In 2005, I began graduate studies in counseling therapy, and simultaneously started working at an animal shelter. Bouncing back and forth between shelter and school was challenging. Not because of time or work load, but because of the battle that began in my head.
There I was, caring for hundreds of homeless, abandoned, sick and heartbroken animals, who ended up there largely because of people’s callousness or ignorance, and then sitting in class listening to lectures about having “unconditional positive regard” and compassion for people, and not judging them — no matter what.
Finally, in the spring of 2007, I snapped. In class one day, a fellow student told us that her boss had sent her an email, in capital letters, yelling at her for requesting time off to go pick up their family pet who had just died at the vet.
Out of my mouth came a heavy sigh, and the words, “What a …” The teacher turned to me and said, “That’s not going to help.” I knew that. I didn’t care. I also knew at that moment that I was going to quit school.
The next day I told my advisor about my struggle.
“Colleen,” she said, “you have so much compassion for animals. Is there any way you can visualize that compassion flowing onto people, too?”
“Hmmm. That’s a good question,” I said. “I never thought of it like that.” I paused for a moment. “No.”
So, that was it. I was free — free to focus all my compassion on animals and be able to proudly declare, “I can’t stand people.” I liked my righteous anger. It felt like power, and it gave me energy. I also liked feeling part of a “tribe,” wholly invested now, not split between two worlds, not “faking it.”
But eventually, another battle began in my head. It started by not feeling too good about my own attitude. I’d meet a really nice person and have to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to be nice back because I didn’t like people. If I was snarky, or engaged in gossip, I’d hear my teacher say, “That’s not going to help.”
I became “flat” as we say in mental health, not able to use all my emotions, only the ones that kept me in that angry space. My energy waned, and one day I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself.
So I decided to try an experiment: I would practice being compassionate to all beings and see what happened. At first it felt fake. Sometimes, I‘d actually find myself trying to dismiss any good feelings I got when I was nice or showed compassion toward someone. But the tide was turning, and I found that most of the time, things seemed to turn out better when I chose compassion.
Often there was still sadness in the situation, but something inside of me shifted, and it felt good. Carl Frankel, a senior columnist for green@work magazine, wrote, “Compassion is its own motivation.” Indeed, the more I used it, the more I wanted to. I hadn’t expected that.
I was simultaneously relieved, and a little disappointed. Frankel says we don’t readily give up a feeling of power, and my anger had given me that. But both anger and compassion have energy. Both also seek expression, and as I “got out from behind the 8-ball,” as Frankel said, my energy began to return.
Opening my heart allowed me to see the suffering within my “tribe” as well. We didn’t always treat each other very well. There was heartache in their eyes and in their voices. And worst of all, some dismissed the suffering and feelings of the animals just as they had cut themselves off from their own. After one coworker took her own life, I went back to school.
We don’t often think of compassion in terms of “power” or “strength,” but it is both. So is anger, they just come from different places. The Tao te Ching says the only true strength is a strength people do not fear. If that’s true, and if “Strength based in force is a strength people fear,” then “Strength based in love is a strength people crave.” (Nerburn, 1994.)
I’ve heard people say they’re afraid to “give away too much compassion” or they’ll “run out.” But compassion, like love, is limitless. We run out when we stop the flow. I learned that for myself, and I remind myself of it every day. Otherwise the battle in my head begins again.
(Colleen Dougherty’s 12-year history in animal welfare includes work in a veterinary clinic, shelters in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and currently as a volunteer for the Valencia County Animal Shelter. She has been a speaker at the NM State Humane Conference on three occasions, presenting talks on caring for small mammals in the shelter setting, and compassion fatigue in animal welfare. She holds degrees in art and counseling therapy, and certificates in eco-psychology and feline massage therapy.)