Author's note: this started out to be a post about something else entirely, but sometimes you just have to go where the writing takes you. Sorry about that.
Early on in my career as a vet, it was easy to be unsure of myself... or easier, I should say. I still question myself daily - many times daily, in fact - wondering if I'm getting the right diagnosis, am I on the right track, what's best for this patient, how can I best achieve that within the limits of what both the client and the patient can afford, how should I handle that client so as to get the maximum benefit for them and their pet. That can be a tricky balance; some people need so much attention themselves that it distracts from the patent's care, and technically it's the patient I am there to care for. But realistically, no animal walks in and slaps down a gold card and says, "Hey, I have this bump on my neck, can you have a look at it?" The patient always comes with an owner attached - and ideally, this is how it should be. It is a good thing in the world that there are so many people who have the love of an animal - or several - in their lives, and vice-versa. So often I see that some part of the personalities involved - either that of the pet or that of the owner - would never have reached their full expression if not for that relationship. It immeasurably enriches them, and us, and the world; and if in some small way I am party to helping that along, then I am well-content.
To that end, I sometimes have to find ways of dealing with people and animals that I would not naturally feel an affinity for. The vast majority of my clients are wonderful, as are the vast majority of my patients; but I will admit that it is at times difficult to feel a sense of oneness with a dog who is trying to rip my lips off for no greater offense than walking into the room. It's perhaps more difficult to feel companionable with someone who refuses to even hear what I am saying - who declines to view the situation in terms of what is best for the patient, who refuses to listen to my best advice, who sets their own prejudices and judgements above what is, to my eye, clearly obvious and of critical importance - and which I have told them in no uncertain terms is the case.
Still. There are ways for most of this; and I imagine that as I go along I will find more ways, better ways, to handle the difficult ones. It is, after all, my job: to help. And if I learn something along the way, so much the better.
So I check myself constantly, making sure I've provided the information that is needed to make decisions, trying not to make the decision for the owner - that is their right and their responsibility, to make the best choice they can for themselves, their family, their pet. It is not always done well, and I may disagree with them; in their shoes, I might do differently. But I am not in their shoes, so I have to trust that they have chosen rightly for themselves and their pet. I try not to judge their choices - after all, I do not live their life. It's enough work living my own, and I have not the energy nor the wisdom to choose for them.... only to advise, to counsel, to guide and support, and then carry out their will as best I can.
I am often asked "What would you do if this were your pet?" - and I typically answer the same way each time:
"I'll answer that question, but I'll apologize in advance for that because it's a bit unfair of me to do it. This is different for me than it is for you; I can come in at 3 a.m. and Xray my dog if I want, because I have a key to the clinic - so these choices are easier for me than for you, because I can change my mind any time and go a different way, and I'm less intimidated by these procedures than most people, because I do them every day. That said, if this were my pet..." and then I'll tell them what I WOULD do if it were my pet.
So in this way I carry on my little war, my small fight against the dark. It's not a fight against death, really... I do want to help my patients have the longest, best-quality lives possible, but death comes to all of us in the end; and when it comes for my patients, I try my best to see that it comes with some dignity and some peace for the patient and the client both. In my imaginings, I think that death might not be so bad - it might, in fact, be an amazing good thing. And certainly the end to suffering - which it is my burden and my honor to bring to countless patients, past and future - that is something of value. From the simple view of an animal, suffering is just suffering. It is not ennobling, it is not enlightening. It is not a chance to learn grace and courage, as it might be for a person; animals have this in abundance already and hardly need the lessons of pain to bring it to them. No cat is thinking, "If I can just make it 'til Christmas" and no dog is hoping to live to see his grandson graduate from medical school. They live in the day, and if I cannot provide a reasonable hope that better days lie ahead - if I can only see that worse ones do - then it seems a mercy and a kindness to all of us, though to them most of all, not to let it go there. The hardest part of this being, of course, that while I am ending the animal's suffering, I am starting the owner's. It can be devastating to not only say goodbye to such dear friends as our pets can be, but also to have to be the one to make the choice that this is where that friend's life will end - and God forbid that we ever have to make such a choice for any family member but a pet. But still there is the hope of healing there, the redemption of knowing that you eased the pain of one you loved by the exercise of courage and compassion in making a difficult choice; of knowing that the last thing that animal knew would be the hand of a friend. There is, I hope, some comfort in that, and in knowing that you delivered your good friend into whatever comes after this life, as gently as it was possible to do. Death really is not the enemy here.
So no, my fight is against the dark: The darkness of ignorance, of carelessness, of failure of compassion, of indifference and neglect and cruelty and fear. My fight is to bring the light, maybe just a tiny bit, but to bring it where I can. My fight is not to give in to righteous anger when confronted with ignorance and thoughtless cruelty, but instead to find a way to change that; to stop it from happening next time, maybe. It's hard, sometimes. I have a temper that is slow to rouse, but once roused, is fierce and implacable: Scots to the core, my brother would say. That's a big horse to keep a rein on, and there are times I fail. But failing to rein it in does nothing to help the world. If I let that horse run, it will just run over things and smash them; it is only in harnessing it that it becomes a useful force.
So this is my battle with myself, to find a way to learn from all of this, so that next time I will be better at it, faster, kinder, stronger; so that I will not give in to the demands of ego, so that I never make it about me. It's not about me. It's about those I serve, who are in some ways the most deserving among us: the innocent. So if I must doubt myself in order to do this well, I will doubt. If I must sacrifice the need to be right, I'll sacrifice. If I must resist the temptation to judge, I'll resist. If I must hold tight to the reins of my temper, I'll hold. If I must stand my ground when I am afraid and tired and beset on all sides, I'll stand. If I must gather up all my courage and take the leap of faith, I'll leap. If I must yield my desire to dominate the growling dog or the fractious client, I'll yield. If I must submit myself to the burdens of this path, I'll submit.
One way or another, I still find my way along this path, arduous and gruelling as it may be at times. Because the gifts are great: It seems that the more I give myself to this way, the more I become who I came here to be. And I find my way strewn thick with the gifts of those I serve: Courage, humor, empathy and grace. Forgiveness and gratitude. Patience. Humility. Joy. Love. Mostly I think it is they - my patients, and often my clients as well - who bring me the light that I try to bring to others.
It is a path of irony, because it is composed of opposites: It is my left brain which processed the education, but the right brain that drove me to it. It is my intellect that gathers the information, but my intuition that best applies it. It is a way of fierce kindness and gentle ruthlessness. It is art and science entwined in a passionate embrace. It is where the clarity of knowledge and certain fact reveals the vast unknowable Mystery.
It is a juxtaposition of opposites, all right, and I still have much to learn about how best to stand at that juncture. But I'll keep trying.