My family dog Danny barks at everything...constantly. Knowing this makes the following story even more remarkable:
My Dad and Danny were in the backyard when a possum approached from the other side of the fence. Once he caught Danny's attention, rather than running away, the possum continued to approach. Face to face with this possum what did Danny do? He stuck around; he didn’t run away or bark. According to my Dad, the possum and Danny hung around each other for hours. But the last time my Dad checked on them, the possum was dead. (I know what you’re thinking – no he wasn’t “playing possum”). My Dad contacted animal control to see how to best remove the body and explained what had happened. The man wasn’t surprised. He said he had heard of dying animals seeking out the comfort of other animals – and animals staying to keep vigil with dying animals. You may have heard similar stories of cats or dogs doing this for humans in their last hours of life.
When I worked in hospice, I shared this story often as I tried to reassure families of the power of their presence when a loved one may not be able to interact in their last days of life. I’d always say if Danny could bring comfort to a possum, imagine what your presence can bring to another. I’ve reflected on this story when thinking ahead about the holidays and realized there are some other lessons to explore:
Basic Goodness. Danny can drive me nuts with his barking and not-the-best behavior. But I can’t deny that in this story he displayed an inherent ability to sense the need of another and fulfill it. I respect that. We may have family, two or four legged, who can make us a little nutty. When you find those feelings rising inside, I challenge you to ask yourself this question: Is that person basically good? Do they possess basic goodness? Your answer to this question may change your perspective, even if just slightest bit. You can turn that question around on yourself, especially if you find you are being harder on yourself during these holiday times. Burning the casserole does not take away from your basic goodness.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words. In this case they did. The interaction shared between the possum and Danny was a purely intrinsic communication through presence. I'd argue as well that the content of your words can speak louder than the number or volume. Even if a holiday gathering isn’t that remarkable, just making the time to show up could mean more to someone than you’d ever know. Your genuine presence (eyes off of smart phones), listening and interest could change someone’s day and beyond. Unsure where to begin with engaging? Try one of these 150 questions to ask family members about their lives - you may learn something totally unexpected. My favorite standby of a question, "What's something about you I don't already know?".
Lastly, Embrace the Unexpected. Danny probably had squirrels on the brain when he ran outside, but an unexpected task was put upon him and he answered the call to sit vigil with this possum. Your holiday is not going to go exactly as planned – none of us possess that ability to control the future. An unexpected guest may arrive, someone may share some surprising news, a flight may be cancelled, the power could go out preventing you from cooking the turkey (Seavey Thanksgiving 2011). Let’s put our energy towards embracing what happens rather than what doesn’t. If you find yourself ruminating, try these strategies:
1. Observe nature. Go for a walk, step outside, or look out a window.
2. Ask someone to talk with you about a positive memory.
3. Arm yourself ahead of time with a positive affirmation you can turn to and repeat as needed.
Wishing you and your family a safe holiday season.