I really do love the Grinch. My favorite green character of all time, the villain turned hero of Dr. Seuss’s beloved Christmas tale, he gives all of us “little grinches” hope that the human heart can change. What’s up, my grinches?! Let’s be honest, we all have our moments. But there’s hope. Just like the Grinch, our hearts can grow (and shrink). And the most honest person in my life (my wife) just told me that mine is growing!
How did my heart grow? The circumstances are absurd (don’t laugh), but it still counts in my book. Small victories. A psychiatrist would probably trace this journey all the way back to when I was 10 years old, and I desperately wanted a dog. I wrote my own short stories about the adventures that I would have with my dog. I did book reports on miniature long-haired dachshunds. I was in deep, just like the kid in my favorite book at that time, “Where the Red Fern Grows.” I had even memorized my favorite page from that book, the one about puppy love. Only unlike the boy in the story, at some point I stopped pestering my parents about it and moved on. There were a variety of factors, allergies not the least of these. But I eventually convinced myself that I’m just not a pet person, and I guess in some small way my heart shrunk. I’m not sure how these things work, but that’s my best Dr. Phil analysis.
And this is what my family has always known me to be, a non-pet person. Which brings us to more recent events. History has a funny way of looping back on itself, and my son is now the same age that I was when my puppy fever was at it’s peak. And he has always wanted a dog. Again, the same reasons still apply for why we aren’t well-suited for being dog owners. We travel constantly, my kids have allergies, they will lose interest, etc… So when he brought me the flyer that he’d picked up at a grocery store about fostering puppies, my automatic impulse was to say no. So predictable. But something inside of me, perhaps suppressed all these years, told me to think it over and get more info before shooting it down. And then a louder, more familiar voice within my head: “Don’t show weakness! If you open that door even a little bit, they will burn the rest of the door to the ground!” This was also predictable: fear is always the chief opposing voice to love. And in this case, love didn’t mean saying yes to puppies, it meant making my son feel important and considering his plan. But I think maybe that was the first warning shot that things were changing inside me. I know it must’ve surprised my family when I didn’t immediately say no, because it surprised me too. Uh-oh.
I’m sure it’s easy to see where this story is heading, so I will move things along. Yesterday morning, after two amazing weeks filled with more laughter and dog crap than our house has ever seen, I had the difficult job of saying goodbye to the cutest little back puppies you could ever imagine. After all, we were only fostering them, and they were headed to meet their new family. And I felt my heart break. Another stirring. Like the cracking of ice. Ive felt this on occasion at pivotal moments in my life. In South Africa, in India, during counseling, my Grandma’s funeral, and in moments of profound loss, confession, forgiveness and redemption. Although these stirrings are always a bit unexpected, this was by far the most surprising of them all. Puppies. I did not see that coming. No one did. In fact, it is for exactly that reason that I was handed the unwanted task of returning them. I was supposed to be the strong one (read: calloused). And so I said goodbye. Their names were (are still?) Coral and Reef. My son had named them. We had all loved them. And then I cried. Real tears. What did it all mean? On the long drive home, I consoled myself by listening to a reading of Jack London’s “The Call of The Wild.”
I’m not sure if all “heart-expansion” is painful, but I think it might be. And I don’t think that pain is the opposite of joy. In fact, maybe the opposite of joy is much more subtle: the absence of feeling — that protective armor that we learn to hide behind. “Comfortably numb,” as described by Pink Floyd, we can’t feel pain and nothing can hurt us. Driven by fear, and the pain of a broken heart, we allow the ice to settle. And we allow our Grinchy hearts to shrink. Because loving is dangerous. And love always hurts, at least a little, and sometime a lot. But maybe that’s part of the sweetness too.
So to finish out the story, I was walking with my wife, disclosing to her my strange journey through joy and grief and puppies, when I noticed a Monarch butterfly trapped in an abandoned spider web. And after a few minutes of careful work, I was able to loose him completely from the sticky threads. After a few minutes of him perched on my finger, we watched as he fluttered happily away. It was at this point, as we stood there together, watching him until he was out of sight, that my wife laughed and told me that I was like the Grinch. And I guess that’s a good thing.
I’m not sure where the Grinch is now (actually that’s a great book/movie idea), but I know I want my heart to keep on growing. And I think that comes from saying yes to things that are difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable. Things that require time. Things that are messy. Things that expand our understanding of others, and what it means to love. I’m fully aware that fostering puppies doesn’t make me Mother Theresa. Far from it. And I’m still well aware of my grinchy ways. But it makes me wonder: what other adventures of the heart are out there, waiting for me? Maybe even things much larger than just fostering puppies for a few weeks. I’m sure it looks different for everyone, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the outcasts, the unwanted, the unloved, and yes underdogs (no pun intended, but I’ll take it).