The Best Advice I Ever Got: Bark like a Dog

Photo Credit: Joseph Moss

Photo Credit: Joseph Moss

About fourteen years ago, I stood in the copy room of the corporate office that I worked at and started barking like a dog.

No, you didn't read that incorrectly. I was barking: Woof. Woof. Woof. Why? Because my friend and coworker, Bill, asked me to.

So I did it.

(Okay, I see a need for context here:  Who is this Bill person? And why in the world would you bark for him? Long story short: Many years before Bill became a graphic designer and one of my cube mates in the Corporate Cubical Farm, he was a  Buddhist monk. And though he was no longer living as a monk, he nevertheless continued practicing Buddhism. In the year and a half that I worked with him, we had many long talks over lunches, water coolers, and copy machines about his daily practices, his life, and the books he read. He gave me my first Sharon Salzberg book FaithHe taught me how to meditate. We talked about our religions (I was raised Catholic), our spirituality, and the roles each play in our lives. We talked about compassion. Love. Life. Bill met me at rough time. I was a new single mom. Broke, tired, and overworked, I was trying to figure how to be a corporate employee and a good mother to my daughter at the same time (at the ripe old age of 23 and just a few months out of school). It wasn't easy and needless to say, he witnessed more than one meltdown in the copy room, where I often went, closed and locked the door behind me, and cried or vented to him about my life, while we collated copies and bound RFPs together.)

Moments before I started barking for Bill, I had been complaining about something (about what I can't recall, but I am sure it was either about my finances, my love life, my family, or job--pick one--like I said, my life was a cluster). Without skipping a beat, Bill raised his hand up to me to silence me and said: "Bark."  I looked at him like he was crazy. And so he said again, "Bark for me. Bark like a dog. Go."

So I did.

Woof. Woof.

He said, "Louder. Do it again."

So there I went, "WOOF. WOOF. WOOF."

Then he said, "Get on all fours. Go. Walk around the room and bark like a dog."

And I stopped, and said, "No. Absolutely not."

And he smiled. Like the Great Oz telling Dorothy to click her heels, because she had it in her the whole time to return home, Bill raised his large eyebrows, as he was apt to do, and said, quite knowingly, "See how easy that is? To say no. To stop it. At any point in time, Mary, you have the power to say, 'No. This is unacceptable. This isn't how I want to be treated. This isn't how I want my life to be. This isn't what I want. Where I want to be. Who I want to be with. Who I want to be. I deserve better. I want to be better.'"

I stood there dumbfounded at the feet of a great Master. At any point in time, I was in control. I didn't have to bark, because someone told me to bark. I didn't have to be miserable either. I could start making better choices. I could start to stand on my own two feet and start calling the shots in my own life. I could tell people how I wanted to be treated, expect to be treated. I could determine by destiny with something as powerful, simple, and brilliant as the word: no.

It has continued to work for me time and time again. Recently, I found myself complaining a lot--to my husband, children, coworkers, friends, mother, sisters, brothers--to anyone and everyone who would listen, or at the very least, who had a set of ears. I was tired of hearing myself. I can't imagine how exasperated they were.

The complaints ran the gamut between the general:  Life is just too hard.  There is never enough money. I just need a break.  I am sick of how women, minorities, and gay people are treated. I am sick of keeping up with the Joneses (whoever the heck they are) and their cars, their parties, their uber-kitchens, to the specific:  My kids needed to be in three places at once and I'm the only driver. I just can't do it!  I hate how my kids get overlooked and ignored by their teachers, friends, and relatives. They matter, too. I am sick of going to bed at 2 a.m. and waking a few hours later exhausted. I am sick and tired of not having any time alone, let alone a date with my husband--one date in an entire year, thank you very much. I am sick of running kids to appointments and functions during my work day and never feeling like I am accomplishing anything at work or home. I am sick of fake  people and their phony, empty, half-ass attempts to say they care, but never show up--ever--for anything when I need them. I am sick of being overweight. Tired. Hungry. I'm sick of needing a drink at 6 p.m. so I can tolerate the few waking hours I have outside of work. I am sick of being sick. 

You get the picture. It sounds awful. Because it is. I sound awful. Self-indulgent much? And, do I see a common denominator here?

Yes. Yes, I do.

It's time to stop barking, Mary.

In every area of my life, I had a choice. I did. I could stop myself at anytime and say: This is unacceptable. Or I need help. Or I need to change things. Or I need to change myself. Or, I need to change how I think about things. And, if I couldn't change how I thought (for example, if no matter how I spun it, the fact remained that I would never fully accept how women were treated in the church, work, or school) then I'd have to change what I was doing to support places like that. But, maybe there were areas where I could change how I thought about things. For example, I could change how I thought about other people--maybe they did care about my kids, but they were busy, too. They've got their own lives, their own kids, their own worries. Maybe they're out there thinking the same thing about me, because while I am sitting home rapt in my anger,  exhaustion, and complaints, I can't see beyond myself to see that they might need me too.

My husband and I sat down a few weeks ago and we decided to make some serious--even scary--changes. At the last-minute, we switched our son out of a private school that we'd been a part of for over a decade and moved  him to a public school--a school we felt more in line with our values, our hopes for our son and his future, and one that would better suit his needs. We felt like we had stayed where we were, because we "should be there" or "had to be there." But the reality was/is:  We didn't have to do anything. We are the drivers of this ship. We own this life. We are responsible for our own kids. And, granted, we're only a week into the school year and it may be too early to tell, but I can say right now our son is happy. Excited even. He loves his school.  Score one for change.

We made some major financial decisions and changes as well. Tired of always complaining about never having enough money, we decided what exactly "enough" will be and how to better live within the funds we do have. We also made a new driving schedule. I would drive my daughter to her school, my husband would walk our son to his. We found an aftercare facility for our son to help with the transition time, so I didn't have to drive between two schools at 90 mph to make it work. We decided we were going to cut the funds on places we felt no longer meshed with our values and what we hold dear. We decided to carve out more family time and more couple time. In fact, today, my husband and I met for a date during our lunch hour. It was an hour. But, it was something, not nothing.

We planned our work, and we're working our plan. Change is hard. It's scary. But, it's necessary. And it starts with a choice. It starts the moment we say: No. Enough. I refuse to live like this another day. A couple of weeks ago, I chose to speak about my own mental illness in a blog. I made a choice that day to stop the facade of perfection I was desperately trying to maintain. It was tremendously freeing to say the words out loud and to live more authentically and honestly. But, more than anything, the process of coming clean showed me that though I had learned all that I needed to know a long time ago from one of my life's angels, Bill, it wasn't enough to know it. I have to keep doing the work. I have to keep reminding myself:  At any point in time I have the power to make a change. It's a lesson easily forgotten, especially if it's not practiced regularly. It's easy to fall into line, and keep doing the same things we've always done--and therefore--get what we've always gotten, because we think we "should" or "ought" to or because our friends do, or our families do.

I am tired of barking. So I am stopping.