Biting Dogs
by Judy Alexander

Years ago, my little Welsh-corgi-mix dog got run over by a car. Annie Dog had been napping on the driveway. My husband didn’t see her as he backed up the car, running over her hip. Miraculously, Annie Dog wasn’t dead – she ran around the backyard in circles, yelping. I shrieked and jumped out to comfort her, talking soothingly, reaching out to touch her. Annie Dog was always so sweet tempered, and I wanted to comfort her with a gentle stroke of my hand. But as I reached out to my pain-filled friend, she bit down deeply into my hand. Never having owned a dog before, I was shocked to learn that an injured dog, blind with pain, will snap its jaws even at a loved one. Two hospital visits later, one to the vet to find out that Annie was only bruised and would need nothing more than a soft bed to rest her sore body, and one to the doctor to flush bacteria out of the puncture wounds on my hand, Annie and I were both bandaged and healing. I’d learned something: Trying to comfort a wounded dog can be dangerous.

That lesson also applies to wounded people. I’ve read or heard stories of kind-hearted people being attacked by the abused child they adopt, the juvenile delinquent they give a job, the homeless man they invite to dinner.

Jesus says in Matthew 26, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.” Service to others is a requirement of all major religions. But how can I offer help and comfort to the hurting without putting myself and my family in danger?

I recently saw the movie “Radio,” about a high school coach who followed the Matthew 26 admonitions by helping an unknown mentally retarded man nicknamed Radio. The coach offered Radio a hamburger and a bottle of water, welcomed him onto the football field and into the locker room, gave him a team sweatshirt, and picked him up from jail.

For awhile, all was good: the coach felt that great feeling you get when you help someone else, and Radio felt the companionship and acceptance he’d never had before among other men.

In the movie, it wasn’t the wounded dog who bit, it was some of the towns folk. They were concerned that Radio wasn’t being properly supervised when he was around the high school students. The coach refused to abandon his friendship with Radio. Instead, he resigned his football coaching position so that he’d have more time to supervise Radio, thus maintaining his commitment to his new friend while putting to rest the fears of the townspeople.

How willing should I be to sacrifice my own comfort and safety in order to help others? I find myself vacillating between being too naïve to properly protect myself and being too scared to help.

Here’s an example of my way-too-naïve phase: Empowered by the helper’s high that I got from dropping off a daily sack lunch to an elderly homeless man, one year I invited all the homeless men from the local city park to Easter church. They declined, but shortly afterwards, one of the younger men, having misinterpreted the intention of my big smile and Easter hat and shoes, suggested some frightening sexual activities. I refused to go near that park for weeks and obsessed about whether or not he knew where I lived. Finally, I got word that he’d been ostracized by the others because of his threats towards me and no longer frequented that park.

Here’s an example of my way-too-scared phase: My path crosses that of several intellectually bright but emotionally ill people. I find myself avoiding them, making excuses when invited to social gatherings, loathing that unexpected phone call or email. I’m scared that their mental illness will make them volatile.

How can I offer comfort and friendship without putting myself and my family in danger?

The answer is that I can’t, at least not completely. I’m not saying that I should invite a stranger off the street into my home when I have a child who could be sexually molested – surely I have a great, solemn responsibility to protect my own child and to give him a safe home environment. But on the other hand, does any relationship come risk-free? Even my closest friend or husband will hurt me at some time or another, and I will do the same.

Maybe my dilemma should be rephrased: How can I be both kind and wise? Perhaps, like all other wisdom, knowing how to deal with hurting people comes with experience. I first have to be willing to reach out and try something, and when I fail, I have to learn from that experience and be willing to try something else.

The wisdom I crave includes acknowledging that even the sweetest little dog can bite when hurting badly. In the movie, gentle Radio tore up his house when his mother died. But I’m still obligated to take that little dog to the doctor – I can’t leave her wounds untreated because my own hand is hurting.

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Judy Alexander is an aspiring novelist, business writer, and webmaster living with her husband and two sons in California. To read more of her writing, visit www.judyalexander.com and www.literarychristian.com.

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