My dog’s have had a month’s worth of walks this week. My eyes, unfit for staring at a screen so long, are weary from webinars and online dog training consults. My treat bag, empty and freshly cleaned, is in a cupboard. Putting it there felt like an act of surrender.
We trainers are masters of behavior change. Change the environment; change the behavior. One small change (as small as a virus) can have huge effect. It’s what we teach. It can happen quickly, fast enough to be startling. It’s what we are learning.
Stay at home. They asked politely then ordered it. Then, how quickly everything stopped. Phone calls. Consults. Classes. And, we’re afraid. It would be wrong to discount that fear. There’s rent and the mortgage and the car payment and the family and employees. And this may be the biggest thing. There’s the unknown. We don’t even know how far this will go or what may be at risk.
But, here’s the other thing. It would be equally wrong to discount who we are as a community – who you are as an individual. We don’t all have the same story. But, I bet all of us trainers can tell stories about someone who told us what we can’t do. You can’t just start a business from nothing. You can’t earn that certification so fast. You can’t help that dog – make a difference to that family. You can’t change the culture of dog training. And time and time again you – you – answered with strength and determination. Watch me.
Last night I stared into the darkness hoping sleep would come. My mind was stuck on a spin cycle of thoughts. “We are all in this together” That is so cliché. (But, clichés, every one of them, are rooted in truth). How can I help? I’ll write? What will I write? There are no words (f’ing cliché). There is no way to make this all better. So many are so much more afraid than I am. Survivor’s guilt. I need to fix this. I need to sleep.
That’s where I landed. And, that’s when sleep took me.
A friend and a trainer wrote on Facebook “Who knew chemo/cancer treatment would adequately prepare me for a pandemic in 2020? I’ve been self quarantining and social distancing for 18 months.” Suffering. It’s universal. It’s tied in with being human. We all have our stories. We’ve all been felled, face down in the dirt, spitting out blood. The business that failed. The marriage that failed. The body that failed – cancer – heart – the passing of years. The life that goes on. Better times and joy. And, the comeback story. What came to me just before sleep is an ancient truth. Suffering, life’s tragedies, the big and the small of it – that’s the common ground on which we all stand. Every one has a story. Every one of us. And we’ve all suffered. It’s in the fine print. There’s no getting out of it.
My dad grew up in the Great Depression. He was one of 7 kids. His father was a traveling salesman. When the world came to a grinding stop and no one wanted to see a salesman because no one was buying anything because no one had money (no one), my grandfather struck a deal. He went to the owner of the company and said, “We both know I’m your best salesman. Carry me through this and I’ll pay you back when it’s all over.” You can’t do that. But, he did. And as a nation we rallied as well. We built bridges and dams and tunnels and theaters, huge projects against the protests of you can’t. A few years later Germany started bombing London night after night. 32,000 people were killed. Winston Churchill vowed that the British Empire would live on and that “men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” The audacity.
Because that’s what we humans do. Because as universal as suffering is, so too is our capacity for compassion and immeasurable strength. All that was remarkably human about The Greatest Generation, my Dad’s generation, is equally remarkable about us as humans today. Watch us.
There are moments history by which we measure who we were against who we became. The Great Depression. The World Wars. Vietnam. 9-11. Perhaps this moment in history is one of those. In our own training community it is likely that how we teach and learn as dog trainers is already changing. Our colleagues are stepping up and standing out with fresh thinking and new ideas. I have no doubt that around the world trainers are, right now, developing new methods of teaching and new ways to train better. We are writing and collaborating (at a distance) and finding profound inspiration in these quieter stay-at-home moments. Another one of my trainer friend has identified this as a time to “start creating.” Change, sometimes painful, is the natural way of things.
In my past career in TV news I had the opportunity to meet a young man who’d been badly injured in Iraq. His vehicle ran over an IED (Improvised explosive device). He was burned over half his body including his face. Recovery from burns is indescribable suffering. He was permanently and irreparably disfigured. We interviewed him for our report and listed to him tell us about the dreams he had once had: the love of a woman, a family and holding his child, a career after service, his body, his face, days and weeks and months and years without pain, a future and old age. He spoke with that wisdom of years he had not yet lived. “But now I have to set some of those dreams aside.” He paused. “And dream new dreams.”
I began this year with a plan. My “start creating” trainer friend talked me into getting one of those hard-bound yearly planners. Goals and action points and that sort of thing. On the very first page I listed a goal of mediating every day for 20 minutes (a goal I’ve kept). Half way down the page the planner asks for reasons why this goal is important. In my messy block printing I wrote “To become more comfortable with groundlessness.” It’s a reference to the Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent (even suffering). Change is the constant story of nature. Beginnings and endings and every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. (Closing Time by Semisonic). The more we struggle with change, the more we suffer. The more we connect with compassion for ourselves and others, the less we suffer.
It would be a mistake to underestimate how hard this might be – the groundless uncertainty of it. But you, my dear trainer friends, were born to navigate this path. And you are not alone. And countless others have wandered deep into the unknown ahead of you, brave and scared. It would be a mistake in equal measure to underestimate you – your resilience, your lateral thinking, your creativity and force of wit. And if anyone dares to doubt you, take a breath. Feel the ground moving under you, move with it, and tell them straight up. “Just you watch.”
Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston, TX. As of this writing he is staying at home until the pandemic subsides.