I grew up in a world without animals, in urban New York City in the 40’s, and all the children I knew lived in big apartment buildings like I did. None of my extended family or friends had ever had a pet, unless you count a goldfish or a turtle.
When I was 8 years old, I attended summer camp for the first time. This was my first experience of country life and I loved it. I also developed a crush on one of the camp counselors… a 16 year old who seemed like a prince or a knight to me. One morning at breakfast he gave me a small box. Looking inside I found a tiny kitten possibly only a week or so old. A mother cat had been run over in the camp driveway and this was one of her orphaned babies. I was thrilled. In the box was an eyedropper. My prince told me to feed the little one a few drops of milk as often as I could.
I have since helped mother cats to raise extra large litters of kittens. Those of you who have also done this know how much skill and attention is required. But I was only 8 and the camp directors, disapproving of this unconventional gift, did nothing to help me care for the kitten. One morning when I went to feed it, it lay still and cold in the soft little nest I had made for it. Reflecting back, this may have been the very moment that I became a pediatrician.
The impulse to befriend life goes back a long way in many of us, yet few of us are fully aware of this. In my classes and workshops with service professionals, I often ask people how old they were when they first realized that the needs of a living thing mattered to them. Most were under ten. The stories they tell from the early times before they had any training or tools to meet the needs of others are as beautiful as they are powerful. They reveal the heart that lies beneath the expertise so many of us use daily in our work. The expertise is acquired… the heart is not.
I collect these stories. Many of them are very simple. Once a workshop participant shared a story that his mother was fond of telling about him when he was small. Every day before he left home for kindergarten, she would give him a clean folded white handkerchief to take to school. Every morning when she did this he would ask her for another one in case someone else needed it.
One of my favorite stories was told by a young medical student who shared a memory from his childhood. As a child he had lived in a Victorian house in San Francisco and his mother used to bathe him every day in a claw footed bathtub. At the end of the bath she would stand him up, pull the rubber plug and reach behind her for a towel to dry him with. One day while he was waiting to be lifted from the tub he inadvertently stepped on the drain, cutting his foot badly on its sharp edge. He had shrieked and his mother had cried out too, lifting him out of the tub, holding his bleeding foot, and warning him to never ever stand on the drain again. So every day after that, when she pulled the plug and turned away from him to reach for the towel, he would be very careful not to stand on the drain. One day he was standing there looking at the drain and being careful not to stand on it when he suddenly noticed the water, circling the drain on its way out of the tub. Seeing this for the first time he became concerned. The edges of the drain were very sharp. What if it hurt the water to circle the drain? So every day after that when his mother lifted the plug and turned to get the towel, he would carefully drop his washcloth over the drain to be sure that the water would not be hurt going down the drain. We were all healers long before we were experts.
People often underestimate children and we underestimate ourselves as well. If you are a health professional, or someone who is involved in any kind of service work, your wish to befriend life is likely to be older than your training. Perhaps you have a story about this? Or perhaps you have another kind of story, of a time when you went along with a group of other children or adults and harmed an insect or an animal only to discover that this outcome was the last thing that you intended. Sometimes people have carried this sort of story for many years with deep shame, blaming themselves for not being able to stand up to the situation, never realizing that moments like these are moments of epiphany when we discover who we really are and what is most important to us. Eventually we all become old enough and strong enough to be able to live by these values.
I would love to hear your memories of a time when you first realized that the needs of a living thing mattered to you, or a time when your desire to serve others first surfaced. Please share them with me in the comments section.