When I was a kid, and my mom was fresh out of pity for my plight, she would say “Jamie, my heart bleeds for you.” The idea behind the phrase is that her heart was bleeding anyway, so my nonsense didn’t truly affect the pumping of her heart.
As an adult, I walk around bearing a crushing guilt for nothing other than my privilege. My heart bleeds for those less fortunate. I mean, the muscle pumps blood for my own survival, but there is no other way to really explain this internal need I have to make everyone better.
About two weeks ago, I saw a small, adult dog pacing nervously on the grassy median of a the main street in my neighborhood. My heart bled for him, but I had the kids and no way to transport him to safety (and no safe place for him to go). I drove on, and on my way home, I saw his lifeless body on the side of the road. My heart broke, and I vowed to do everything in my power to help the next stray dog I saw.
A few days later, a tiny puppy ended up crying outside my front door. My heart bled for her, so I took her to the vet and spent several hundred dollars I didn’t have on getting her healthy. Unfortunately, we decided that we couldn’t keep her permanently, so I tortured myself about her fate. I’ve had a lump in my throat since Saturday. Rescues, fosters, shelters, craigslist crazies…. Every available option wasn’t good enough, and I had fearful visions of her ending up as bait in a dog-fighting ring or dying slowly of distemper in the back of a damp stone kennel run. I spent hours coddling her like a baby, whispering that it would be alright; we’d figure something out. I’ve known this animal for seven days, and my emotions were so tied up in her future, I couldn’t think straight. It was selfish to keep her to assuage my guilt because I knew our home wasn’t right for her. It was selfish to give her away because she would require so much that we don’t have to give. Happy ending though: I found a family who has the resources to give her a wonderful home; I drove the puppy to meet them and we talked for over an hour. In the end, an abandoned puppy on my doorstep may have even gained me my first Texan (human) friend.
Apart from that, the other day, I was driving to work and saw a woman, about my age, standing on the corner with her toddler and a sign that read Please Help, No Work, Mom of Two Kids in Spanish. I don’t usually give money to panhandlers (or even have cash really) but something about that mother, forced to beg on the street in the rain with her daughter, tugged at my bleeding heart. But giving money never makes me feel better. It never feels good to pass spare change through the crack of the window and then avert my glance away from their exaggerated gratitude. It never feels good to assess someone’s need on the sidewalk and be grateful that the light turns green before I can decide whether a person deserves my dollar. It doesn’t feel good to smile apologetically from the warmth of my car when I have nothing to give. It didn’t feel good to give that young mother a ten dollar bill when I knew I had two twenties tucked next to it in my wallet even though that $50 was earmarked for our own groceries. I drove away, feeling sick, knowing that her daughter was cold and maybe hungry while my children cried about their vegetables or argued over which show to watch before bed. It never feels like enough.
I didn’t realize the void that would be left by spending so much time on volunteer projects in Idaho. Without those things, I live with a weight of guilt that I am not making the world, or even my community, a better place. I tried so hard to want to deal with all that a puppy entails because she needed someone. I gave that woman ten dollars because it would cover milk and a pack of diapers for her baby.
I belong to a class of people snarkily called “bleeding heart liberals”, going back to the sarcasm of my parentage. We are overly sympathetic and we want to help everyone. We offer more than we have and feel legitimately guilty when we can’t give more. I’m not ashamed of the label, but not having an outlet (like V-Day and PFLAG used to provide for me) is driving me a little insane. I’m not trying to brag; I’m trying to write it out, to try and make sense of the dissonance in my brain between what I have to offer and what I really do.