02 Oct
Feeding Both Wolves

When on-call one day, I met a patient who had suffered a fall helping her mother move into Assisted Living.  She lay quietly, her eyes bruised, her neck restricted by a collar.   With at least 24 hours before she would have an MRI, she spoke of a year with more challenges than she had been prepared for, but that it was her philosophy to feed the “good wolf.”   She was referring to the Cherokee Indian legend about a grandfather who tells his grandson that he has “a terrible fight” going on inside of him between two wolves.  One wolf has a lot of fear, anger, sadness, regret, and the other has a lot of faith, patience, trust, joy.  “The same fight is going on in you and every person,” he tells his grandson, which prompts the grandson to ask which wolf will win.  “The one you feed the most,” says the grandfather. 

Listening to the patient reflect on her life and recount her blessings -- including the thrill, amid worries about her mother’s adjustment to Assisted Living, to hear that her mother was too busy playing Bingo with new friends to take her call – I could see she was practiced in feeding the good wolf.  I knew all too well which wolf I would be feeding while waiting 24 hours for an MRI, an impulse I find best described as “negative futurizing.”  In such situations, remembering to keep things in perspective might lessen my stress.  But I also think feeding the bad wolf isn’t all bad. 

In fact, it’s my job to listen and give people space to express negative thoughts and emotions without trying to fix or lessen their pain.  Those difficult feelings are not “bad,” but true to the struggle a person is experiencing.  When they are expressed and felt, there might be some release and emotional healing, and more freedom to experience things differently.  Feeding the bad wolf is normal to our human experience, and in experiencing deep grief, there’s not much else that can be done for a time.  

I’m also trained to be on the lookout for some bright spot for the patient.  It can be one small thing they are looking forward to, like going home to a beloved pet.  Or a big thing, like deciding to stop aggressive treatment and choose quality of days over quantity of days.  In the Children’s Hospital, I always carry several stuffed toy stars in my chaplain bag.   Canary yellow with simple smiley faces, they are a contrast to the austere medical equipment and weighty concerns patients and families encounter in a hospital room.  Once when holding up a star and singing Twinkle Twinkle to a baby I didn’t realize had limited vision, his mother’s face brightened, and she said yellow was the color he could see.  The plush toy star sometimes is literally a bright spot that I can offer (thanks to Guidepost’s donation of comfort kits for kids).  I rarely leave a patient room without making sure there is some bright spot, some element of hope that remains.  

The bright spot is like the white plumed anemone that grows on the ocean floor, which David Nepo speaks of in The Book of Awakening.  It blooms brightly as if bathed by the sun, and yet it is far from the sun in the dark depths of the ocean.   It’s important “to not lose the truth of things when they go out of view,” says Nepo.  “To know there is still water, even when we are thirsty.  To know there is still love, even when we are lonely. To know there is still peace, even when we are suffering.”  To know there is a good wolf, even if it sometimes sits watchful on the sidelines when feeding the bad wolf is what we need to do.  Bright spots don’t negate the pain, but they also don’t add to it, giving us strength and a way back to wellbeing.  

* The email will not be published on the website.