Once upon a backyard, there was a tiny, dirty, vicious white dog. He lived, and almost died, in a tiny enclosure with fourteen big dogs. Not only was his owner very cruel and abusive, but so were the other dogs. When their owner decided to serve them food, the other dogs snapped at the little dog and kept him away if he tried to eat.
How he survived is a mystery.
The neighbors constantly called the police on this cruel dog-owner and eventually she was forced to get rid of some of her dogs to appease them.
So a big-hearted woman adopted this tiny, dirty, vicious, tick-covered dog with more ribs than fur showing.
He was a very frightened and angry dog. Whenever anyone got close, he barked at them and bit them. Even his big-hearted new owner.
If there was any sudden noise or movement in the room, he hid and cowered somewhere, and would often tremble for an hour afterward.
And when food was laid out for him, he’d fearfully creep up to the bowl, grab a tiny morsel of it, and then run away to hide and eat it.
But this big-hearted woman loved him. Even though he barked and snapped at her, she didn’t get angry or scared. Even though he was constantly jumpy and peeing on everything, she didn’t get frustrated or annoyed.
She just kept loving him, no matter what he did. Of course she set boundaries and let him know when he was exhibiting the kind of behavior that was no longer necessary in a loving home. But most importantly, she believed in him, because she could tell that underneath everything was a dog with as big of a heart as hers. However, his environment had put him in a constant state of fight or flight. It’s as if those two survival instincts were all he’d learned.
Days passed, weeks passed, and months passed, and slowly the little dog began to change. With regular grooming and feeding, his coat began to grow normally and his ribs no longer stuck out. He began to trust his owner, to not snap at her when she reached to stroke him, to not jump and tremble every time there was a noise, to understand that the food she laid out was for him exclusively and no one was going to take it from him.
More days passed, more weeks passed, and more months passed, and soon the dog was almost unrecognizable from the mangy skin-and-bones terror that the woman had rescued. In the morning, as soon as his big-hearted owner opened her eyes, this now-happy dog would lick her face once to say good morning. After being taken outside and fed, he would follow her excitedly as she prepared for her day. His tail was constantly wagging and his neck craned as he walked alongside her so he could look up at her.
People who saw him commented on what a sweet, intelligent dog he was, and how soft and beautiful his coat was, like stroking silk.
The big-hearted woman now had a big-hearted dog.
* * * *
There is another story I’d like to share. It is about a bird.
And yes, it was an angry bird.
It was left outside in a cage, barely fed. Its wings were mangled from a neighborhood cat that would stalk it all night outside, reaching into the cage to claw it whenever it could. This tiny yellow bird lived in a constant state of terror.
So when the big-hearted woman rescued the tiny wounded bird, it cowered in its cage and bellowed like a miniature dinosaur at anyone who came remotely close. He was so traumatized, it seemed like he would never recover.
A year later, this bird is no longer in a cage. It is free in the big-hearted woman’s house, living on a small, artificial tree. In the morning, it walks from its tree to the woman’s bedroom door and pecks at it. Then it chirps, until she opens the door and lets the bird in.
The bird then flies onto the bed and perches on top of the pillow, next to the big-hearted dog and another grateful dog, as the woman returns to sleep.
It is the most beautiful menagerie you’ve ever seen.
So what turned this angry bird into a happy, tender creature?
What turned this vicious dog into a loyal, joyful, affectionate companion?
There can only be one answer. It is a single word: Love.
It has been written about another type of animal (the human kind) that love is nature’s psychotherapy.
When we find these bipedal animals and let them into our lives, it is important to remember that they too have pasts. Sometimes they were bullied by bigger humans. Other times they were left alone to fend for themselves. And most of them encountered other wounded humans who in turn wounded them.
And the closer we get to them, the more frightened or scared they can become. When they feel scared or threatened, sometimes they run away. Other times, they bark. Loudly.
In response, we too sometimes run away or bark back. Other times, because we so sincerely want them to change, we attempt to achieve this end with criticism, judgment, nagging, control, withholding, shutting down, and ultimatums. Even if the goal is to connect with the big heart underneath that tough exterior, when we bark at the creatures in our lives, they just retreat further.
But how often do we employ the easiest and most effective method to bring about positive change?
Yet all it requires is love and acceptance. (Note that this latter word implies the lack of dependence on a desired outcome or result.)
For with a true, accepting, non-needy, non-controlling love, those fight-and-flight behaviors that seem frustrating or confusing or self-destructive will often diminish. Because they are not real. They are defenses. And when someone is being attacked, their defenses increase and multiply. But when there’s nothing to defend against, the defenses go away.
So if someone isn’t hurting you or wounding you or an actual sociopath, and you are willing to commit to loving and accepting them as they are (which means that you are in reality about WHO they are), miracles will happen.
When two people can treat each other this way, then you get a relationship that is much greater than the sum of its parts.
But even if you don’t end up as each other’s “pets” or “life companions,” you will have been part of the healing process.
I realize this is a “mushy” message coming from me. But that is only because the same big-hearted woman who has treated these wounded birds and dogs with so much love and compassion has also treated me the same way. And I too have changed and become a happier, healthier, better person because of it.
And I don’t pee on the carpet anymore.
“Perhaps everything terrible is in
Its deepest being something helpless
That needs our love.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke