Great teachers often arrive in our lives in humble packaging. I learned this from the animals in my backyard growing up.
As a child, I felt unwanted. My father worked long hours and was gone most of the time and for reasons I never fully understood, my mother was emotionally unavailable to me. The messages I got from her were about my deficiencies. I was extremely thin and self-conscious about it, even in the heat of summer I wore sweaters to hide my meager arms. The scantiness of my body seemed to express my overall feelings of insufficiency.
Whenever I was on my own in the backyard those feelings went away. The more I paid attention to what was going on out there, especially the doings of the various creatures, the more they expressed their individuality to me. They seemed to be members of a big, friendly club and they warmly accepted my presence.
The memories of the experiences I had in nature with them, all the things they taught, remain fixed inside, forever part of me. They taught me their language, which I seemed to understand better than human language. They taught me how to make friends and sustain relationships and instilled in me the confidence of belonging somewhere. Unless we are recognized by another, we don’t know who we are. The animals taught me who I was. Mirroring the tilted head of a curious bird with my own tilted head, I felt “this is me” and this “me” was sufficient after all. I believe that my backyard companions sensed my loneliness, and that they saw me as a young animal in need of adoption – their compassionate response was exactly what I needed.
Animals also have the ability to crack our hearts open and teach us compassion when nothing else will. Stray dogs and cats have a way of showing up and attaching themselves to people who don’t think they want an animal companion, but need one. Not long ago, during a talk I gave about the human animal bond, I was asked to share such a story. My favorite example of this is Hal, a huge hulk of a man who huffed into the clinic one day with a cardboard box. The previous evening he’d found it in a parking lot, sitting next to his car, with a note attached that read, “Please help me.” Inside the box was a newborn white kitten. He described the incident with a kind of “last straw” exasperation, as one more hassle in a life that was apparently filled with hassles. But when he opened the box, the tenderness with which he lifted out the kitten belied his gruff tone.
Since six inches of snow had fallen the night before, Hal named the cat Snow. Had he not rescued the kitten, she probably would not have survived. I became friends with both Hal and Snow over the years and got to know them pretty well. When we first met, Hal’s life was imploding. His wife had just left him, he loathed his job, and the evident chip on his shoulder had rendered him pretty much friendless. He couldn’t stand himself, or anyone else. Snow melted him. Having someone to take care of opened his heart, allowed him to experience compassion, and reconnected him to the world. Each time I saw him he was a little bit softer, and more cheerful, and more in love with Snow. He finally quit his job and moved to Arizona, which he had wanted to do for a long time. The cat he grudgingly rescued ended up rescuing him.
The last time I heard from Hal, he was offering land to a nearby rescue organization involved in the rehabilitation of injured wildlife.
Animals help us experience compassion first hand, through personal experience that evokes it within us. That is how compassion becomes powerful, and once it is aroused in us, it begins to flow out to others, in our personal lives and through our work in the world. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said “We need to experience compassion, but that is not enough, we must act.”
Yes, animals are powerful teachers of compassion, and I cannot think of anything we need more of in our world today.