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Photo by Diego Vanegas
Reflection by Jim Crissman

A lot of us northerners are getting a little touchy these days, cooped up as we are against the cold while we watch our life savings disappear like the driveway in yet another blizzard. There is an epidemic in these parts of galloping malignant cabin fever that comes with foul mood, headache, constipation, and a rash. Earlier this week I had to have the frame of my snow plow welded; it had bent and snapped in two places from moving the mountains of snow around here. Now the plow is fixed, but I can’t use it because it’s so cold the tractor won’t start. So today the tractor’s at the shop getting a block heater and I won’t get it back in time for the storm that is now blowing in another half a foot outside our window. Daily I hear of friends who have lost their jobs. It’s at times like these that one must dip deep into the well of kindness for the civility that prevents one from turning to cannibalism, or from triggering a sudden taste for human flesh in those up with whom one is cooped.

Oddly, a common source of the murderous impulse is the truth. Truth, which in our current agitated and frozen state we might rather wield like a cudgel, just for the heat it might generate. So the word for the day is tact, that little dance we do around the blunt truth. And when I think of tact, I think of my vet school classmate and friend who gave our class the sort of object lesson that stays with one for a lifetime. The class was clinical neurology taught by one of my favorite professors, Jim Cunningham. Dr. Cunningham believed that we could learn empathy by hearing, first hand, the story of a client who had a beloved dog with epilepsy. 

The client was a tall man, about six-five, and a preacher. He wore his black preacher suit and white collar as he stood in front of our class and told us about his dog named Rev, a large black Great Dane with a white spot on his throat. He told us that he and his wife had no children, so Rev held a special place in their lives. He said that Rev had his seizures about every two weeks, often on a Saturday night while he was busy writing his sermon for the next morning. The dog would flail and kick, knocking over lamps, urinating, defecating, and tearing apart their little apartment. It was awful. It was worse in the car; on a cross-country trip they had to work with a cow vet in Iowa who was clueless about canine idiopathic epilepsy. It was one sad episode after another. Over the few years they had with Rev they spent well over a thousand dollars in veterinary bills, a small fortune for a preacher in the 1970s. Tears streamed down the big man’s face as he described the long-delayed but inevitable decision to euthanize Rev. Even the macho future food animal vets among us were getting a little choked up. All but one.

My friend’s hand shot up. And here I should note that my friend had been in Special Forces in Viet Nam just before vet school and saw the world more starkly than the rest of us. Everyone would recognize the grain of truth in his question, but we were mortified when he asked it: “At what point did you realize you were treating your neurosis instead of your dog?”

Ever since then I have understood that truth and honesty are highly overrated. Kindness is more important. Learn the answers to the trick questions: No, really, it was delicious, hardly burned at all. No, I don’t think Angelina Jolie is cuter than you. Sure, I’d be happy to drive your mother to the fabric store this Saturday. OK, so maybe not that. But if you blow these answers, let your tact shrivel on some frigid claustrophobic inebriated night in the dead of January, somebody just may decide to put you out of their misery. And nobody will blame them.

© James W. Crissman, 2011