I was recently speaking at a church event in the Midwest when a woman in the audience stood to ask a question. Before she even opened her mouth, I got a vibe off this person, and that vibe was: neglect. I don't mean to say that she wasn't tending to her beauty regimen (honestly, who cares?); I mean this woman just looked neglected—the way an unloved animal looks after years of disregard. She emanated stress and loneliness. Then she asked her question, and she really broke my heart.

"I don't understand what people mean when they say we're supposed to love ourselves," she said. She began to cry. "How do I do that?"

She stared at me with desperation in her eyes, and I saw it again: the neglected animal that lived within her. So I said, "You need to start taking care of your animal."

She looked confused, so I went on. "You need to stop thinking of yourself as a human being and start treating yourself like the traumatized little animal you are."

I could see she was still puzzled, so I broke it down further. "Have you ever seen a frightened dog in a cage at a rescue shelter?"

She nodded.

"Pretend you've just adopted that dog from a kill shelter. You don't know anything about this animal's history—and you don't need to know. You can see she's been abused, and she's afraid of being abandoned or hurt again. Now imagine this: It's your first night home alone with that dog, and she's trembling in fear. How would you treat her? Would you scream at her and tell her she's an idiot? Would you kick her? Would you lock her in a dark room all alone? Would you starve her or let her binge-eat a bunch of garbage? Would you let her stay in an environment where other dogs attack her every day?"

"No," said the woman. "I would take care of her."

"Aha!" I said. "So you do know how to love an animal. You would offer her a warm and safe bed, right? Healthy food. A cozy environment. Walks in the sunshine. Fresh air and clean water. Careful socialization with other animals—nice ones that don't bite. Naps. Tenderness. Affection. Playtime. And lots of patience. That's how you love an animal."

"But that's an animal," she said. "It's easy to love an animal."

"Well, that's good news, because you're an animal, too."

Illustration: Nadia Bormotova

I try never to forget three words the great Cole Porter wrote: "We're merely mammals." Hundreds of thousands of years before we developed our complications and neuroses, we were just another warm-blooded life-form trying to survive in a difficult world. When we forget that fact, we suffer. We get trapped in the shame and blame of our human minds and neglect "the soft animal of your body" (as Mary Oliver so beautifully calls it). But what makes us think we're so special that we alone—unlike any other animal on earth—do not deserve loving care?

Sometimes the only way I can pull myself from the edge of terror or self-hatred is to ask myself, How does my animal feel right now? Then I notice my racing heart, my trembling hands, my shortened breath, my knotted stomach, my shaky legs, my clenched jaw...and I say, "This is no way for an animal to live." I ask my animal what would make her feel better. A walk in the sunlight? A friendly voice? A treat? A nap? My animal teaches me how to take care of her, and she shows me how to care for myself.

That night I said to the neglected woman, "It's time for you to adopt yourself. God gave you stewardship over one dear and vulnerable animal: yourself. Can you embrace that responsibility?"

"Maybe..." she said.

I hope she can. I hope the same for all of us—that we can rescue ourselves from the kill shelter and give ourselves the loving home we've earned just by virtue of being alive.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a best-selling novelist and memoirist of international renown. Her works include The Signature of All Things and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.


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