Dog and man: paw in hand

The Power of Being Present . . . With a Dog

Last night, a middle aged man in a bright yellow t-shirt reached out and asked, “Could you call 911 for me?”

“Sure, what’s the problem?”

He told me in broken English that he had diabetes. So I called 911 and they asked me for symptoms. He had trouble explaining in English so I tried Spanish, but he continued to mumble in English and I had trouble understanding him.

The 911 operator said that it wasn’t a problem and that an ambulance was on its way. Eventually he managed to explain to me that he had a problem with his sugar.

During our conversation, he repeatedly squeezed his eyes shut, took deep breaths, mumbled his words, and couldn’t stand for long. He didn’t seem well, but if he hadn’t mentioned the diabetes, I might have thought he was drunk.

We waited for the ambulance together sitting on the edge of a red brick retaining wall of a middle school. He told me he was from El Salvador and had been in the U.S. for thirty years. His main focus though was my sweet, 45 pound lab mix dog that I rescued from an animal shelter. Bea is usually shy with strangers and won’t approach them, but for some reason she took to this man and let him stroke her fur, take her face in his hands, and even kiss her. She rarely lets anyone but me do this. That she went right up to him told me he was someone sensitive, kind and gentle.

When the ambulance arrived, they asked me to translate as they asked him questions, many of which he stumbled to answer. He knew his age — 55, but he couldn’t give a description of his symptoms or tell them what drugs he was allergic too. They told me, no matter, he was a regular, although they hadn’t seen him for a few days.

They tested his blood sugar, his blood pressure and his heart rate and it was mostly normal. He confessed that he had been drinking.

All this time, he kept petting my dog Bea and then, he started crying. I asked him what was wrong and through the tears he told me in Spanish, “no one loves me.” I had suspected that his motivation for this stop was loneliness more than anything else, but when he said it, I felt my body project warmth, but also the weight of wanting to help him and knowing that there wasn’t much I could do that I wasn’t already doing. I asked him if he had family here, “no” and he didn’t think he could go back to El Salvador because although he has family there, it has been a long time and there is nothing there for him. No jobs and it’s dangerous. I asked if he lived anywhere he could get a dog, but he told me he was homeless. I suggested a couple organizations that could help him find a place to live, but he waved them off without explaining why.

I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but while it was true, it was an abstract love that I feel for anyone hurting and I suspected not the love he was searching for. I thought about telling him that God/the mystery/the universe loved him, because I really believe it, but, frankly if someone said that to me when I said no one loved me, I’d want to smack them. Because while I couldn’t relate to his exact circumstances, I suspected he was looking for love more tangible and constant — like a dog. With that understanding, either expression of love seemed trivial.

So I had to accept that all I could do was be present with him in that moment and let him love my dog and feel her love for him. Perhaps she’s why he stopped me in the first place.

And then the ambulance said they were ready to take him and he left.

In the past, these kinds of encounters have left me feeling inadequate and wondering how I could possibly allow myself to be happy when there are so many others suffering. In reaching a place where I have accepted my humanness and limitations in being able to solve every problem, though, I struggle less with these beliefs. Nonetheless, I still ponder what to do with the sadness and compassion when I feel so powerless. What is the point, really? Does it matter that I stopped for this man and was kind to him for such a brief moment?

But then I was reminded of a Franciscan prayer that used to frustrate me because I thought it was telling me to be selfless and that I needed to suffer if others are suffering.

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

And the blessing of God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, be with you now and always. Amen.

When I heard the prayer this last time, I realized that the sensitivity I’ve always felt for the pain of others is actually a gift because these feelings show me that I am able to love deeply, even if not perfectly every time. Rather than hear these words as a mandate toward selflessness, I’m able to appreciate that I can feel so much compassion and love for this man and that I can desire love and a better life for him, while being grateful for and allowed to enjoy the beautiful life that I have. I understood that in that brief moment of our encounter, I was able to make a difference in his life simply by being present with him and letting him talk to me while petting my dog. It doesn’t seem like much, and yet I suspect it may be the most important thing of all.

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