“Snake looks scary for us and we look scary for the snake! Always try to see yourself from the eyes of others!” — Mehmet Murat Ildan
It was a balmy early summer night. The fireflies’ sporadic flicker illuminated the dusky gray. I had just let my canine companions out to relieve both their curiosities and bladders. Max, an 8-year-old apricot goldendoodle, was enjoying a good round of sniffing. In particular, he was engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with the small lizards that reside between our concrete patio pavers and my herb garden. Lily, a 6-year-old rescue poodle mix, stood on alert, intently surveying her domain for the occasional squirrel or rabbit intruder.
I settled into the cushion of a wicker chair and sipped my freshly steeped and iced mint tea. This time of day was magical to me. It was the crease between dark and light where shadows mingle and vision is blurred.
Suddenly, I was startled from my sleepy reflection by the frenzy of Lily’s movements. She darted across the lawn to the farthest point of the yard. Perhaps a visitor had invaded her lawn. She lunged toward the fence and began a frantic barrage of growls and barks. Max, only slightly distracted, resumed his lizard chase.
Squinting, I attempted to see what had captured Lily’s attention. Walking over, I still couldn’t clearly discern the object of her obsession, but it looked like a large black stick was wedged between the fences of our yard and our neighbor’s yard. As I moved closer, I noted that the stick was slithering. The black slippery-looking flesh curled and coiled among the wooden planks and chain-link of the two yards. There, inches from me and my frantic dog, was a 6-foot-long black rat snake.
I grabbed Lily and dragged her, protesting, all the way to the house. I coaxed Max inside with a treat. Then, pocketing my cellphone and sliding the door shut behind me, I made my way back to the reptilian visitor. Heart pounding, I tiptoed through the wet grass to where the slithery serpent was now sniffing out her surroundings with the quick snap of her tongue. She turned, tongue flicking rapidly and her eyes fixed on me.
“Is she poisonous?” I wondered. “How do I get her out of my yard? I don’t want to hurt her, but I don’t want her to hurt me or my dogs either. What on earth should I do?”
I snapped a couple of pictures with my phone (mostly for the sake of research). The snake moved slowly in a patient, nonaggressive manner. I followed her lead, deliberately keeping my movements small, slow and steady. She was curious but calm, and really quite beautiful in the rising moonlight. I was a bit frightened but also in awe of her splendor. I realized that both snake and human were trying to assess safety in that moment. She was wary of me … and I was certainly wary of her. Yet we were both sharing space (albeit several yards apart) and attempting to communicate with each other.
Diana Butler Bass, in her book Grounded: Finding God in the World — A Spiritual Revolution, wrote that we commune with others when “we pay attention to the barks and chirps, observing their wants and needs.” Furthermore, she reminds us that we are in an interdependent relationship and mutually share resources with all living beings.
Martin Luther King Jr. noted that to be in communion is to recognize our “inescapable network of mutuality” and the “interrelated structure of reality” in which we all live. Therefore, there exists the realization that we need to learn to develop respectful understanding and compassion for all living beings (human and nonhuman) if we are to coexist in this shared planet. As counselors, we are charged to provide unbiased and compassionate care to all individuals, regardless of differences in values, beliefs or lifestyles.
According to Bass, compassion means “to endure with another grief, suffering and experience.” The Charter for Compassion, an international community promoting global compassion, outlines “practices of nonviolence, respect and appreciation that cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings —even those regarded as enemies.”
However, fear often impedes the first step in communication or the attempt at compassion. Countless examples of fear-driven violence in the news are perpetuated by ignorance. I must admit, my first reaction to our reptilian visitor was to grab a shovel and pummel that snake. I was afraid!
But she was not causing any harm. She did not attack me or my dogs. She was blissfully enjoying the night. Had I succumbed to my fear, I would have missed out on the intimacy afforded by this creature and the night.
All over the world, communities are daring to give voice to the fears and eradicate the ignorance. Most recently, I received a message from the Maryland Counseling Association reminding counselors of our role in creating better communities through client advocacy: “May we all be courageous in our community work to exercise and protect independence for present and future generations of all walks of life.”
Thomas Berry, priest and ecotheologian, held a vision that cultivated conversations around these challenging questions. In his vision, Berry crafted 10 values laden with questions for conversation and consideration:
1) Ecological wisdom: How can we operate societies with the understanding that we are part of nature? How can we guarantee the rights of all human and nonhuman species?
2) Grassroots democracy: How can we develop systems that allow, encourage and ensure that representatives will be fully accountable to the persons who elected them?
3) Personal and social responsibility: How can we respond to human suffering in ways that promote dignity?
4) Nonviolence: How can we, as a society, develop effective alternatives to our current patterns of violence?
5) Decentralization: How can we restore power and responsibility to individuals, institutions and communities?
6) Community-based economy: How can we develop new activities and institutions that use our technologies in ways that are humane, freeing, ecological and responsive to communities?
7) Postpatriarchal values: How can we encourage people to care about persons outside their own group? How can we promote respectful, positive and responsive relationships across the lines of gender and other divisions?
8) Respect for diversity: How can we honor cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity within the context of individual responsibility to all beings?
9) Global responsibility: How can we promote sustainability globally?
10) Future focus: How can we encourage long-range visions versus short-term interest?
As we move forward, we (as a counseling and helping community) must continue to engage in these courageous conversations. We must attempt to diminish fear and eradicate ignorance by demonstrating and promoting care, compassion and advocacy for all beings. As Berry proposed, the world is a “community of subjects rather than a collection of objects” that is interdependent and a “mutually enhancing human-Earth presence.” We need to learn to play nicely together for the sake of all creatures.
I was afraid of the serpent in my backyard because I was ignorant. When I took the time to study her as a fellow participant in my community, I became less fearful and cultivated a respectful awe of my new neighbor. It is in this place of wonder and awe — “in between the creases of dark and light where vision is blurred” — that I leave you with a final tale whose author remains anonymous.
Once upon a time, a very wise professor had a very engaging class. And her students asked one day, “Professor, how can we tell the difference between light and dark?”
The professor began to think deeply when a student interrupted. “Oh, I know … when we can discern a palm tree from a fig tree in the distance?”
The professor thought a moment and shook her head, “No.”
Another student piped in, “Oh, I know! When we can perceive a donkey from a camel in the distance?”
The professor thought a moment and again replied, “No.”
Impatient (as curious students can be), they asked, “So, how is it we can discern when darkness is turning to light?”
The professor looked at her thoughtful students and said, “You will know that light is upon us … when you can look into the face of a stranger … and see the eyes of a brother or sister. Until then … we all live in darkness.”
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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