The BF is on primary call at the clinic this week, which means that he’s liable to receive phone calls, and possibly even have to go in to work, at any time. We got two middle-of-the-night calls last night, in fact, regarding a bunny who may very well be, as the BF puts it, The Rabbit Who Ruined Christmas. The poor critter’s hind legs have been paralyzed for a while, and now it’s going through some sort of trouble with its innards as well. The owners are paying a great deal of money to see to its care. They simply will not let go.
I get it about wanting to keep your pets alive, I do; everyone who has one feels this way. I also know that as soon as you say “wouldn’t it be better to put an end to the animal’s suffering?” someone will fire back, How do you know they’re suffering? What makes you think the animal would rather die? And yet, as the BF puts it, the one thing vets allow themselves to anthropomorphize is reaction to pain. Pain, after all, is not an emotion; it’s a physiological fact. If you have a central nervous system, almost by definition you feel pain, and if a person can feel it, chances are an animal can as well. The Rabbit Who Ruined Christmas is unquestionably in pain—a lot of it.
Oddly, though, what gets at me more than this is a certain degree of anthropomorphization-based empathy. If you’re a rabbit, just about everything in nature wants to eat you. Feeling helpless and vulnerable is probably the worst thing you could feel, knowing that at any moment something could swoop down and rip your head off and you would be completely powerless to prevent it. What physical pain is to the body, the feeling of helplessness is to the psyche: it shuts you down.
I’ve been thinking about helplessness and dependency lately, in large part because first I then the BF have both been injured from running. (Please, non-runners, do not now wag your fingers and exclaim “See? Running is bad for you! I’ll never do it!” Neither you nor I need justification for what we choose to do or not do, so let us move on.) Both of us injured our right ankles, which unfortunately means we can’t even do a three-legged raced together unless one of us runs backwards. Luckily, I’m on the mend; I was able to do my first run in 5 weeks last Sunday, and while it wasn’t pretty, it was 3 miles more than I’d done in over a month, and that felt very, very good. The BF’s injury, on the other hand, is only a week old, and it’s a bad one. When doctors, physical therapists, and other hard-core runners who have seen all manner of injuries take one look at your leg and shriek, you know something’s not right. Uniformly everyone in east-central Illinois agrees, it’s the worst sprain they’ve ever seen. I guess that’s a feather in his cap, of sorts.
Like many people in some branch of the medical profession—and like just about every runner I know—the BF is a bad patient. He dislikes sitting still, resting, taking it easy, doing nothing—hell, I’ve even heard him say he wishes he only needed about 2 hours of sleep because sleeping is such a huge waste of time. (This is one area where we disagree. Sleep is delicious, in my view.) As such, an injury like this has meant a complete upheaval of his life. Obviously walking is a major undertaking, but so is sitting, standing, showering, and even driving. In short, he feels helpless and dependent, and hates it.
Been there. Oh boy have I ever, and I’m not just talking about those times (goodness, how many times have there been, anyway?) when I was injured from running. I also hate the helplessness and dependency that comes from having to ask a question of someone who is an expert in an area I know nothing about. This is a great many areas. Sometimes it can be a learning experience, but much of the time it’s an experience in anxiety, suspicion, and humiliation. Plumbers, mechanics, and anyone involved in anything the least bit technological—they’re all out to fleece me, I’m sure of it, and all they have to do is throw around some random jargon in an unnecessarily complicated way and I’m instantly a bunny rabbit with paralyzed hindquarters.
I like to think of myself as a fairly independent person; after all, I’ve lived more of my life by myself, doing my own thing, than otherwise. Many times I’ve traveled to a place where I knew not one person, sometimes to live, other times just to visit, and I’ve always managed to get by just fine. That’s not to say, however, that it’s always been easy—or even enjoyable. When you come back from a vacation, you have two choices: you can complain about how comically sucky everything was or you can brag about how cosmically awesome everything was. Well, when you travel alone, you have no choice but to do the latter. You don’t want to admit, even to yourself, that the risk you took in going off on your own didn’t pay off, because it was a risk, one that most people decide isn’t worth it. I don’t regret any of my solo journeys, but at the same time, they were often lonely and frustrating. The loneliness is actually easier to deal with; loneliness in a foreign environment can feel weirdly cleansing, because it forces you to deal with the person you are. Frustration, however, is borne of helplessness. You think, endlessly, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t speak the language, people are staring at me and I can’t make them stop. You start to wonder if you’ve grown long ears and a cotton tail.
But being independent is not necessarily the hardest way to live your life. I’ve learned how to be reasonably self-sufficient (at least until there’s some plumbing mishap); now, in the second half of my life, I’m learning how to be responsible. For a long time I didn’t have a partner, didn’t have children, didn’t even have pets. Now I deal with all of these in one form or another. I had a fun conversation about books with one of the BF’s daughters the other day and I felt like I’d scored a major victory. Yes! I can talk to a child and not scar them for life with my bad attitude! I got the macaws to fly over to me to get treats. Woo hoo! They aren’t just ignoring me or trying to bite my fingers off! The dog needs to be walked (and told, endlessly, “don’t eat that”), the BF needs his foot bandaged (and told, futilely, “you need to rest more”), and even the turtle, silent and still in his Nemo-themed kiddie pool, needs a nice juicy worm once in a while. The trick to dealing with all this isn’t just martyrishly slaving away for all of the above but rather establishing that all of this is not just independence or dependence but interdependence. It is not a sacrifice to help someone; it is an action undertaken to meet a goal. The goal, in this case, is to make life livable. That’s a pretty reasonable goal, yes?
I’ve been injured and alone, and it sucks. I’ve also been injured and gotten help, and at those moments I’ve understood grace and humility like no Sunday school lesson could ever teach. When you’ve been helpless, you never want to be there again, but you will be, if someone else doesn’t get there first; it’s just plain inevitable, like it or not. When that happens, you do what you can, we all do what we can, and when that happens, we do get by somehow.