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Kindness and the Wounded Animal Theory

Pretend that you are hiking in the woods.

To your shock you come across a badly injured wolf. It is howling and whining in pain, pinned in place by an animal trap of some sort. You have immediate compassion on the creature, carefully stepping in to free it from its torturous prison. It quiets as you approach, staring at you with what seem to be grateful eyes while you pry its snare open.

But at the instant of salvation, those eyes turn aggressive, angry, and the beast lashes out at you. With one paw it claws as it lunges your way, forcing you to strike back with a heavy blow. It rolls and tumbles a little ways down the path, turning as though to come at you once more only to pause hesitantly. You share an anxious stare as the hound studies you, eventually deciding to retreat into a thicket beyond view.

No matter how harmless they seem, injured animals can be unpredictable and violent because they are confused and in pain. People are no different, and helping them therefore sometimes creates even greater duress. Yet I believe in being kind, in showing compassion and patience even when things are the most trying and difficult.

I’m reminded of a quote by Shannon L. Alder:

“Sensitive people care when the world doesn’t because we understand waiting to be rescued and no one shows up. We have rescued ourselves, so many times that we have become self taught in the art of compassion for those forgotten.”

I don’t think we’re expected to help resolve the heartaches of every other human on earth, though we should try to be there for those close in our lives, but at the very least we ought to be kind and compassionate to all of the wounded all around us. That’s what I want to focus on, on finding it in ourselves to resist the urge to lash back at those who lash at us, and to aid in this quest, I’ve come up with something I call the Wounded Animal Theory.

The Wounded Animal Theory

People can act a lot like wounded animals. Whether they’re hurting emotionally, physically, spiritually, or mentally, people will generally react differently toward you to counteract the pain they feel. While some try to compensate for their sorrows by being overly kind or loving, the effect of suffering on most is usually a negative one, and it can appear without warning.

Let’s say you’re walking down the street and accidentally bump into a man’s shoulder, causing him to spill coffee all over his shirt. You apologize, but he lets you have it, screaming profanities, pushing you back, and even throwing the rest of the coffee in your face. At this point, you’re ready to return the malice, but something in the back of your mind reminds you that you bumped into the man first, prompting you to accept his tirade and let him keep going off.

You offer to clean his shirt, get him another coffee, and whatever other things you can think of to calm his temper, but the more he yells the harder it is to stay nice. If only you knew the man was on the verge of being fired, that he was getting coffee for his boss prior to a meeting that he was already late for because the Starbucks baristas got the order wrong twice, and that his wife was in the hospital sick with bills stacking up higher than he can afford with his meager salary. On any other day, he would have been kind and understanding, but this day he had reached a tipping point, and you became the helpless victim. Would you not have the unending patience to put up with him then?

This example is extreme, but my point is that the man’s hurtfulness had to do with issues well beyond your doing. You bumped into a wounded animal, and it lashed out. That’s the case with many people, likely most of us. We walk around injured even when we look fine on the outside. According to the Mayo Clinic, 13 percent of all Americans currently take anti-depressant prescriptions, and another 13 percent are being prescribed opioids (pain medications). That’s 1 person in every 8 for each, and just those actively seeking help.

Sometimes I wonder if we are not ill in some way as a species, that the people living in the most advanced times in our history can be having such a hard time coping with it all. But whatever the cause, there ought to be no shortage of compassion. I don’t need to explain the merits of kindness; kindness is its own reward, its own merit. Be kind to others and as patient as you can be. You don’t know what difficulties they are going through, what internal sufferings they endure, just like they don’t know yours.

What Shall We Then Do?

Action matters a lot more than words. It’s meaningless to say people are wounded and not change how we see and react to them. Consider the injured wolf from the story I began with. We could just walk by the animal in its misery and howling and ignore it until it is out of sight and mind. But while we try to walk by, something inside of us screams that we can’t simply remain idle observers. No, we are compelled to help somehow.

It’s in our nature to care for our brothers and sisters here on earth, and we can sometimes see that nature in animals as well. Wolves will bring meat back to injured pack members not present for a kill. Dolphins will swim below injured dolphins for hours to aid and push them to the surface to breathe. Buffalo will actually attempt to rescue other buffalo captured by predators.

Once as a Mormon missionary, I knocked on a door in the cold Canadian winter. The man on the other end answered and screamed vulgarities–and I mean screamed–in red-faced rage before slamming the door harder and louder than I’ve experienced at any other time in my life. I was astounded, as was the missionary I was with. It was the last door of the night, so we didn’t speak for a long while as we drove back to our apartment. All the time I kept thinking, “What pain would a person have to be in to react to any other human being like that?” I wasn’t offended; not everyone wants a missionary at their door and I get that, but this was over the top; I truly felt for that person living in such obvious distress.

Most of the time, the way those who are hurting show their wounds is a lot subtler. It might come through snarky or malicious behavior, dishonest and selfish tendencies, or countless other things you have to think about to really notice, things that can make us despise a person if we let them get to us. I don’t need to go into too much detail because you have enough examples in your life or the lives of those around you. I would simply encourage you to be patient with others and sensitive to the wounds behind what they do.

In parting, I’ll simply close with the words of this poem.

Above All Else, Be Kind

Before you judge, you were not there nor had you cause with scornful glare to testify of their great crime; you are not them, and so are blind

Though there’s little apology for most wrong done, in binds or free still learn this psalm, sweet and sublime: in and above all else, be kind

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