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.

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.)

Tain’t fair!

I was just browsing in a procrastinatory way through some of the blogs I follow, and I found this:

equality-does-not-mean-justice

First, it’s important that you see this picture as I did. What I see is a fence with a long horizontal brown strip across the top of it. That strip is part of the fence – okay? Fine. Thank you.

In scenario A, each kid has the same box but only one can see over the fence. (Unfair!) In scenario B, the boxes have been distributed such that each kid is equally unable to see over the fence. (Remember, brown horizontal strip = top part of the fence!) (Fair! {big smiley face})

Are you kidding me?

How about we posit some different scenarios. In these, the tall kid keeps his box and continues watching the game.

Scenario C: The littlest kid gets off his box, and the middle-sized kid takes it. Maybe Little Guy is bored with staring at the fence and wants to do something more suited to his level of ability and development. Or maybe the middle-sized kid kicks him off it. We can even imagine a scenario in which the the tall kid kicks the little kid off the box and gives it to the middle-sized kid. However it works out, you then have two kids watching the game, and the third one doing something else.

In scenario C, the little kid could run screaming for mommy, because “It’s NOT FAIR!” Or he could wander off and play with the puppy. (Yes, there’s a puppy. It’s off having fun and doesn’t care less about watching a game when it can chase/lick its own balls.) Either way, it’s important to remember that all the little kid has to do is wait a bit and, guess what, He Will Get BIGGER. Yes! In approximately the same amount of time that it took the biggest kid to grow tall enough to see over the fence while standing on only one box, the littlest kid will also become able to do exactly the same thing. All he has to do is continue to grow!

And then there’s scenario D, which is my personal favorite. In that scenario, the two bigger kids persuade the littlest one to give up his box. They then help the littlest kid get up onto the biggest kid’s shoulders, after which the middle-sized kid stands on two boxes. After a while, they all go inside for some ice cream, and then they play with the puppy.

Looking at this a different way … If conditions had been “fair” in the primordial sludge, do you think anything would have bothered to crawl out of it?

What do you think about politically correct memes about fairness and justice? Do you think there might me more than two options to choose from?