Ground rules for the horror show.
I was talking to a person yesterday who said in a conversation on a different topic, “I want to tell you an animal horror story.”
“Please don’t. I know enough.” I said.
She continued, “I know, right? I just want to tell you about this dog that was at this county shelter that I took in. It was an absolute nightmare.”
“Please don’t tell me.”
“But I’m just saying sometimes euthanasia is the thing because for eight months this dog….” and she launched into graphic, gritty detail about the suffering of this dog that she ultimately took in and euthanized.
Again, I said, “I don’t want to know this.” as she closed with “Just think how that dog lived for eight solid months…”
I should have hung up but because I was trying to negotiate help for another two dogs, and she was going to provide it, I didn’t.
But talking about suffering is like rescue porn.
We ever-escalate the terrible things we tell each other and tell the public. The public ever-rewards the speaking of the unspeakable. People in the field spew this on each other, and people outside the field think it is all we want to hear about.
I guess it’s just human nature to shuffle the mental rolodex and stop at the experience you have had that you think has the most commonality with the person you’ve met. I’ve done it. A friend told me that her mom was diagnosed with cancer and before I could reel it in, I hear myself say, “I am really sorry. My dad died from that. And another friend just told me her sister has it.” WTF? I realized how self-absorbed it was. I tried to just stop talking.
I have thought about it a lot since. I feel a sick embarrassment about it in the pit of my stomach. Now I know, in some way, I was trying to earn my place in the conversation of such gravity; trying to show some ‘cancer cred’. But all I should have been saying — all she needed to hear — was
“I’m sorry. How are you? Is there something I can do?”
To the people both in and out of animal field who want to share their suffering porn:
- Seeing and knowing awful stuff is cumulative. Many of us have years and years of it in our head. It’s already a weight we carry in this business. Think carefully before you choose to add to it.
- We see it every day.
- You cannot shock us. Quit trying. Even if you could, do you think there is a prize for it? There’s not.
- You cannot make us think people can possibly be more despicable to animals than we already do. (See above on prize.)
- It costs us to hear what you tell us. It costs us emotionally. It takes energy from our ability to actually stop some of the suffering you lament. That, Alanis, is actual irony.
- Just because we do this for a living doesn’t mean we do not feel pain about it. In fact, many of us do this for a living because we feel intense pain about it.
- We have survived this long in this field because we have learned to focus on what we can *do*, and because we try not to wallow in the horror. If we just wallowed in the horror, we’d have stopped all together years ago. Not even kidding. Most of us can name six people in six seconds who got swallowed by this field. We are not playing when we say sometimes it is too much to bear. Listen to us.
So, if I tell you not to tell me… don’t.
I tried yesterday to figure out what would compel someone to just keep coming with the awful detail after being asked multiple times to stop. I came up with a list of the motivations I have identified over the years. If your urge to tell us things we ask not to hear is rooted in any of the following, we will stipulate them now with no need for a story. Just mention the numbers of the things you’d like us to know.
- You’ve seen awful things.
- You’ve seen super gross things.
- You’ve seen worse things than anyone, ever.
- You work harder than anyone at saving animals.
- Maybe you don’t work harder than anyone ever, but you work hard at it.
- No one thanks you enough.
- Animals especially like you.
- You are angry about suffering. Really fucking angry. Angry enough to cause it.
- People are terrible.
- The world is dangerous and shitty for animals.
- You are a savior.
- You are a leader in rescue and my [a] peer or [b] superior.
- You need to exorcise some demon by telling your story and the telling of it will really purge the pea vomit from your soul. [This one is tricky. Because this one, I’m inclined to help you accomplish. Ask me and I will tell you if I have the emotional capacity to transmute that poison on this particular day. I may. I may not. But give me a choice.]
Which leads me to my final point:
If you are not just telling a horror story but if you need help, advice, or resources then open with that and let’s decide together whether I’m the right person to help you and whether now is the time.
Please remember that we do this for a living. For you, it’s one conversation at a BBQ about your neighbor’s dog. For me, it’s my 500th work conversation this week and is taking place at a time that I am trying to regain some balance. I think most of you wouldn’t ask your surgeon friends to “Just do a procedure here in the yard…” or your CPA if she could, “just fill out this one return form” for you.
This is our job. We love it and hate it. It does relate to living things and on its own can swell to fill every waking hour. Many of us struggle with a baseline blur between that job and our most basic identity. The job already wants to take us over.
I often have the visual in my head of the old Steve McQueen horror classic The Blob. The blob is just a bowling-ball-sized mass of intergalactic grape jelly the first time it’s poked with a stick. Then, it slides up the stick. It engulfs the stick. Finally, it engulfs the stick-wielding hick.
We balance acute awareness that the world needs saving all the time with our need to maintain some sense of family, joy, peace, and fun. The suffering doesn’t stop and we will die having worked most of our lives not having eliminated it. We are aware.
But if you can email me at work rather than pull me aside at the theater, thank you. If you can call me at work rather than text me late at night, I appreciate it. If you need my help as a professional, please do reach out to me.
But give me a choice about horrors that I cannot change.