This weekend I stood in front of my neighbor’s house holding a cookie for her dog. She keeps her dog chained up inside a cage in her yard. The dog stopped whimpering and crying out most of the day, about a year ago. I got to watch her dog slowly disintegrate into learned helplessness over a period of nearly 3 years. I’ve spoken to her about twice and called the humane society a dozen times asking for suggestions. My neighbor had a glossy stare, couldn’t hold eye contact and twitched sporadically from somewhere in her stomach region. Her legs were swollen, bruised, pale and her toes were jumbled with grey nails, stuffed into orthotic sandals. She explained that her puppy was too rowdy so she keeps him outside. She hit him twice while we spoke as he was trying desperately to get petted. Occasionally we wave to one another. Every day when I push the auto-lock on my key fob, her car alarm goes off which then requires me to leave my own car unlocked because she hasn’t fixed whatever is broken in her situation.
That’s part of why I stood in the street holding the cookie then turned back to go inside my own house and once again, ignore the suffering taking place directly in front of me. I feel like it’s her situation to fix and don’t want to get involved. I scroll through social media and see post after post asking me if I will care about, share and ‘like’ this or that cause, respond to this or that need, donate to this or that charity event, injustice, illness, field trip, social horror, death or natural disaster. I’m asked to pray for and care about a multitude of ailments and needs from people I know and love and because of electronic culture, from total strangers too. Thoughts of the needs of others in the world are chronically running through my head along with ways to help solve or release into the will and oversight of an all-seeing, all-healing higher power. I play a kind of energetic tennis, batting away negativity and hopelessness back into the light and capability of an invisible but merciful and powerful God. Love! (I don’t know what that really means in tennis, but it works here.)
This morning I read an article about community resilience in the wake of Katrina, 10 years later. The article was talking about different models of building community resilience saying that’s what was really missing for the neighborhoods that were hit hardest and took the longest to recover. I remember about a year after Katrina this rich, fancy neighborhood was boasting about how easy it was for them to rebuild while they sort of snarked at other neighborhoods who were ‘still waiting’ for help. I remember thinking, yea, you all had great insurance coverage, privileged life skills and you’re white in the south-of course it was easy for you to rebuild. The same cannot be said for people who’ve been encultured to be helpless and live on hand outs. They’ve been taught for generations to be quietly thankful for whatever comes their way, have been oppressed, discriminated against and exploited into submission. It feels arrogant to assume an outsider can go in and teach them how to rely on one another to build a hidee-ho! neighborhood network. Maybe they do have a network and the outsiders simply aren’t recognizing it.
When I lived in the projects there was a boy my age named Michael. He had messy blonde curls, was very skinny and pale and mostly always wore the same clothes. His mother chain smoked in their unit and watched soap operas all day. I never saw her get up or speak to anyone, including her son. Michael learned to get fed by wandering into random units up and down the street. He ate very fast. He would come through our driveway asking the kids if anyone in their house was making food. He usually had part of his last meal on his face, like spaghetti stuck to his cheek. Since he was so skinny my guess is some days were more successful than others, but for all intents and purposes this was his system for getting fed and it worked well enough. I cannot imagine that as an adult Michael is still wandering into strangers houses to get fed, but maybe he is because maybe that’s all he knows. Maybe someone taught him how to work, budget and shop for food or grow food and cook meals. It wasn’t me, but maybe someone did?
Every day that I see my neighbor’s dog laying chained up inside a cage, I feel like a failure as a human being. But I’m afraid of the needs waiting on the other side of her door. I’m afraid of how much I think she’ll need, how much her dog will need and I don’t feel clear about where my boundaries would end in that scenario. I once went for a run after a gentle rain. There was no wind. It wasn’t hot or cold and the air was perfect and still. I felt like I could have run for miles enjoying a morning of peaceful silence. An elderly woman flagged me down. She was in distress. First she said it was a mouse, but after I’d cleaned her house, taken out four bags of trash, washed and re-hung all her curtains and listened to half her life story over stale baklava, I realized that it was likely not a mouse which drove her to stand in her nightgown in her doorway and invite a total, sweaty stranger into her house. Her emergency turned out to be acute loneliness.
People need a lot, especially broken, hurting people. There’s no such thing as free time. I’m afraid of how much we need and my capacity to fill in the blanks. I wrestle with my own ambivalence since I learned at a very young age to respond to a large majority of my own needs in order to avoid people. Is that why we isolate ourselves and stick to digital relationships? I know that’s why I turned back towards my house this weekend; to avoid another story of brokenness and need. It wouldn’t be fair to the dog or my neighbor. But I can’t really avoid them either. Her car alarm, alarms at me every day when I come home. Wonk! Wonk! Wonk! WONK! I’ve come to think of it as a kind of a call to action; there is no such thing as real peace in this life while there’s suffering in the world. And suffering, if left untreated, creates more suffering, like my neighbor’s dog. One at a time we’re called to help each other walk through some part of our hurting. People have certainly helped me and I think sometimes therein lies the struggle. I’ve tried to take the littlest amounts of help, and at different times in my life, spread out those asks to an array of different people because I’m afraid of taking too much, or of the expectations of reciprocity or of the repercussions I still sometimes bump into. An emotional slap in the face of the askor a complete railroading of an established line. So there’s a piece of my own unresolve in that. We learn how to give by both giving and receiving and I’m still learning, mostly by mistakes and awkward, frustrating, humbling failures.
As a blatantly honest, co-dependent dog-watcher, I suppose I’m inviting you to consider your own reasons for avoiding to help too. Awkward, frustrated, humblings love company. Is it simply easier to pass judgment than walk across the street and say hello? I proved my own guess true this weekend. And now I know why. I am, despite years of recovery work, still very much afraid of people’s needs, including my own, probably. I entered a profession that creates very strict boundaries by way of administering ‘help’ in 45 minute increments. My therapist, in one of my last sessions, indicated that the current industry standard for an individual therapy session is now 45 minutes to allot for the amount of paperwork required in between each encounter. How much time did Mother Theresa give to each body she picked up in the streets of Calcutta? Surely less than 45 minutes, this is likely how she helped so many people. My dreadful sarcasm. Despite the best and firmest boundaries, however, I learned last week that needy people are capable of stampeding over any line you attempt to draw with highly practiced forms of manipulation, safety violations, guilt-tripping and passive threats, thereby sucking as much time and energy as they feel they need to sustain themselves or whatever it is such people do with whatever they take from you. 45 minutes allotments are not enough to fill the void that lives inside too many people. Experiences like this also kept me away from that suffering dog this weekend. I had a precious hour to myself that afternoon and I realized, fully, that I did not want to share it with my neighbor and suspected that if I went and knocked on her door I would surely lose that precious hour and many hours to follow if I dared approach the subject of her suffering dog because what this would have stirred up, if we were to truly get to the bottom of why she decided to purchase and chain up a dog in the first place, would be her own unfortunate childhood in which she was horrifically neglected and likely abused and you don’t fix that with a cookie and a quick, but informative? chat on the health and welfare of domesticated animals. You don’t ‘fix’ a broken childhood in a 45 minute ‘encounter’, or with a well-intended, evidenced based intervention, or with a prescription or even with a few nice gestures, or a t-shirt or a potluck. Please, don’t get me started on the potlucks. Little Michael from my old project would eat up your potluck and still need years of work to resolve the fact that he was abandoned by his father and ignored by his mother, emotionally and physically neglected while living in a dangerous neighborhood. Just sayin. Not that I’m in the position to do much more than show up with plastic forks and a tub of store bought potato salad. Today, that’s’ about as much as I could offer.