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I Didn't Have It to Give

Lessons I learned from my dogs
sad-child-Michael Milton, BK Readerportrait
A boy with a secret.

"The Art of Seeing" by Michael Milton

I'm sure most of us are familiar with the old adage, You can't give, what you don't already have.

What, I wonder, holds us back from giving to ourselves what we need most in order to give fully to others?

My guess is that our secrets hold us back. We hide lack of self-esteem behind a wall of bravado. We hide bigotry behind forced smiles. We hide family shame in lies and deflection. We hide our true sexuality behind a wall of posturing. We filter our fullest expressions through our secrets and in doing so, we lose the ability to give easily and sincerely.

When I was eight, my parents decided it was time for me to have my first dog. I don't remember asking for a dog. I was somewhat of a loner, a bit overweight, the only child of kind parents living in a small town.

The Art of Seeing by Michael Milton

And I had a secret when I was eight. I didn't know the full extent of my secret back then. I couldn't have put it into words. It was only in retrospect that I could articulate how my secret began to reveal itself the day my parents and I went to pick up the dog.

She was a wired hair fox terrier named Lady. I remember sitting in the backseat of my folk's powder blue 1962 Dodge Dart with Lady in my lap. I remember Lady shivering with energy and nervousness. I remember the wet doggy smell and the anxious look on her long, thin face.

What I remember most is the emptiness I felt. The shame. This ought to be fun! I thought. A boy bonding with his dog! Shouldn't I be feeling something? Shouldn't I be awash with delight and anticipation, full of plans for our time together? 

I felt nothing. I didn't have anything to give to my new puppy. At eight, my secret had already created a hollow, scary place in my gut, a place that needed filling before I could possibly give anything genuine to this dog.

No matter what I have tackled in my life, I have discovered that my various secrets have kept me from doing my very best. Ironically, I have also discovered that sharing my "underbelly,"--removing the filters my secrets perforce create--has been a necessary part of my connecting honestly with other people.

I didn't take very good care of Lady. I don't remember ever once feeding her or walking her or playing much with her. My parents both worked. Lady certainly was my responsibility. But I didn't have to give what she most needed.

The Art of Seeing by Michael Milton
What dog love was supposed to look like.

I wonder now if other people back then already knew my secret, even before I figured it out? Maybe they hoped that they would help me to keep the unspoken secret hidden away forever with the right distractions: the basketball hoop over the garage, Little League, fishing, fixing cars and, of course, caring for a dog.

Lady lasted six lonely months, followed almost immediately by a second dog, a Dalmatian named Roscoe. I remember less about Roscoe than Lady. He, too, disappeared quickly from our lives. No one held me responsible for this canine turnover. The dogs bore the brunt of the blame for their banishment.

She had too much energy. He was too big for our yard. She barked too much. 

But I knew the truth.

When Barnaby-- our black cocker spaniel-- came into our lives, I was a young teenager and my secret had taken on a real shape, a guilty and lonely shape, a shape that whispered to me that I would never be whole, that said I would always be less than, a secret which demanded I hide behind conformity and allowed me to live only a fraction of my spiritual potential.

When I went off to college and my folks gave Barnaby to an elderly couple nearby, I didn't give him a second thought. I didn't ask how he liked his new home or if the couple seemed kind. There was still a hole in my heart, but its ache had nothing to do with Barnaby's leaving us.

For years, rather than going within to examine my secret, I pushed outwards. I joined clubs, ran for offices, took extra classes, jogged endless miles, worked long hours. I stirred up a maelstrom of swirling dust to keep my secret hidden.

The Art of Seeing by Michael Milton
Rock Hudson had a big secret, too.

Still, as time went by, I could see how my secrets held me back in moments I ought to have been succeeding wildly. And it was with considerable effort—endless self-help books, years of therapy, meditation—before I finally began to dig my way out of the dark and gave my secret a name.

Becoming a writer was one of the dozens of ways by which I learned to articulate intellectually and emotionally all of the nooks and crannies that were--and are--me. The more I opened up, the more I shared with others about myself, the more I had to give. The old saying, You can't give what you don't already have started to make truer sense to me.

You may wonder, "How does anything this guy says relate to my life? Why do I need to "look inward" to move up the corporate ladder or to start a new business or to raise a family or find a suitable mate?" I will answer with two words; people know. We instinctively know who we can trust, who is on our side, who truly loves us, respects us and gives to us. In looking back, I can see what a grave disservice I did my family, my friends, and fellow employees before I began a journey towards greater transparency.  I robbed them of…me.

Five years ago I went to a local vet who rescued abandoned animals. "Please watch out for a kitten for me. One with personality. A kitten who needs me." And two weeks later, I was handed a wee speck of a kitten I named Boots. I looked into her frightened, confused eyes that first time I picked her up and I said, I swear I will always care for you. I don't have a good track record, but I promise, I will watch out for you and love you."

As I continue to aspire to a life of transparency, my message to others is:  I no longer feel alone. I have experienced isolation, fear and a sense of inadequacy and I confirm that, with patience and introspection, we all have a chance to claim the better lit, unashamed side of our existence. 

What a terrific Holiday gift to ourselves that would be!

And in that better light, I am happy to say, "I now have it to give."


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