When your best is not enough


Himself and I spent most of yesterday driving around 300 miles to help a scrap of a dog get home. We were just one small part of a big effort. To get Jane from Denver, Colorado to Spokane, Washington involved 14 drivers working in relay, after hours of intensive work by the coordinator who put the project together.

It feels pretty special to be part of something like that. Yes, you can argue, “Why put so much effort into one puppy when there are so many in desperate need?” And yes, maybe, differently managed, that same amount of human love, time and energy, not to mention the cost of the gas alone, could have been directed into saving a whole lot of dogs – or whales – or children.

I heard the same argument back when I ran a mission school in South Africa. I often asked people I met to make a small donation, or maybe sponsor just one child. The cost of sponsorship was equivalent to maybe one fast food meal for four, once a month. Several times wealthy people, who routinely spent more on a single dinner out than the families I served spent on a month of eating, replied, “But what’s the point? There are so many kids like that – I can’t change anything.”

The argument is valid, but it misses the point completely. We can’t change the whole world, but anyone can touch a life. As long as you stay safely outside the war zone of life, you can think in abstract terms and pray for world peace and argue on Facebook about which political party “cares” more. But, with heartfelt apologies to the Democrats and Republicans out there, no government program will magic away poverty, and nor will setting the market free enable everyone to pursue life, liberty or happiness. There is no global solution to the problem of human failure and imperfection.

If you want the world to be better, you have to make that happen yourself, one act of kindness at a time. And I honestly believe it doesn’t matter whether you direct your kindness toward a kid or a puppy or [Insert Cause Here]. Any act – large or small – that adds to the sum total of happiness, peace and beauty in the world is worthwhile. One of the best things to happen to me this year was when I was having a rough day, dealing with physical pain and a whole lot of sadness, and the guy ahead of me in the Dutch Brothers drive-through paid for my coffee. He didn’t save the world or change my life, but he transformed that one day for me, and while he has certainly forgotten the few dollars it cost him, I still remember how good that coffee tasted, and how it warmed my heart.

Sometimes a few dollars, or a bit of time, is all it takes. Sometimes it’s more about a change of attitude. Sometimes you get to take on something big.

Sometimes it costs a whole lot more than you bargained for. I have been trying for months to write about what it was like to create a dog rescue organization, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally – just as I broke beyond repair under the strain – to hand it off to people I trusted, and then to find that my trust had been misplaced. But writing about that kept leading to what it felt like to start a school out of nothing but a gang of children, and pour everything I had into running it, and finally to break when people I trusted turned against me. I wanted to write about what it’s like for your best never to be enough, about the pain of broken trust and shattered dreams, and also about the soul-scorch of burnout.

Here’s the thing about burnout: you hold it at bay for as long as you can, because the need – whatever it is – is unrelenting. You feel the heat, you know you won’t hold out forever, but you keep going in an effort to save what you can while you can. When you finally quit, you think that at last you’re free. That’s when you find out that all that’s been holding you together is the purpose that has also been devouring you from the inside out. Rid yourself of the purpose, and whatever is left collapses upon itself.

So I wanted to write about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to do so without sounding like I was whining or – worse – looking for a pat on the head. And while that might have been the case a year or even six months ago, whines and pats are irrelevant now that I’m through the pain.

I’ve just realized that what I want to write about is the fact that sometimes the cost of kindness is so high it seems to bankrupt you – but it’s still worth it.

Don’t get me wrong: it sucks when you take on something too big, and it eats you alive and hacks you up and leaves the remnants lying in the dirt. Burnout sucks, and being disappointed or betrayed or blamed sucks, and feeling guilty and ashamed because you know your personal flaws contributed to the crash-and-burn sucks most of all.

But it doesn’t suck enough not to risk it. I believe the key to riches is to give fearlessly whenever you see a need and have the capacity to respond, no matter how little you’re able to give. A small act of kindness may be to humanity like the perfectly timed flap of a butterfly’s wing – and even if it isn’t, it will still give wings to that one moment. And if you are blessed to have the freedom and opportunity to pour yourself out, do so with a lavish hand – because that may indeed change a small corner of the world, and it will certainly transform you.

The truth – my post-burnout truth – is that there are a whole lot of alive-minded young people out there whose kids call me granny. One of them, a girl who grew up in unimaginable poverty, is a qualified and highly paid engineer who now helps support my parents. Another is a musician, some are teachers, a few are entrepreneurs. One is a single mom who occasionally needs help with her kids’ school expenses. Also, hundreds of dogs and people are happy because we brought them together, and the rescue Himself and I started is still the best in our town and doing just fine without us.

Sometimes your best just is not enough, and then failure or burnout may strike with all the devastating effect of a forest fire. But time passes, you begin to heal, and the desire to re-engage rises like sap in a young tree. And then you take a deep breath, and you do the next best thing. Maybe you can’t plunge in too deep, because you’ve grown wary and the burns still hurt. But you can buy one child a study aid, you can help out one cash-strapped shopper at the till, you can give one puppy a ride home.

Author: Belladonna Took

Well into my second half-century and still trying to figure out what to be when I grow up. Born South African, naturalized American, perpetually at risk of losing my balance and landing ass-first in the Atlantic.

27 thoughts on “When your best is not enough”

  1. First, that puppy is adorable!!
    Second, you are amazing for all that you do.
    Third, thank you for sharing these words “burnout may strike with all the devastating effect of a forest fire. But time passes, you begin to heal, and the desire to re-engage rises like sap in a young tree. And then you take a deep breath, and you do the next best thing. Maybe you don’t plunge in too deep, because you’ve grown wary and the burns still hurt.” As you well know our paths are nothing alike, but these words spoke to me today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so glad that something I wrote touched you! And, as always, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love your perspective on life and it makes me feel good that you read my ramblings… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am thinking a lot these days about trying to reemerge from the fire that we have been living within for a few years. And I just love your analogy of starting to heal and reemerging with energy and renewed strength of a young tree. You offered me such a great visualization as I read these words! Thank you!
        And honestly, thank you for being one of the good ones out there. Our dog, who is the center of our lives, would not be in our lives if it weren’t for someone like you, who cared enough to rescue her and a few siblings who needed some love and protection. More people need to take a lesson in compassion from individuals like you.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. We did. 🙂 We brought her into our home when she was about 9 weeks old, and everyone thought she’d probably grow to be about 50 lbs. Now she’s over 5 years old and 90 lbs. We may be biased but we think she’s amazing and we just love her to pieces!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Val, we are re-learning all these hard lessons. As grim as the hard times are, we have found tender mercies in even unspeakably difficult circumstances. He, who made and loves us all, is indeed merciful. And despite the trials we face, His constant love and the support and kindness of wonderful people like you, who have served us and loved us, has reinforced our love for life, others and the beauties of the earth. I loved this “rambling”.. However, it is much more than rambling. So beautifully written. Talent oozes onto the paper when you write Val. And so does your loving heart.


    1. Ahhh … you’re making me blush! Thank you, my dear, for the words of encouragement, and I won’t argue about whether or not they’re deserved – they aren’t, but they are nonetheless appreciated. Love you!


  3. Wow! This is powerful. The best is I remember you in that very rural setting in Kangwane. Thank you for sharing this. I found it most insightful and deeply moving!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah, so now you’ve done it! And so eloquently. And it so resonates for me. A gazillion years ago, I was involved with street children in Hillbrow, and then later, during 1994, over the election period, in development work in the Eastern Cape and subsequently in Cape Town. And, all through that period, I was deeply involved with an institute that provided volunteer support to NGOs/NPOs, and either held down a job or was in the throes of self-employment. In all those instances I got burnt; I also heard the same arguments, all summed up in a single phrase: “it’s just a drop in the ocean”. I am still involved – now in the very “unsexy” arena of TVET and in an organisation that provides bursaries and social support for disadvantaged youth to get trades or occupations. I hear the same old same old. But when, 10 years later, someone who started off life with nothing, and became an auto mechanic, has risen up the ranks in a multi-national car company (and that’s only one of the stories) I know why we do it. Thanks again for reminding us that the pain is still worth it! And do write those stories….


    1. Ag, thank you, Fiona! Sounds like you have some marvelous stories to share too. I’m so glad you haven’t given up on dripping your drops into the ocean. It DOES make a difference!


      1. Thank you. Like you, I’m nervous about dredging some of that up. Some of it still too painful. I admit that I have developed a bit of a crust that must be bashed through before I get involved now….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I have a lot of funny stories about my time in Sekhukhune, so that’s what I’ll be sharing. The whole dog rescue thing is still too raw; I finally cut ties with them only a few weeks ago. It’ll be a while before I can hear the name of the group without wincing, and some of the relationships will probably never recover. But I’ll get there … and I have funny dog stories too!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Great, great post. Someone once said you can tell a person’s character by how they treat animals. In one post, you have eloquently, yet simply provided the answer to the sad state of the human condition. Just imagine if everyone committed to always being kind to others instead of getting the better of them or lording it over them. It boggles the mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Al! And yes, I think that’s the secret … Just be kind. We’re all going to have off days – I certainly have days when I’m just horrible to be around! But if we can learn to make kindness our default position, what a difference that makes!


  6. This post is so beautifully written and spoke to me. I sometimes like to imagine a world where all of us do something “small” just even a couple times a week to help another animal, human, whatever the cause closest to their heart is. Thank you for all you’ve done, and all you do. You’re a shining light in this world.


    1. Thank you as always for stopping by and saying something encouraging. I appreciate you so much! And yes, I agree … when I was running our dog rescue I would sometimes challenge people to help just ONE dog. If each of our adopters had also fostered just one dog, the effect on the numbers we saved would have been exponential. Of course, that’s not practical for everyone – but the point is the theory. We can all do something.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I know it sounds trite but the concept of think globally, act locally works for me. I will never solve the problem of too many dogs being euthanized for instance. But I can work hard through Pilots N Paws and our local animal rescue organization to do my part for what crosses my path. And then I carry on with a full heart.


    1. Exactly! And I so agree that one should try to keep one’s own work local. I don’t necessarily mean geographically local, either … maybe “personal” is more what I mean. The little family I help out when needed – my former pupil and her four children – are all on the other side of the planet from me, but we’re connected by so much more than money. To me, one of the biggest failings in the “government program” approach to social wellbeing is that it creates a huge gulf between giver and recipient and stuffs it with bureaucrats – and everyone ends up poorer. Except the bureaucrats, of course… 😦


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