Recently, a fourteen-year-old Golden Retriever in New York State was dropped off at a shelter because the family was moving.
Fourteen-years-old. Her name is Sophia.
Here is a picture of the Sophia arriving at the shelter:
I retired from being a volunteer firefighter after thirty-three years. I’ve seen lots of tragedy and sadness. I’ve learned that you never know what kind of fire department call will get to you. (Although you can depend on the calls involving kids and animals being upsetting — because they are helpless and rely on us)
And yet the night after I read the story about Sophia, like nights after bad calls, her story kept me awake.
Of course, you go through all the expected thoughts, “How could they?” “What kind of people would do that?”
Anger, a bit of sadness, and a touch of despair boil up.
At the shelter where I only randomly volunteer, they hammer home the lesson not to judge or get angry at people. Instead, we must understand that we are there to help animals. Being judgmental, angry, and highly opinionated might drive people away from the shelter and leave their animals to be abandoned or worse.
But it is so hard not to be angry!
A couple of days passed, and I tried to channel my recent and rookie interest in Buddhism because I was still upset. I started by thinking about righteousness.
The character of being righteous; purity of heart and rectitude of life; the being and doing right; conformity in character and conduct to a right standard.
Take the religiosity out of the idea of righteousness. In a secular sense, it means that we each have a moral code that endures and that we believe we will not break. From that position, whether consciously or unconsciously, we view the actions of others.
I was operating from a sense of righteousness — I would never do what that family had done. It is a powerful feeling — righteousness — and it animates a lot of judgment: we judge others to be less than us, to be wrong, or, as I thought of this family, indifferent. It drives a lot of “us” versus “them” thinking — that my tribe (party, clan, family, religious affiliation) is better than others.
That, and I apologize for pointing this out, is just not true. As the human family hugging this ball of mud called Earth, we are all fallible and, to lesser and greater extents, broken and imperfect.
It comes with the territory of being “us.”
And because conscience is a persistent and annoying thing, a memory popped up in my mind of when, at seventeen and the oldest of our family, I was charged with bringing our twelve-year-old arthritic (couldn’t walk) German shepherd, Rikka, to the Vet to be “euthanized.”
I left her there and cried in my car.
One of the most unforgivable acts of my life.
So, for all you Christians (and other thoughtful individuals), the words of Matthew (Chapter 7, 1–3) ring poignantly: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
I was in no position to judge another harshly. Yet I was still angry.
I needed more Buddhist/firefighter wisdom.
I’m not in Control
A universal truth from Buddhism is that everything in life is impermanent and constantly changing. From that, I take that my life, which I dearly love (especially considering the alternative), is not under my control. In the firefighter world, we say that “stuff happens.” People do stupid things. People do cruel things. The universe randomly assigns individuals to cancer and dementia. Accidents happen. Nearly 40,000 people are killed annually in car crashes. That’s the equivalent of over three hundred 737s crashing with fatalities each year. (Driving terrifies me).
We can’t control other people; we can barely control ourselves.
I can’t control what a family does with their fourteen-year-old dog. Every day on this planet, there are tragedies (and miracles) happening that I have no control over — none.
As a firefighter, you learn quickly that all you are in control of is how to respond to the events, the 911 calls that happen daily and sometimes hourly.
What you learn as a firefighter is what is in your control is to train harder. After bad calls, there was always the impetus to get better.
But what do you do when the insult, the tragedy, is thousands of miles, actually and figuratively, away?
One way is John Stuart Mill’s suggestion, “Just sit still until the feeling passes.”
Anger and rage will fade. And so, with them, the urge to do something.
I want to be calm. I want the feelings of upset to go away, but I can’t let go of the need to do something.
Part of the answer is not to become paralyzed by the problems of the world that are not in your control. None of us can do anything about Sophia (there is a good ending: read to the end!). None of us can stop the war in Ukraine nor save the lives of North African migrants sailing the Med in awful conditions. (Although we can make our voices heard)
Instead, act locally. Buddha remarked that his religion was kindness. Every day I think I can be kinder and less judgmental. That is how I choose to respond to indifference in the world.
This remains elusive for me. It is hard for me to see pain inflicted and not hold the person who inflicted it in contempt. I’ve not reached the level of enlightenment that easily forgives. I am at that lower level where all I can do is remind myself that I’ve done fucked up things, and I would like to be forgiven.
I’m working on forgiveness.
Sometimes there’s a good ending
If not happy, at least Sophia received a comfortable ending. A happy ending would be her family of fourteen years returning, crying, missing her, and taking her back.
But that was not to be. The good news is that one of the veterinarians on the shelter staff adopted her. So she is out of the shelter and with people who care — a blessing. I will sleep a bit better tonight.
A final thought: In the Metta-Sutta (a primary Buddhist text), translated by Peter Harvey, it is written: “May all beings be happy and secure, may they be happy-minded.”
Not a bad incantation for our modern world. And especially now for Sophia.
Hersch Wilson’s latest book, “Dog Lessons, Learning the Important stuff from our Best Friends” will be released September 5th. Available at bookstores and online.