Just about everyone who goes to school, lands a job, starts a company, falls in love or takes up a new pastime knows from experience that learning and growth is not a linear process. Much as we want our path of personal progress to match the trajectory of an airliner swooshing off the tarmac, the reality is quite different.
Few understand this reality better than hospital patients recovering from serious injuries; particularly, those who’ve retained enough of their faculties to make before-and-after comparisons of their performance. Often, the hardest thing for people with high standards to do is accept that part of moving forward is moving backward. Some of the bravest people I’ve worked with as a speech pathologist are those aphasic patients who, despite the ups and downs of therapy, plough through until they can finally tell their family, “I love you!”
It is largely thanks to these patients that I am able to forgive myself when my efforts “fall short” sometimes - and thus be more generous with the people and four-legged beings around me.
Because they are trying, too.
Those of you who've followed our blog series, “Can’t She Just Get Along,” understand the highs and lows my wife and I have experienced toward socializing our Lilly, the Boston terrier. In part VII, we were mortified when an unleashed Lilly bolted after another dog across the street. Though no damage was done, we were convinced that our poor judgement had completely unraveled Lilly’s desensitization training.
Upon reflection, we realized that the event was preceded by family frictions and several changes of routine during the past week. Just as we are susceptible to external stressors, so are out animal companions. Combine these with a lapse in attention and our world could have changed in an instant.
My wife and I have since fulfilled our vow to be more vigilant about Lilly’s and other dogs’ safety - and our own reactivity to life. But perhaps the biggest gift of all from this experience is that we are finally making peace with a pattern of progress that resembles the contours of a hacksaw blade more than the Dow Jones Industrials over the past six months.
Last weekend, I took Lilly to a group training in a neighborhood park. About 50 dogs in a rainbow of breeds showed up with their human parents. We lined up horizontally under a stand of shady trees and began working through some basic commands in unison.
I shortened Lilly’s leash a bit to ensure control in the event a flanking dog set her off, but Lilly was completely focussed on me and the prospect of gobbling her favorite treats for a job well done. Over several minutes, I noticed that Lilly’s leash had loosened - because I had loosened. I had loosened my grip. On demands. On expectations. On fears that a “slip” on the training ground meant a slip down the rabbit hole.
The capper came when we split into two equal groups of 25 dogs and parents facing each other from a distance of about 20 yards. Each group took turns walking closer and closer toward their facing pair, until both pairs did a meet-and-greet and walked past each other. During this entire task, Lilly remained calm and happy. I was elated.
Then, toward end of the class, Lilly made a half-hearted lunge toward another dog.
Instead of furrowing my brow I smiled, serene in the knowledge that the path of progress rises and falls. . .
. . . and always moves forward when we choose to stay on it.