A friend of mine posted this picture this morning on Facebook. I think it’s funny and almost re-posted it to share a laugh, but, then I realized that, for me, under the humor lies a very upsetting phenomena. In case you don’t already know it, the picture comes from an Ad that Sarah McLachlan did for the ASPCA in which her song “Angel” plays behind images of animals in shelters. It is a tear-jerker to the Nth degree, designed to direct our attention to the plight of these unwanted dogs and cats, and get us to donate, adopt or otherwise take action to end their suffering. I suppose that it has been effective, as it has been around for a while, but, based not only on the caption on this photograph, but things I have heard from people, that what it is more likely to do is invoke guilt and a feeling of helplessness. Based additionally on the many animal rescue pages I follow on Facebook, guilt and helplessness are the feelings that most people end up with when they see images of dogs and cats in shelters, found as strays, abused, neglected, unwanted. Those feelings are natural…I felt them for a long time when I started to pay attention, but, found over time that in addition to feeling sad and like I couldn’t do anything, I began to feel angry. Angry at just how widespread this problem really is. And that led me to feeling like I had to do something. I already visited shelters and donated a few dollars here and there to my local SPCA, but, that wasn’t enough for me. Despite my initial fear that my Facebook friends wouldn’t like it, would be sad or offended by some images, I started posting pictures, stories, links that stood out to me. In order to not alienate people, I try pick and choose carefully. I had started an additional page a few months back, thinking that I would use it for that purpose, but, decided that I would keep sharing on my personal page, because you never know who might see something that spoke to them, and only animal people would pay attention to the other page. I didn’t want to limit the visibility of these animals and their stories to people who were already paying attention. Some of my friends may have blocked me or hide my posts, and that’s ok. I know plenty of others are reading, sharing and thinking about this issue in ways that they never have before….because that’s how it started for me.
My own guilt and sadness has led me to some amazing places and I have met some amazing people and animals. But, that’s because I didn’t wallow in the sadness and guilt. Those emotions are not very helpful for anyone in any situation, for any extended period of time, because they tend to either fade (and we tell ourselves to get over it or rationalize) or simply make us feel worse and eventually, powerless. I believe that they are only helpful if they provide some motivation to do something. To be part of the solution, instead of just another person who feels bad or sad. I can tell you that those emotions serve the animals you feel sad about absolutely no purpose….unless they are backed up with action.
It’s the same really with anything that we say matters to us….if something is important to you, you do something about it. And it doesn’t have to be anything grand. For an example, this past Christmas, one of my sorority sisters posted a note on Facebook about a very sick little girl in Pittsburgh. She asked for all of her friends to send this little girl a Christmas card in the hospital. I was so saddened by the thought of this girl in the hospital at Christmas that I cried. I cried when I read the note and I cried when I wrote out my card. I wrote out the card because it mattered to me. Because it was something that I COULD do. Rather than cry and feel guilty about what I couldn’t do (make the illness go away for the poor girl), I focused on what I could. It felt good, and along with a lot of my sorority sisters, I felt a part of something bigger….a force for good for a little girl in need. I will never forget that my friend thought enough of this little girl and of the people she knows to feel like a difference was worth trying to make. Was the little girl any less sick? No. Did she smile when she got all those cards? I bet she did. Was her day a bit more bearable? I bet it was.
So, my point is simple….if Sarah McLachlan makes you cry….do something. If sick children make you cry….do something. There are so many things you can do for any person, animal or cause you believe in. I see so often statements like “I wish I could save them all” and am guilty of thinking that exact thing myself. But, it is not a helpful statement…it becomes overwhelming when we think like that. So, for me, I have focused my efforts on one animal shelter and doing what I can there. And, I know now that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what can be done. For now, I am happy to play with a few dogs, take pictures, write up Petfinder ads, post needs on Facebook. I bring treats for the dogs and cats. The biggest and most surprising side effect of all of this is just how enjoyable it is. For those few hours, I forget about everything but the dog I am playing with. All of my problems disappear. I become fully engaged in what I am doing and where I am. No amount of yoga, meditation, long walks or quiet time have been able to accomplish this in the way getting down on the ground with a lonely, scared dog has been able to. It is an amazing feeling. To my surprise, my husband (who I thought I coerced into volunteering) said this to me as well, without knowing how I felt. It feels like I am part of something bigger than me, and helps me remember that we all (animals included) play a part in the world. We all have a role. We all matter. The little girl in the hospital….the unwanted dogs and cats of the world. All of us.
Oh, and last I heard, the sick little girl had returned to school…..very happily 🙂