Love as an Acceptable Risk
Loving means opening yourself to heartbreak. How can I help my kids learn how to balance risk and reward when it comes to love? Our dogs help.
Life is about risk management. No risks mean no excitement; too many risks mean danger. When very few adults have mastered the balance here, how can I expect my teenagers to know how to do it?
While neither of my teens are particularly physically adventuresome, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to emotional risk. My son is happy to do a metaphorical swan dive into any situation requiring of his emotion and attention. He leaps first, asks questions later. My daughter, on the other hand, brings a whole new meaning to the concept of being guarded. Before she will try, she calculates the chances of success. If she doesn’t feel the odds are heavily in her favor, more often than not, she’ll simply opt out. I worry about both of them, because I’m not sure either approach is healthy.
To love is to risk. Everyone knows that, right?
When you give your heart to someone, you’re opening yourself to the possibility of heartbreak. How do you decide whom to trust with your love? How do we teach our children to make good choices in this arena?
I often joke that dogs are essential in a household with teenagers, because at least the dogs are always happy to see you. Part of the reason I like little dogs (besides the fact that they don’t eat a lot and, therefore, don’t leave horse-sized turds around) is that they have longer lifespans than their larger counterparts. Because that’s the only problem with dogs—they don’t live as long as humans. Deciding to own a pet means opening yourself to the heartbreak of them shuffling off this mortal coil before you’re ready to let them go.
Let me clarify: Licorice and Duncan are fine. Pretty much. Right now they’re fine. Ever since we all adapted to Duncan’s integration into our household and made peace with the fact that he was quite a bit older than we originally thought, we have enjoyed being a two-dog family. Licorice is the dog who wants to be in your lap and lick you all over. Duncan is the dog who wants to be near you, but maybe not have you bother him, but also if he decides it’s time to play, he’s much more of a “hearty romp” kind of animal than Licorice. And both dogs are maybe about 7 years old (because they’re both rescues, we can’t know for sure), with their average breed lifespan being about 13.
We took this as acceptable risk. Twice. We love these goofy dogs and will continue to love them for as long as they’re around.
But… Duncan is unwell. We knew he had some health issues when we got him. We thought we could nurse him back to health with love and good food and vet visits. The good news is that I think he’s happy most of the time. The bad news is that the vet is pretty sure he has some sort of chronic neurological condition that is causing him intermittent tremors and muscle weakness and maybe even seizures. After a series of vet visits to try to figure out what’s going on, our vet laid it out: We could spend hundreds, maybe even thousands, of dollars to figure out what, exactly, is wrong with him. The chances of it revealing anything treatable were pretty slim, though, so unless he suddenly gets worse, they don’t recommend it. “He could live with this for a long time,” the vet said. “Or… not. There’s really no way to know. Let’s monitor and keep him comfortable. The goal is to keep him out of pain.”
Now I’m left trying to prepare the kids, and myself, for what may be a very different timeline than we thought we’d bargained for.
Unacceptable risk? I can’t bear to view it that way. I realize that as I’m talking to the kids about it, I’m reminding myself: “Duncan had a hard life. He was picked up as a stray as an adult, and is blind likely due to some prior illness, and he wasn’t treated very well in his post-shelter home, either. That’s why he’s cautious, and sometimes grumpy, and why he sometimes bites. He’s scared a lot. He loves us but isn’t sure that humans are entirely to be trusted. He deserves a better life than he’s had. That’s what we’re giving him, for as long as we can. Because he deserves love. We will make whatever time he has left the best life a dog can have.”
It will break my heart when his life is over. I adore him, grumpiness, nippiness and all. I take solace in knowing that the remainder of his life will be spent in relative luxury (well, for a dog, anyway), surrounded by humans who love him. We will provide for him because he deserves it, because all creatures deserve it, and he happens to be the one that came to us. We’ll love him as long as we can. Hopefully he has a lot of time left, but if he doesn’t, we’ll deal with that when the time comes.
Sometimes you make a choice knowing it will break your heart. Sometimes that‘s the acceptable risk. That’s why they say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all; we are reaping the benefits of loving this silly furball, right now, whether we realize it or not. We have to remember to appreciate our time together, even if it ends up being too short.
Now, how to turn that into a lesson that translates into how much of yourself you allow other humans to have… well, we’re still working on that part.