Sunday, December 11, 2011

Allowing Our Animals to Teach Us the Value of Vulnerabiliy

     Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, has spent her career researching what makes us joyful and fulfilled - and what doesn't.  After listening to her TEDx talk about the power of vulnerability, I was inspired and knew I couldn't miss her session at the Massachusetts Conference for Women last week -- and she didn't disappoint.

     One of my key take-away points from both her TEDx talk and meeting her last week was this: Vulnerability matters; it is the only way to experience true joy.  Our ability to be vulnerable and tolerate vulnerability opens our heart to true joy, gives creativity life, and grants us courage.

     Sharing our lives with animals is a huge lesson in vulnerability.  We know from the outset that we will almost certainly outlive them.  That they will become sick, old, challenged and it will be us who must care for them and advocate for their welfare making excruciatingly difficult choices along the way.

     And yet they bring us the most pure form of joy, contentment, and happiness.  They inspire us and our creativity in countless ways.

     Dr. Brown tells us that joy is the most difficult emotion to experience because we must be vulnerable to experience joy.  If our heart is filled with joy, the opposite of that is deep sorrow.  We do not know when that sorrow will come, when our beloved animal will become sick or die, yet we can anticipate it.  Some do not allow themselves to experience the joy for fear of the sorrow.  Some choose not to share their homes with animals for the very reason that they fear the sorrow and heartache that is inevitable.

     How many times have you heard someone say, "I could never have a pet - they don't live long enough; it would kill me to watch them suffer."  Or, "I had a pet who was everything to me and when he died, it killed me.  I could never go through that again."

     My heart breaks when I hear that.  Why?  Because in striving for the certainty that the person will not have to face the pain of parting, the person has deprived him or herself of the incredible joy an animal brings to our hearts and homes.  I have absolutely no doubt that I am a better person because my animals teach me to live in the moment, open my heart to pure joy, stop running and start loving, appreciate and bask in the moments of bliss.  They make me laugh every day.

     If you live your life with animals dreading the end of their lives, you will never fully embrace the joy they bring us on a daily basis.  You will never fully engage with them.  You will never learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

     If you are reading this blog, it is likely that you have accepted and perhaps even embraced this dance of vulnerability to both joy and sorrow.  I invite you to stop for a minute and think how this lesson our animals have taught us might work in other areas of our life.  When could you open your heart to experience pure joy without "waiting for the other shoe to drop"?  Without fearing that your heart will be shattered into a million pieces when and if the joy ends?  What whole-hearted living are you depriving yourself of by your own intolerance for vulnerability?

     Vulnerability plays a special role in our hospice work.  There are few things (maybe nothing) more vulnerable than loving a being at the very end of life.  You know the end is imminent.  Your instinct is to begin protecting your heart from the pain you can tangibly perceive.  Some opt for the certainty - avoiding the dying being, being absent in heart or spirit, planning and attending to practical details rather than being, thinking only of the "after" rather than the now.  The uncertainty of what might happen in the  next second may be so intolerable that we opt for euthanasia rather than watching how reality plays out.  Our imaginings of what could happen, the potential for fear, pain, suffering, uncertainty, panic and sorrow overwhelms us.

     But if we can let down our armor, allow ourselves to be fully vulnerable, to live in the knowledge that we don't know and that our sorrow will indeed be great - no matter how the end happens - we can find moments of pure joy at the end of life also.

  • The joy of comforting a being in great need.
  • The joy of honoring the individual journey of each creature on this earth.
  • The joy of opening your heart and expressing what your loved one has meant to you, sending him or her off in a vessel of love.
  • The joy of deep connection.
  • The joy of your warm body sharing space with his or hers.
  • The joy of peaceful sleep.

     Allowing ourselves to find and feel moments of joy even at the very brink of deep sorrow may be one of the hardest things we will ever do If you can do that, opening yourself to joy in the rest of your life will be a piece of cake.

     This is perhaps the most important of the many, many lessons our animals teach us.  Can we be fearless enough to learn it?


To read more about the work of Dr. Brown, we encourage you to visit her website: and listen to her TEDx talk (it's about 20 minutes, but well worth it!).

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