Tag Archives: burnout

When your best is not enough

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Jane

Jane

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.

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Forever home

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When I met Mr. Eebs he was chained to a broken down doghouse inside a jury-rigged run in an untidy backyard. His two brothers lived in similar conditions, but where Eebs was merely defensive, they had turned dangerous. Inside the house were two more stiff-legged, hackled-up dogs, and a large litter of puppies had taken over the kitchen.

I heard about this situation from a neighbor. She had adopted one of Eebs’ sisters several months previously, on an impulse that she later regretted, so she called our little rescue group to ask for help. When I went to pick up the neurotic mess that was her dog, she told me about the over-population problem next door. Being a sucker for punishment I asked her to give her neighbor my card, and a couple days later I got a call. This was a pleasant surprise; it’s sad how bitterly people can resent an offer of help.

I liked the woman who called. I like to think that if we hadn’t both been drowning when we met – I in dogs, she in being the single mother of three angry teenagers – we might have become friends. This is not to deny that her situation was bad. The three dogs in the backyard were hungry, scared and miserable, and I later learned that one of the kids was beating them. There was poop on the kitchen floor. The puppies had fleas, and all the dogs were stressed and skinny. It would have been so easy to set myself up as judge, jury and executioner – as she clearly expected.

Instead I asked, “What happened?” and the story spilled out. She’d started out with one dog – a beautiful big pitbull. Money was tight so she put off neutering him, but it was okay because he was the only dog. Then a stray turned up on her front porch – a scared female, dumped by some loser. (Let’s be clear on this: I don’t care what your “reason” is or what hardship you’re going through – if you dump an animal, You Are A Loser, and I do judge you, and if I ever catch you there is no limit to how far I will go to make your life hideous.)

So anyway, not long after that there were puppies. Most of them found homes, but Eebs and his brothers weren’t chosen. The best she could do was throw up ramshackle runs to keep them off the street (there was, of course, no money to fence the yard), feed and shelter them (sort of), and try to prevent them from killing each other (because, as often happens with litter-mates, rivalry between the two big boys was fierce, and they both grabbed any opportunity to beat up on poor, scared little Eebs).

Mr. Eebs

Mr. Eebs

Seven or eight months later more puppies came, and they were already weaned and rambunctious by the time I wandered into the picture. The first part of helping out was easy – we brought in food, dewormed and vaccinated everyone, got the mama dog spayed, and rehomed the puppies (who were also all sterilized, of course). Then we hit a wall. The three boys in the backyard couldn’t safely be adopted out – they were all too unpredictable. Himself and I had 12 or 15 or 20 dogs already in our care and no room for another – especially not one (or three) with aggression issues. No one else in our group could take on dogs like these either. So … we had them neutered, and they stayed on their chains, and every time I took food over I wondered what we were going to do about them.

The thing about rescue is, how much you can do is defined by how much actual, practical help you receive. Several times on this blog I’ve mentioned that I “burned out” last year. Burnout is a bit like what happens when you make an engine carry a load that’s way beyond its design capacity. And you don’t give it oil. And maybe you throw some grit into the works. In rescue, burnout happens when you are all there is between an unstoppable stream of creatures in desperate need and an array of ugly options, and you are maxed out and running on empty, and you look for support but your supporters are all off doing other things, and you…just…can’t. And what happens next is all your fault.

One day one of Eebs’ brothers got loose and went into attack mode. After that Animal Control took all three of them away, and scheduled each of them a date with the needle.

Here’s another thing about rescue: No matter how many you help, the guilt over each one you fail lodges in your gut and consumes you from the inside out.

I knew I couldn’t help the two aggressive boys. Maybe I should have acknowledged this from the start, but they were so young, and I’d turned around a few tough cases over the years, and I kept thinking that, if only we could reduce the number of other dogs in our care – in other words, if only we could find more foster homes – I might be able to take them home and pull off some kind of miracle. Well, so much for “if only”. Those two dogs were out of time and there was nothing I could do about it.

But Eebs was still salvageable, and he deserved a chance. I called the animal control officer and told him so.

The ACO was new on the job – in fact, new in town – and had never heard of me or our rescue organization. He told me Eebs was as crazy as his brothers, and releasing him to us was a liability the city couldn’t take on.

I begged. I name-dropped our town’s top vets and trainers, and I promised him the sun, moon and stars if he’d just let me try to save that one dog. Eebs got his miracle – the ACO said yes. And then another miracle – I brought him home and incorporated him into the pack, and the dogs taught him how not to be afraid. And at last the biggest miracle – he went home to people who love, love, love him, even though he’s still neurotic and freaky.

Yes, I’m aware that I’m being overly free with the word “miracle”. But in the context of this dog’s life, what else would you call it?

All this happened more than a year ago, and in the meantime there have been a lot of dogs, and burnout, and my withdrawal from rescue work. But Mr. Eebs is on my mind because I saw him a few days ago. He didn’t recognize me at first and he wasn’t especially friendly, but I didn’t care because really all I wanted to do was introduce him to Cookie.

Cookie, the day we took her in.

Cookie, the day we took her in.

I don’t have a lot to tell you about Cookie. She’s just one more half-grown pup, past the cuddly-puppy stage and well into the if-you-don’t-teach-me-manners-I-will-jump-on-you-with-muddy-paws-and-then-maybe-eat-your-house stage. Just one more pup dumped in our neighborhood by a Loser.

(Seriously, what do people think when they drive out into the country and dump a dog? Do they really think “Someone here will take care of it because farmers always have room for an extra dog”? Because, hello, farmers shoot stray dogs. Maybe they think the dog will enjoy being “set free” … because who wouldn’t enjoy being lost and cold and hungry and then shot or hit by a car or torn apart by coyotes?)

Luckily for Cookie, our neighbors [don’t] know that Himself and I [no longer] do the Rescue Thing, so she came to stay with us for a few weeks, and we hooked her up with the rescue group we started, which is under new management and still going strong. And that’s how Mr. Eebs’ people found out about her – because they had been looking for a friend for him. So that’s why, on a bitterly cold morning last week, we met in a lonely field outside a small town. She was so thrilled to meet him, and immediately rushed up to make friends. He was shy at first and needed reassurance – to be expected in a dog who has been bullied – but then he remembered how to play.

And this the real reason I wrote this blog post. I mean, I’ve been wanting to talk about rescue, and I’m sure I’ll do so again. I want you to know that this is something you can do, or at least help others do, and if you do that you will in fact help make the world a better place. But mainly I just wanted to share this video, which Himself shot on his cell phone.

It’s not that it’s great video, or that these are exceptional dogs, or that their stories are unusual. But the thing about rescue – the one key thing – the thing that keeps us coming back again and again for just one more dog – is that it transforms hopeless situations into moments of joy, like these.

Thank you for reading. Now it’s your turn … Please tell me what you think.