Resilience: Ten Years, Three Lessons, One Dog

Rescue Me

Last month I celebrated my 10-year anniversary with my dog Buster. It was a milestone celebration, because two weeks after adopting him, I wanted to give him up. Anyone who has adopted a rescue pet knows they come with a history. A hidden, complicated history that will reveal itself in the moments you least expect. And Buster’s hidden history emerged like a firestorm. 

Within those first two weeks together, Buster was sick every few days and making a mess of my apartment; nipping at friends who came to visit; barking for no clear reason; pacing at night; regurgitating his water (that was and is gross); sometimes getting sick from his food, sometimes not. I was barely sleeping, always worrying and wondering—and then understanding—why I was this dog’s fourth owner in his four (or maybe five or six) years on this planet. He was a challenge. I felt homebound, trapped, worried. And the more my mind engaged in that kind of thinking, the worse Buster became.

Notes to Self

One of my new year’s rituals is to take stock of the past year and reflect; part of that practice is writing letters to future me and past me. As we’ve crossed the threshold into a new decade, my letter to past me included ten years’ worth of lessons. First, I extended compassion to the me of ten years ago. I was raising a really challenging pet, and he’s still around—being Buster, still challenging, always my best bud. I also reminded myself of the lessons learned this past decade that align with who I’ve become not only in my dog-rearing, but also in into my professional practice and life habits:

  1. Remember the spheres of control and influence: So many of my frustrations come from circumstances I can’t control. And no matter how practiced I’ve become at knowing that, I need the reminder, daily, of what I can control and influence—and work from that place. A few months into the chaos of raising Buster, I developed a mantra: “It’s not him; it’s me.” And it was true. Buster was just being Buster. No matter how much I willed things to be otherwise, I had to work within my spheres of influence to navigate the situation appropriately. And the more I shifted my thinking and habits to work with what was, the better I was able to tease out Buster’s struggles and navigate them one by one—the better I was able to do the same at school, too. I was better able to work with challenging collaborative dynamics on teaching teams, controlling my own responses to what was happening and  leveraging places where I could have influence on improving our work together.  
  2. Take a step back and reframe thoughts/situations/beliefs. This activity from the Onward website has been an excellent way to dissect thoughts and get at the root of stories that aren’t serving me. In the early days of Buster, I was working with a lot of problematic thinking and storytelling, and I was limiting myself from what was possible. I was telling myself that I was a failure at dog-raising, comparing myself to others who had well trained pets, thinking someone else wouldn’t struggle as much as I did. Today, when I fall into these habits (also known as “rut stories”), I use this tool to reframe my thinking, develop greater compassion for myself and the contexts I’m working in, and am able to see and respond to situations differently. When I received some strong resistance for an on-site teacher preparation program I was developing at my school, I reframed my “rut story” of “being a failure” to a stance of inquiry: maybe there was resistance because I wasn’t clear enough, or maybe I needed to scaffold the change more thoughtfully, or maybe now wasn’t the time to develop this program. Changing my perspective helped me to see the more complex portrait of what was happening and find alternative ways of exploring challenges.
  3. Create conditions for thriving. I’ve certainly fallen into the trappings of seeing everything as urgent and working from a place of reactivity. Whether in classroom design, coaching educators, leading teams, or interpreting the latest mess Buster made, I need to remember and reinvest in the habits of proactivity and planning. Yes, I do plan my days and weeks with Buster in mind, creating a home life that ensures he gets what he needs to be a thriving creature. When I remain proactive in my approaches to Buster, I am able to anticipate needs and adapt accordingly in the moment. And those practices translate directly into my school work as well. The following tools have been invaluable in my practice and have allowed me to create optimal conditions for learning and growth:

Beyond Buster

I’d like to think that Buster has been transformed by my time raising him, but I think I may have been more transformed in this process—developing into a more patient, more loving, more present, more resilient human being. The biggest lesson I’m taking into this next decade is that we’re never done building the habits and capacities for resilience because we never know what the world may hold for us. And we need to be ready: to dismantle systems of oppression, to reverse the destructive impacts of climate change, to design equitable schools, to meet our students where they are, to meet ourselves where we are in every moment. I don’t know how much longer Buster has on this planet, but when the time comes to say goodbye, to grieve, and to draw upon my resilience for what comes next, I’ll be ready.