Introverts at the Shelter: Exhausted by Humanity? Spend a day with shelter dogs!
If you’re a shy person looking for something to do, have I got an idea for you! My daughter and I have been volunteering at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter (sfhumanesociety.org) for a few years now. It’s important to state right at the beginning that we don’t do this altruistically or to put another notch on our volunteering belts. It’s just that after a week or so of dealing with people, well, both of us would rather hang out with dogs.
Friends and family, please don’t take this personally, we love you all. But human interaction is so complex and full of social pitfalls that it’s draining. My daughter and I are both by nature introverts. Introverts are not, as is commonly thought, individuals who are oblivious to social interaction. Rather they are often so aware and sensitive to every emotional current that it exhausts them.
That brings us to the dogs.
We did our Shelter orientation class in 2015. We spent our first volunteer hours doing laundry and basically proving to the staff that we were trustworthy. Our next step was to learn how to help socialize the resident dogs, to get them ready to be comfortable with people (how ironic). This consists of hanging out with dogs in their kennels.
For the shy and introverted, it’s refreshing to be around beings who are so clear about relationships. Dogs let you know exactly what they think of you. Some dogs sit on your lap. Some, not so trusting and a little nervous, will go to the farthest part of the kennel and look at you. Others will just ignore you and continue to stare under the door. Then there are the dogs who are so happy for companionship that they sit by you, lean into you, their bodies sighing in relief. I note in those moments my shoulders relax and the tension I carry releases. Who, I ask, is helping whom?
Of course, dogs are capable of deviousness. Our dog Tank will intentionally begin barking during breakfast to distract our other dog, Nellie, from her food bowl. Nellie takes the bait every time and rockets out of the house and Tank eats her food.
But most dogs are direct and honest. This, for the introverted, is a godsend after days of trying to navigate the currents of human emotions.
We’ve also developed a set of our own guidelines for the shelter. When we drive up, we always spend a minute swearing to each other that we will not adopt a dog. We have two and if we didn’t abide by this hard and fast rule we’d be animal hoarders. There was a German Shephard, a Husky, a Lab mix and countless Pit Bulls that have tugged at our heartstrings. Then, when we began puppy socializing, well, it became even more important for us to stick to our pledge. There are people who’ve tried to sneak out of the shelter with a puppy under their coats. . . and I totally get it!
Next, Sully always makes a beeline to the Pit Bulls. They are the sweetest dogs at the shelter. We have innumerable pictures of Sully hanging out with Pit Bulls with names like Athena, Sam, and Blitz. I tend to be more generalized although I did raise eyebrows when instead of the usual ten minutes, I spent almost a half an hour with that same German Shephard a while back. Hey, we were bonding. That was the closest I came to violating our pledge.
A word or two about the staff. They are devoted to the dogs. And there is a lot going on! Dogs walking, dogs being socialized, individuals with questions about adoptions. There is the occasional kid trying to sneak in to see the puppies. Then of course, there are the occasional escape-artist dogs who trick their socializer and bolt past them into the hallway. This results in someone yelling, “Dog Out!” and suddenly there is a staff member there to capture the errant animal and calm things down. Not that I have ever been that socializer, well, at least not more than a couple of times. I’m just too trusting, I’ve been told.
Busy staff that trusts you. Dogs that (mostly) love the attention and are straight forward in what they want and need.
If you are slightly shy and exhausted by the hubbub of humanity, the Shelter is a great place to hang out.
Every week it seems we’ll be standing at a scene — fire, crash or a medical call — and a firefighter will shrug and say, “Life sucks and then you die.”
It’s part just firefighter stoicism and little bit of “seen it all.” But it remains my favorite summation of firefighter existential wisdom. It plays to our natural perspective of going dark first. And yet, firefighters are not by nature dark people. The aren’t wandering the streets, moaning about problems or the futility of life, or that life has no meaning…
Rather, they just accept life for what it is. Which is why when someone says yet again, “life sucks and then you die,” the rest of us usually smile and nod. Because we know what it really means:
“Life is being born and loved by your parents, first crush, having a sister die, grieving, falling in love, having your heart broken, breaking someone’s heart, doing work that you like, being fired, being overlooked, getting married, getting divorced, being depressed for a year, getting married again, watching your kids come into the world, falling madly in love with your kids, being told you’re not good enough, being told you’re the one, being with your kids as they grow, being away when they need you, having your heart drop holding a sick child when a doctor shakes her head and says it’s Leukemia, being in the mountains, being by the sea, leaving a job you hate, losing all your confidence, losing all your money, getting angry, getting drunk, being ecstatically happy for no reason. Finding work you love. A friend dies of cancer, grieving, the burning feeling in your legs after a long run, having happy kids, having a depressed child, comforting your kids, watching them have a first crush, laughing with friends, holding a child who was dumped, or fired, or kicked out of school, comforting your parents, losing your way. Laughing with your dad. Watching him die, watching your mom slip into dementia. Going to weddings, dancing at a wedding. Getting drunk at you dad’s wake. Seeing grandkids, being in love. Forgetting the name of the woman you’ve lived with for forty years. Standing in the middle of a grocery store wondering where you are. And then you die.”
This, my friends, is what is truly meant by “life sucks and then you die.” It’s not all dark, it is all shades of color and light. But it is a ride down the rapids and over the falls. All at the speed of life, which is slightly slower than the speed of light.
Miracle of Life
We have a choice. We can go dark, lose our courage, lose our way and think, “please just get me safely through all this to my death!”
Or, we can see this as a miracle (however you take the word miracle to mean). We are alive and we are here. For a blink in time, living, thinking, loving: We are here!