Sunday, October 31, 2010

Robot Love

The whole idea of compassion is based on
a keen awareness of the
interdependence of all these living beings...

~Thomas Merton

I try to have compassion for people around me.  I try to see the angry person or the rude person or the person acting selfishly as someone who is having a bad day (and sometimes a bad life.)  They don't need their anger to be answered with defensiveness or their rudeness to be returned to them.  They need kindness.

I am certainly not claiming to be a saint - see this entry for proof of that.  I don't always succeed in being the kind person that I want to be.  Some days I am that rude person acting selfishly.  Compassion is something I have to remember and relearn again and again.

I really dig what is says in the Charter for Compassion.  It calls us "to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being..."  And if you haven't heard of the Charter for Compassion, go to that link.  It's good stuff.  With all of the rotten politics and filthy corporate greed that seem to dominate our world - this is what is going to save us.

I think that I was a rather sensitive kid and was really tuned in to the emotions and moods that were flowing around me.   But somehow I learned to be very good at keeping my own emotions in check.  In fact, I was so good at it that it often seemed that I didn't have any emotions.  On most days I operated like a robot - completely removed from any feelings.  Mr. Spock on Star Trek made perfect sense to me.  Of course logic should win out over those messy human emotions. When Captain Kirk and the others would laugh at him, I would think, "It's okay Spock.  I understand you." 

My Robot Self stuck around for many years of my life.  I was an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in my early twenties.  There are great advantages to being a robot in that type of job.  Nothing could fluster me.  No messy emotions got in my way - mine or anyone else's.  But there is also a real downside to that.  There are a number of experiences that I look back on now and can see what a loss it was that I could not have had a little more humanity.  Times when I could have given much needed comfort to others.

I worked for a private ambulance company, which meant that we were a glorified taxi and took Grandma to her dialysis appointment or transferred patients to rehab hospitals.  In my short career, I never actually faced a real emergency situation where lives hung in the balance.  (Once though, I did have to call for an ambulance from my ambulance.  We got slammed right on the driver's side by a city bus that was speeding through an intersection.  My partner was driving and he was injured.  So I had to get on the radio and tell dispatch to send an ambulance.  Oh, the irony.)

Once we were transporting an old woman from one nursing home to another.  She seemed to be babbling incoherently and I'm sure the nurses let us know that it was her normal mental state when they discharged her to us.  But there was a note of distress in her voice.  Her words were not making sense, but her tone was that of a person frightened and a little bit frantic.  My partner was driving, so I was in back with the woman to take her vitals and do the required paperwork.  My Robot Self sat in the back of that ambulance with this woman for 25 minutes and did a perfect job of completely ignoring her and her frantic, nonsensical pleading.  I took her vitals, filled out my paperwork and stared out the window.

Camille Monet sur son lit de mort by Claude Monet
When I look back now, I feel so bad that I didn't try to do something to comfort her.  Hold her hand and tell her it was okay and she was safe.  Call her by her first name and stroke her hair.   It is quite possible that it wouldn't have really reached her.  Maybe she had disappeared too far down the rabbit hole and would have continued with her incoherent pleading.  But I have to imagine that a small part of her might have felt comforted or calmed, even if it didn't show on the outside.  Some human touch and soft words would have been a simple thing to offer.  But Robot Girl was not capable of that.

~ ~ ~

A call on another day had us transporting a terminally ill woman in her late thirties from her home to the emergency room.  Her visiting nurse had called us because she was unable to get a blood pressure reading.  The woman was a skeleton with a bloated belly, weakly coughing up phlegm.  Her worried husband rode in the front of the ambulance with my partner.

We drove her to the hospital and handed her off to the ER staff.  As we walked out into the lobby of the ER, I saw her husband.  He was sitting in a chair, alone, looking lost and in shock.  I wheeled that empty stretcher right past him as if he didn't exist.

From Funérailles d'Atala by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson
If I could do it again, I would have stopped to ask him if there was someone we could call for him.  I would have asked him if he wanted us to sit with him for a while.  I would have been able to be with him in his grief and helplessness.  That's all I could have given him, but it might have been enough for that moment. 

The next day I read in the paper that his wife had died.

~ ~ ~

Another one of our jobs was to transport premature infants in their portable NICU cribs.   Most of the time we were taking newborns from a smaller hospital to a larger one which was better equipped to handle their medical needs.  This particular newborn was having a hard time maintaining a pulse for any length of time when they took his breathing tube out in preparation for transport.  My partner and I stood in the room while the doctors and nurses performed the infant version of CPR over and over again as this baby coded every few minutes.  They were just trying to get the infant stable enough to make the twenty minute journey.

So there I was in a room - witness to this little soul fighting for life and breath.  A tiny, fragile, newly-born human struggling to stay in this world and on the perilous edge of life every few minutes.  As I was watching all of this, I felt nothing.  Not a twinge of sadness or sympathy.  No compassion for the parents, who thankfully were not in the room, but who must have been consumed with worry over their dear child's condition.  I was just patiently waiting and watching with my detached robot eyes.  I was probably wondering about how heavy the portable incubator crib might have been.  Those things could weigh a lot and we had to lift them into the back of the ambulance.

 From Maria mit dem schlafenden Kind by Andrea Mantegna
There is not very much I could have done differently if I could go back to that situation today.  I did have a job to do, so I couldn't have become overwhelmed with any strong emotions about the child.  But I could have at least recognized the precious gift of life that was hanging in the balance and cheered on that little fighter in his struggle.  They eventually did stabilize him and we were able to drive him to the other hospital.  And that is the end of this story.  We never found out what happened to the infants after we dropped them off.

~ ~ ~

The absolute worst example of my robot coldness was something I said to someone I love when I was in my early twenties.  My best friend in the world was the only one who was ever able to get past my robot defenses and who always knew me, no matter how much I tried to hide.  At the time, she was struggling with a loss in her life.  An extremely traumatic loss of an important relationship.  A life altering grief.

La Douleur by Edgar Bertram Mackennal
My words of comfort to her when she confided in me about how much she was struggling?  The exact quote is, "Grow up and get over it."  And I can picture myself as I said it - feeling all mature and wiser than her and a little bit exasperated by her whining.  My Robot Self  truly thought it was the right thing to say at the time.  Thought that I'd be helping her by roughly shoving her towards moving on with her life.

I cringe and my heart aches when I think about it now.  I have no idea why she stayed friends with me after that. But, lucky for me, she did. And even though we drifted and were distant for many years, we have found each other again recently.  In the last few years,  each of us has saved the other so many times.

I do think she forgives me.  I think she understands why I was like that.  She was always able to look beyond the robot coldness and see the soft heart inside.  What an amazing gift to have such a friend.

These days I can forgive myself for those times when I was less than compassionate to those around me.  I still look back and wish I could have done some things differently.  Don't we all?  I haven't destroyed my Robot Self.  She's still a part of me and sometimes she can be useful. (If you ever happen to spontaneously combust or if you are being chased by brain-eating zombies, you want Robot Girl around.  She'll know what to do.)

It is not a perfect transformation, but for the most part, I no longer feel I have to face the world with such cold, detached eyes.  Now I can go forward and with each new day try to keep the seeds of a compassionate heart close to the surface.  That is all any of us can really do.  It can be a sad, angry, cold, relentless world out there.  We just have to do our best to remember:

A little Consideration, a little Thought for Others,
makes all the difference.

~Winnie the Pooh

Friday, October 1, 2010

Time Travel

Adopted Monk in February. He was a stray that was picked up by animal control and then saved from death row by a local rescue. The rescue said that he was about 7 years old.

He came with a limp.  An old injury that seems to not have healed correctly and his left front paw is turned inward in a funny way.  Took him to the vet today because it seems like his leg bothers him more lately.   (Took him to this same vet back in February when he first arrived.)

Today, after hearing about what was going on and checking Monk out, she says, "You know, I think he's probably a little older than seven."

I tell her that I had wondered about that too.  Ask her how old she thinks he is.

She looks at Monk, takes a moment and says, "I would say he is probably around 11."

Wow.  In dog years, he just aged from 49 to 77 years old.

So instead of driving around in his convertible, trying to relive his glory days...

Well, hel-looo Ladies!

Monk's hanging around his front porch, shaking his cane at the world...
I told you kids to GET OF MY LAWN!

I don't blame the rescue for estimating low.  I'm sure they had a hell of a time trying to find a home for an old, lame dog who is possibly mixed with Pit Bull. 

At the end of the vet appointment I tried to talk her down, like I was at a flea market, haggling over the price of an old piece of furniture.  "So, ah....what do you think....should we just go ahead and call him 10?"   She looked right at me and shook her head.  "Hmmmm.  No.  I really think 11 is more like it."

Doesn't make a difference in how I feel about Monk.  It just means that he won't be around for as long as I had thought. I was hoping for 5 years or so, but now it will probably be just a couple.

Adopted Lily at 11 years old, so it would not have mattered what his age was. we can start to refer to them as "The Twins."