I felt it was not my place to play Decider in the life of a dog. I wanted him to die a natural death, free from my having to make that choice.

Another year passed, and I went from having to find Odin in the backyard to place a gentle hand on his shoulder to let him know it was time to come in, to having to carry him down the three stairs that led out of the house. He'd lost some of the use of his hind legs, and the vet had assured me that it was not painful. At this point in his life, he had a degenerative disease of the spine, and he would gradually lose control of his body as the damage progressed up his spine.

"Will you tell me when he is suffering?" I asked her.

"I will," she said.

At one point I was convinced Odin could no longer continue in this condition, and it seemed selfish of me to keep him alive. I had another dog, a sweet German Shepherd named Elsa whom I was also concerned about. They were the best of companions, and I didn't want to leave Elsa alone in the house without her best friend.

Odin continued to lose muscle tone and weight, and when I lifted him to carry him down the stairs outside, he felt like a hollow bag of bones. I finally made the appointment with the vet to put him down. I was well aware of the "Do Not Kill" rule but the rule was based on the premise of not causing harm. So as far as I could see, I was causing more harm by allowing him to continue on like this.

The day before the appointment Odin perked up.

Oh, he was wiggly and waggily like a puppy. He was nosing me playfully and rolling over for me to rub his belly. He and Elsa were nipping at each other, and mouthing each other on the doggy bed they shared.

Jesus Christ Siddhartha Gautama.

What was I to do?

Curled up on the doggy bed, they both looked at me with wide, moist puppy eyes that seemed to say, "Please don't kill Odin. We love each other. We're happy. He's not suffering. Please Mommy, don't kill us."

And so I cancelled the appointment.

A couple of months later I had taken the day off of work after spending the entire night awake with Odin. He had lost control of his bodily functions, and I think he was sick. All night long I carried him in and out of the house. I sprayed Resolve Carpet Cleaner on the multitude of stains he had leaked that night. I washed and re-washed his doggy bed and various old comforters over and over again throughout the night, as each clean, warm bed was soon soiled and had to be changed again.

By that time it was pretty clear I was running a nursing home for dogs. I'm sure my friends thought I was nuts but no one was saying anything. Not to me, at least.

"Do you think I should put him down?" I'd ask.

"I don't know," they'd say.

"Do you think I'm making him suffer by letting him live?" I'd ask.

"I think you'll know when the time is right," they'd reply.

I'd ask the vet too, and she would say the same thing. She reassured me that his spinal degeneration was completely painless to him.

Until that night I did not believe my dog was suffering. When I came home at night and sat on his doggy bed, he'd rest his gray face in my lap and thump his tail. So long as he did that, I felt he was happy.

Until that night, my dog still had the energy to thump his tail. That night he did not. That night he was just a suffering bag of bones. In the morning, I call the vet, sobbing. I begged them to take us in immediately, and they did.

I cried as I patted Odin's face, my face next to his. I talked soothingly to him, "You're such a good boy, Odin. You've been such a sweet boy your whole life." Of course he was deaf and couldn't hear a thing. And he was pretty much blind so he probably couldn't see much of my face either. But he did feel my hands stroking his face — petting him as he sighed and softly went to sleep.

Today I am petting my hair.

I don't get the sense that it's suffering.

I may have to cancel the appointment.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Opening My Eyes to Compassion Blind Spots

I have a blind spot in my compassion for others.

I have a difficult time tolerating people who are helpless. I know, it's not terribly helpful of me, is it? Don't get me wrong, I can have all the sympathy in the world for the mentally ill, the homeless, the poor, children, animals ... all manner of "helpless" beings who illicit great compassion and empathy in me.

But when I encounter everyday folks with the regular abilities to hold down a job, to have relationships, to generally function in the world, and yet remain seemingly helpless in the face of one particular aspect of their lives — my compassion goes out the window. 

I'm not proud of this.

My compassion completely ceases when anyone claims helplessness and then proceeds to blame someone else. Drives me batshit crazy, actually. I know, I know. I told you it was a blind spot in my ability to feel compassion for my fellow man. A grave one, if I were to be completely honest.

I have friends who claim helplessness in relationships. They can't change. They love him. Or her. They believe the other person will change and so they chain themselves to someone who is physically or emotionally abusive, in the hopes that the other will change. They stay with cheaters. They do all manner of things that make the rest of their friends grit their teeth and say, "Why?"

It doesn't matter how much you talk them up — pep-talking, tough-talking — no amount of offers to help, suggestions for therapists, books to read, examples of other people who have left only to find greater happiness — nothing can abate these folks from their self-destructive lives. 

"But I love him."

"I don't know what to do."

"I'm stuck."

And no matter how many escape routes you map out for them, they won't set foot on one of them. They are helpless to their own desires, their own fears, to their own blindness to their incredible power.

That's just it.

We are all so incredibly powerful. Each one of us, unto ourselves. No one but no one else has the power to free you the way you can free yourself. Perhaps this is the source of my frustration? So many friends and family blame other people for their predicament, or blame the economy, or the geography, or their psychology or whatever reason you want to drum up —my point is it doesn't matter.

Your mind is the most powerful thing of all.

The rest of it is nothing.

The Buddha said, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world." The way you feel, the way you think about your life and your situation, is made up primarily in your head. I'm not saying if you're starving or living in a dangerous environment that this wouldn't be a very real discomfort — of course it would be. But for the majority of my friends and family (and me), we are not living in a war zone. We have a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator and it is safe to go outside.

So much suffering is created in our own minds.

So much resistance to ending that suffering resides in our own minds.

I recently listened to a friend uncork on how another friend's parents had ruined her life. These controlling parents had taken their adult daughter away from the city she loved, the job she loved, the girlfriend she'd loved ... all of this through the power of their religious guilt.

My friend argued that I didn't understand the power of parents' guilt, the power of religion, the power of having been raised in such an environment and the inability to stop that power and control.

She's right.

While I can see parents controlling their children, and I can even see parents controlling or trying to control their children as they emerge into young adults, I cannot see how once you are an adult, hell, if you are in your thirties, how you can blame your parents for ruining your life.

Do something about it.

Get therapy.

Read self-help books.

Move away.

Make friends.

Create your own life.

It is not your parents' fault if you choose to let them ruin your life. It is not your parents' fault if you choose to let them control you. Now of course I do understand the concept of learned helplessness, and I do realize it is very possible that abused and neglected children may have been raised to behave this way.

Hell, I was.

But at what point do you, as an adult, decide to re-train yourself?

If I have been conditioned to lay down and give up because I know any attempt to change my environment is useless, it is no wonder I may spend my adolescence and early adulthood just laying down.

I may let men abuse and neglect me.

I may abuse drugs and alcohol.

I may develop and eating disorder and stay victim to it.

I may have done all of the above.

But at what point do you realize that you, as a rational creature with the amazing powers of the human mind have the ability to ... change? At what point do you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and say, "I will no longer be a victim. I will save myself. I will blame no one for my current predicament. I take full ownership of the life I am leading right now, and I vow to use my powers as a free adult to change it."

My concern is this: Has my own ability to change ruined my ability to feel compassion for those who haven't?

I no longer believe in "can't" change. 

I just don't.

I believe in "won't" change.

How to find compassion in that outlook? I suppose the Buddha or the Dalai Lama would feel great empathy for those who are stuck in dukkha (suffering). How awful to be a prison of your own mind.

I do remember that feeling.

I remember how helpless I felt.

I remember being weak with tears, sobbing on the cold tile of the bathroom floor because I couldn't get out of the vicious cycle of an eating disorder.

I felt helpless.

I felt I couldn't change.

Yet I still needed compassion.

Deserved it, actually, just as every soft animal does. I believe that.

But oh Buddha, how I struggle to give it. I do see the irony of my own helplessness here. Here I am, claiming that I can't change my reaction to the stubbornly helpless. A victim of my own recovery, unable to extend sympathy to those I've left behind.

That's unacceptable, of course.

I often think of Maya Angelou who once said, "When I knew better, I did better." If I go there, I find myself better able to let go of my anger at my friends and family's self-victimization. When they know better, they'll do better.

When they figure out that they themselves hold the keys to their own freedom, they will open the door. They will take advice. They will make phone calls. They will do something about it. In the meantime, I can continue to point out that there is a way to change if they ask me. I can sympathize with their suffering. I can fervently hope they find a way to change.

To believe they can change.

To find it in their own beautiful minds, brave minds, minds that are so much stronger than they realize. If only they would just risk it. Risk the unknown. Risk the fear. Risk change. Take the leap.

But who am I to push them?


Who am I to judge?

If I am human, the only thing I can do is sympathize. Lend my compassion. Be kind. I must find my way back to the place where I suffered, and there I will find the ability to connect. The ability to see, and to not turn a blind eye to my friends' suffering.