When your best is not enough

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.

WordPress – You don’t decide who is Popular

I don’t especially like Opinionated Man’s blog. I followed him way back because he was one of the first bloggers to follow American Soustannie, and he had a number of posts that I, as a baby blogger, found helpful. But after a while I unfollowed him, for several reasons. Firstly, I wanted to take my time about figuring out how this whole blogging thing works (and I was more interested in creating something I liked, that expressed who I was, than in generating huge numbers of followers, which is a big part of what he’s about. If you want to be a power blogger, he will tell you how!) Also, he posted too often for my taste, and some of his posts annoyed me. (Like he says, he’s opinionated!)

But even though I’m not a fan, I’m grateful to Jason for what he does, and I see him as an important member of the WordPress community. Like when I, as a really new blogger, used his platform to introduce myself to the world. Some visitors stopped by as a result of that. I’m not sure whether any of them actually followed me, but that’s not the point. The point is, Jason the Opinionated Man gave me a chance to be seen – and if I’d wanted to continue hanging out with his crowd there would have been many more opportunities to promote this blog – because that’s one of the things he does. He has intentionally set up his blog to provide a communal platform that pretty much anyone, as far as I know, can use.

Opinionated Man has created a platform for a network that sustains the WordPress community. Even though I don't necessarily want to be locked into it all the time, I like knowing it's there.
Opinionated Man has created a platform for a network that sustains the WordPress community. Even though I don’t necessarily want to be locked into it all the time, I like knowing it’s there.

So okay, I followed for a bit, then I unfollowed. Every now and then I’d see a reference to his blog somewhere and I’d pop in, check him out, usually learn something new, and then move on. The free market in action. It WORKS, guys, really it does!

Does he read every blog he follows? Probably not. Certainly he’s never commented on mine, although he liked one or two posts back in the day when the encouragement meant a lot to me, before I got a little bit established. Do I want to blog the way he does? Nope; my priorities are different. But so what? I figure it’s not my job to judge how he manages his blog or how he uses his blogging time. What I see is a guy with an unusually community-oriented approach to the blogiverse; I see someone who appears to answer every comment anyone leaves on his blog (and there are many), and who actively tries to help other bloggers both by providing a platform and by answering requests for advice.

And now I see WordPress making his life difficult and, in the process, taking something away from the overall WordPress blogger community.

Recently I became aware of some kind of turmoil surrounding Jason’s blog. I still don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but it seems the powers that be within WordPress decided they didn’t like his Power Blogger approach and restricted some of his activity. So his supporters created a bit of an uproar, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who didn’t like what WP was doing and re-followed him in order to keep track of events, and WP reinstated whatever it was they had taken away. So far so good.

Well, apparently now WP is at it again. And once again I don’t know the details, and I don’t expect them to affect a little fish like me … but I have to take issue on the basis of principle.

To be quite clear, I think WP has the right to set whatever rules they like, and shape this platform any way they like. They own it. I can’t walk into a store and tell them how to run their business.

But in the same spirit, I don’t shop at Wal-Mart, because I think they’re jerks. I hate the way they treat their staff and their suppliers, the fact that a huge amount of the stuff they sell comes direct from the sweatshop to you appalls me, and their chilling effect on the economies of small communities scares me. So I won’t go there and I preach against them at any opportunity. Equally, I choose to shop at Yokes as often as I can, even though I can’t afford to do all my shopping there, because I like the fact that they’re employee-owned and that they support small local farmers and they have a good range of organic products. That’s because I believe in putting my money where my values are.

I think the same kind of choice may be arising here. I’m probably not going to up and leave immediately if Opinionated Man does, because it’s a hassle and I’m just starting to feel comfortable in this blogging thing … but the fact that WP is restricting the way in which a respected colleague runs his blog will definitely impinge on my comfort level. It’s likely that I’ll start looking around, familiarizing myself with the alternative options. And I’ll be watching to see if there is a pattern of behavior emerging here that I don’t want to live with.

How do you make your choices?
How do you make your choices?

I was just going to “like” Jason’s post and hope that a few of my followers would read it … but then it occurred to me that this made an interesting follow-on to my last post. This whole situation, and how I feel about it, and how it influences my future choices vis-a-vis blogging – in a small way, it’s about my personal values. And the thing is, I believe in freedom – including the freedom to post things that people find obnoxious, and the freedom to follow or not follow, like or not like.

What do you think? When you choose a provider of a service or a product, do you care about whether their values match yours? And if so, does it bother you that WordPress might be bullying one of its most influential and effective bloggers?

When rights and freedom collide

I’ve been having an interesting discussion with Ellen Hawley, over at Notes from the UK (you can pick it up, if so inclined, down in the comments after this post). I thought we’d both wandered away from the conversation, but it turns out that she’s been mulling over it, as have I. So instead of responding at length on her blog, I thought I’d bring the conversation here and invite you all to join in.

The question is: What do we do when protecting your rights limits my freedom?

The discussion started with the question of Texas' right to secede. What do you think? If a strong majority (say, 66%) of Texans  want out of the United States, should they be free to leave?
The discussion started with the question of Texas’ right to secede. What do you think? If a strong majority (say, 66 or 75%) of Texans want out of the United States, should they be free to leave? Even if you don’t think they should do it, do you have the right to tell them they can’t? (Source)

We all love to yatter on about freedom. America is the self-proclaimed “land of the free”. Every day we read bumper stickers proclaiming that “freedom isn’t free”. We admire the heck out of Patrick Henry and his “give me liberty, or give me death” proclamation. Lovers of freedom rejoiced when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Soviet Union broke up, and when Black South Africans went to the polls.

But we’re also big on rights – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to property. The right to vote, worship, marry as our conscience dictates. And, inevitably, rights and freedoms collide.

No winners here...
No winners here… (Source)

The right of the historically dispossessed to own land, versus a landowner’s right to keep what they and/or their parents have worked hard to acquire and improve. An unborn child’s right to live versus a woman’s right to evict an unwanted fetus from her body. An employee’s right to choose what services they receive through their healthcare plan, versus a business owner’s right to decide what employee benefits they will offer. A believer’s right to worship who and where and how they please, versus a citizen’s right to limit what may be done on property paid for by taxes. A cartoonist’s right to be an asshole, versus a fundamentalist’s right to defend what they consider holy.

Do some of these choices seem obvious to you? Probably – but that’s not the point. My question is, what core values define how you will choose one right or freedom over another? If, in order to be true to your core values, you have to give up one of your rights or freedoms to protect someone else’s rights or freedoms, will you do it? Have you ever sat down and thought seriously about your core values, defined them, defended them, followed them to the furthest extreme that your imagination will take you?

Have you discovered that every moral argument leads down a rabbit hole to a place where you must practice believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”?

It seems to me that we are too often and too easily satisfied to react to individual situations as led by our preferred media, politician or celebrity. We’re lazy. We bypass serious discussion about the morality of certain choices in favor of an eye-roll and a smh*. The message we receive, and that we pass on to the world, is “Come on, it’s obvious – and if you don’t see it the way I do you’re stupid / bad / part of the problem.”

This troubles me because every day, as we decide what we think about events and trends and the choices made by our elected leaders,we’re making decisions that have complex, far-reaching implications and feature countless shades of grey. And this is potentially a dangerous way to live. When we go with glib groupthink, when we allow our chosen tribe to define what we do and don’t believe, we become vulnerable. Most of us just want to get on with our lives as best we can, but there are individuals out there, powerful, savvy individuals, who really, really want to tell us what to do. And when we surrender our responsibility to think seriously about our moral values and let those values guide our decisions and opinions, we become sheep … and then we are powerless to choose whether we’re guarded by dogs under the control of a benevolent shepherd, or harried by wolves.

Sheep dog? Or wolf?
Guard dog? Or wolf? To the sheep, it doesn’t make a whole helluva lot of difference. (Source)

I don’t care whether it’s a politician, a self-made billionaire, a televangelist, a scientific genius or a really hot sex symbol – I don’t want someone else doing my thinking for me. I’m also not terribly interested in doing your thinking for you. I really don’t care if you don’t share my core values … but I care passionately that you should have them, and that you should know what they are.

So let’s talk. What do you think is more important – freedom or rights? Are you willing to sacrifice any of your rights or freedoms so that others can enjoy different rights and freedoms? What do you think society should do about people who don’t share your core values about rights and freedoms? Do you think decisions based on core values are more likely to ensure, over time, that all is right with the world?

  • It’s okay if you didn’t understand “smh”. It stands for “shaking my head”. (This note is for my mother, but I should mention that I had to google it too after seeing it 157 times and not being able to guess.)

The art of dying

Over the past few months I have watched my friend craft her death like a work of art. It is nearly complete.

She started with abundance. She spent frequent weekends watching her beloved grandsons compete in athletics events. (She was a runner for years – she told me she started running to beat breast cancer the first time it sneaked up on her.) She cared for her mother, at first in her home; later, after her mother moved into a facility, through daily visits and outings. She volunteered all over town – at the Cancer Center, the library, our church, a low-cost clinic. She traveled and went on a cycling tour.

She had a fat orange kitty named Peaches. In summer, her garden was full of roses. Her home was always immaculate, and friends were always welcome. Every day she ran or cycled, except on the worst days of chemotherapy. On those days, she walked. Every single day, summer and winter, busy day or not, her alarm woke her at 6.00AM, and every single morning she spent an hour or more in prayer and quiet, thoughtful study of her Bible.

Her mother died last year, and some months after that the doctors told my friend they had worked through every treatment option available and had nothing left to offer her. Then Peaches died early this year. My friend kept right on volunteering, running or cycling daily, waking at 6.00AM, welcoming friends, tending her roses, seeking to know God better.

And day by day, stroke by stroke, using her disease as a chisel, God carved away her life.

(Pic from Dollar Photo Club)
The master craftsman at work. (Source)

Or so it seemed to me. Only, when I started really paying attention, I understood that something different was happening. I watched how she stood before her God and He said, “Will you give me that?” and she said “Yes”  – so that running gave way way to walking, striding for miles gave way to a careful stroll down the block leaning on a walker.

He asked and she yielded – the library, the clinic, the Cancer Center, church activities, traveling to be with family, working in her garden. She stopped driving and depended on friends to take her shopping, and then to do her shopping for her.

Having been always quietly, insistently independent, she let her neighbors mow her lawn, take her garbage to the curb, collect her mail. Hospice sent someone a few times a week to help her bathe. Then they started sending someone to help her get ready for bed in the evenings and do a bit of cleaning, although she fixed her own dinner. A few weeks ago she started having a caregiver with her all night, but she still got up at 6.00AM every day so she could be dressed and see them through the door in plenty of time to sit down with her Bible after breakfast, just as she had always done.

“Are you afraid?” I asked her once. It was not a foolish question. I watched her closely and never saw her flinch, so I thought maybe I was just too stupid to understand. She thought about it, then said, “I’m afraid it might hurt. And I worry about losing my dignity.” That evening while I was helping her get ready for bed (it was a Sunday, when she sought the help of friends rather than the folk Hospice sent), as she leaned forward she farted. It was loud and unexpected and we were both startled, and it was entirely impossible to pretend it hadn’t happened. “Well, there goes your dignity,” I said at last, and we both fell about laughing.

Her liver failed. Her features have always been sharply chiseled with strong, prominent bones. She yielded her profile and it sank into puffiness. She yielded her clear, direct gaze as her eyelids swelled and she became too weak to open her eyes wider than slits.

Last Saturday Hospice sent her a hospital bed. We watched a movie – “The Gods Must Be Crazy” – while we waited for it to be delivered. I massaged her feet and told her how that movie had inspired me to abandon my own career as a journalist and start a mission school in a rural village in Africa. She ate a shortbread cookie.

On Sunday she was tired and weak. She wouldn’t eat, and spent much of my visit in her new bed, sleeping while I read my book in the chair she had bought for visitors. Her son called, but she couldn’t speak without slurring so he asked her to give the phone to me. He told me he planned to drive over on Thursday. I hesitated, then said, “Not until then?” I heard his breath catch. “Oh,” he said. “I’ll be there on Tuesday.”

On Monday she was alert again, happy at the prospect of seeing her family. She knew the lift in her spirits would be short-lived, so she told Hospice she was ready to go onto 24-hour care. We sat in the living room and watched another movie – “As Good As It Gets” – and made plans to take a drive, get her out of the house, just as soon as the weather improved a little.

On Tuesday she couldn’t walk further than the distance between her bed and her toilet. She drank from a little sponge on a stick that she dipped into a cup of water. I learned that she hadn’t been able to sit up to read her Bible for a few days, so I sat beside her bed and we flipped through Psalms, and I read everything she had highlighted – her trove of prayers and promises. Sometimes I thought she was asleep, but whenever I stopped reading she opened her eyes, so I would carry on.

Yesterday morning I looked at her lying on her bed, as insubstantial as a quick sketch in soft pencil. She has peeled away and yielded all the rich clutter of her life on earth, and what’s left is the pure essence of a woman whose trust in her Maker’s love has not wavered.

Picasso nude

I finished reading the Psalms and, at her request, started 2 Corinthians. I have promised to continue today, but she did not promise to wait for me to come.

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