One evening, I had a little “conversation” with my dog, Sarah. It was a cold December Saturday night during the height of the COVID outbreak. I had been on disability the past three months because I was so physically and mentally unhealthy. My wife and I separated just a few weeks before I went on disability. Both my workplace and my marriage had degraded into such unhealthy situations that, at night, burning stomach acid would gush out of my nose and stain my sheets. I don’t know if you can imagine just how painful stomach acid coming out of one’s nose is. I have Bipolar Disorder and could not balance my degrading marriage, navigate an unhealthy work situation in a new department, be a daddy to a four-year-old, and still take care of myself well enough to be anywhere near stable or healthy. To live with Bipolar Disorder and have a demanding career requires a great deal of self-care, and having margins for rest and recuperation. My HR department put me on disability to everyone’s, including my boss’s, complete surprise. I am a great deal like a wounded animal at times: I am pretty good at hiding just how bad off I am, at least from those who aren’t within my support circle.
After a couple weeks’ rest, I was still on a bit of a high. I dove right into working hard: taking online training to update my skills, updating my resume, rebuilding my professional network, and gathering references from some of my peers who had left my department under various circumstances. I put myself on a small stipend, knowing we were in for a very difficult financial situation for the next half-year at least, while trying to provide as much as I can for my wife and daughter. I tried not to entertain the thoughts that would drag me down. I got help from wherever I could. A lot of help came from my close family. My sister and her husband let me stay in their above-garage apartment for a few weeks and then helped with an apartment for me to stay in for the foreseeable future. Without the support I got, I could easily be homeless. I went without heat in my car for the coldest days we had yet this winter while waiting for my new heater to arrive so I could swap it out myself. It would have probably cost at least a hundred dollars or more to have a mechanic do it, even though it is not a hard job, but that’s that much less money for my wife and daughter.
That particular week I had decided I would not see my daughter alone at my apartment because I catastrophized that my wife could accuse me of something horrible or some parenting mistake that could adversely affect me or my visits with my daughter. So, I had just gone one week (out of only a handful of weeks since my four-year-old daughter was born) without seeing her. She thinks the world of me, and is, by far, the best thing that has ever come into my life. I had served at a weekly church ministry the previous night. I had talked for a long time with some of the guys who had come for food and supplies. In several instances, we talked for a very long time and we seemed to have some mutual understanding. But then they would say something I was not familiar with from their milieu, and seeing my lack of understanding, they would immediately turn and scoff at me and walk away. I had talked for a long time with one guy about a Star Wars series he had been watching. We talked about how the original movies came from old Westerns and Japanese legends about samurai warriors. We talked about all sorts of things at length, including Native American religion, which is a favorite topic of mine. But then I said I would be there next week on Friday, which was Christmas, and he said, “yeah, like the busses to [the next town over] run on Christmas.” He laughed and walked away. Some others would talk for a bit or just wanted food or supplies. But I had a similar experience with one of the other guys whom I spoke with for a long time. Later, a fight broke out between two guys who had been sitting in a corner and talking for a while. Experienced members of the team quickly diffused the situation. But I, in my extreme insecurity, read into someone’s response on our team that he may have thought I was somehow responsible for it. I felt so disheartened and I continued to be troubled all of the next morning. What if I could have had the humility to not take events as a reflection upon me? The universe doesn’t revolve around me. Rather, what if I remembered that I cannot truly understand the depth of the rejection, scariness, and amount of judgement that the guys I spoke with must live with every day? I, myself, have been through some very scary times in my life, due primarily to my mood disorder and co-occurring circumstances. At times, I have lived in fear. But many of the guys I had met deal with it every day. The judgement from our society upon them is habitually ruthless and incessant, especially for those who are of a minority. The judgement and oppression they, in particular, still face is something I cannot begin to understand.
Then, this afternoon, I finally saw my daughter for a few hours at my relative’s house. My relative had agreed previously that I could use her house as a neutral ground to watch my daughter. After several nights this week of crying myself to sleep from missing my little girl, and today having increased one of my medications and (once again) experienced painful heartburn and tiredness while I was at my relative’s house with my daughter, I came home and just laid down for a while. I talked to my relative a little later and just unloaded about so much that had happened in my life in the past couple months. She said some things that I recognized as partially projections from her own life. But it still hurt, because there seemed some truth to it in mine, and I blamed myself, and when I do so, I can be merciless to myself.
I just felt like it was all too much. I was just wiped out. Sometimes I feel that people can be so thoughtless and hurtful. Sometimes, I am that person. But often, it is actually my own self-judgement that is the real cruelty. I can’t say this for everyone, but I find that I, as a human, really have so very little in-depth self-knowledge, and often in the moment, I inconveniently forget what I do know. This is even true during spans in my life when I do have time for self-examination. In our hurried world, we are encouraged, even pushed, to neglect taking the time to sit in a room, alone, with ourselves. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, postulated that all problems stem from humankind’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Yet so many still deride “naval-gazing,” as they call it. Sometimes I may be aware of my particular foibles contributing to a situation, but when another person reflects back my own flaws, I cannot bear to see them, because my own judgement upon myself sets in.
That evening, I took my rescued former farm mutt, Sarah, out to do her business and then came in. When we came in the door to my little apartment, she stopped for me to take her leash off, then walked a few steps into the darkened apartment living room. She turned and sat up straight, right in front of me, and looked right into my eyes. Her big brown eyes were staring straight into mine. I decided to have one of those brief conversations I have with her from time to time. I knew she had heard me on the phone with my relative beforehand. She knew I was sad and troubled. I said out loud to her with resignation, “Sarah, when you finally go, take me with you to ‘Doggy Heaven‘; I don’t want to go to ‘People Heaven.'” Sarah, sensing the deep pain in my voice, looked intently into my eyes and closed her mouth. Her ears were standing straight up. I could tell that she was listening to the pain in my voice with every nerve in her body. And through her eyes and expression, she answered me as clearly as if she were speaking, “boy-o, ‘Doggy Heaven’ is where the people are.”
It has been my experience that a loved dog loves back unconditionally. I have come to believe she accepts me unconditionally (as both of my rescued generic brown mutts have): as a flawed human, not a single string attached, just as I believe God loves us. I have always thought it was no coincidence that “Dog” is just “God” backwards. And although my particular path is long and winding, I have never departed from a belief that there is a good and beautiful artist who created all this extreme beauty and amazing design around us in nature, and… in all of us people too. And “He” knows me. As “He” knows and loves us all. I believe “He” knows me, good and bad, more deeply than I know myself. I believe that “He” (or she, or it, or whatever you want to call that creative force, if you believe in it) has used both of my rescued mutts in times like these, to silently talk love straight into my bitter, broken, and painfully-swollen soul. Because He knows that I regard these little mutts as His “hands” in my life. In Sarah’s response, I could hear my Wildly Artistic Creator, clear as day, through the body language of this little unassuming 55-pound generic brown mutt. Over time, it spun the whisper of what seems like a new, strange thought coming from outside of me: “No-one in this world is so cruel to you as yourself. On the contrary, you are loved more than you can ever possibly know. And not just by me.”
I believe all of us flawed humans are loved like this: in whatever words that speak to our own particular wounds, through whatever mechanism (or love of ours) that will reach us. What if it’s really true that no-one is as hard on me as I am? Any time I have ever gotten really mad at someone, it seems that the actual anger came from my own harsh self-judgmental thoughts which can hurt so much, it feels as though I am an emotional “burn victim,” poked to drain the sores. My Creator/Daddy speaks my name and says, “Stop already. You are your own worst critic. Let go of your self-judgement. You’re really not at all that bad. Please, just give yourself a break.” In my case, the actual pain I am trying to protect myself from comes much more from my own thoughts that spin out, not from the other person. To them, their action or words may be just an observation or even an attempt to help. They may not intend for their actions or words to cause harm. My own interpretation is what does the harm to myself. Time and time again, this loving God is there in my little four-legged companions, whispering his love through their devotion in little chance incidents that relate His wisdom. For me, the cruelest person to myself has always been myself. I will read this again and again, for dark times will come again. And I will remember this wisdom that reached me through my little conversation with Sarah.
Jeff lives in mid-Michigan. He is married and has a four-year-old daughter. He has written poetry for 28 years, wrote for a spiritual blog for five years, and writes for various blogs and newsletters.