A better life through plants and animals?

So, a very interesting article crossed my path yesterday, and has subsequently become the inspiration for today's post.  The article discusses the launch of a new project in San Francisco in which homeless individuals are paired up with dogs in need of foster care.  In return for the basic training that the dogs will be provided, these individuals will be given a small stipend and a space in affordable/supportive housing.  While some may think this is an unnecessary use of money, or a silly idealistic fantasy better suited to a film script, I think it is genius.  I would even argue that this plan could teach all of us a thing or two.

It is all too common for a distraught client to sit across from me in my therapy office and describe intense feelings of boredom, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and depression.  Often, clients want to know how to "fix" these feelings.  It's as though they are asking, "What's the trick, here?" Sorry, everyone, there is no quick fix. Life is hard the whole way through.  But, there are ways to make this hard life really wonderful and worthwhile.  At one time or another, we all wonder "What is the point? What is the meaning of my being here?"  Some find answers through religion and spirituality, others find answers in a personal passion or specific cause - I am going to do something I almost never do, and oversimplify.  I believe the secret is connection.  Connection is our greatest defense against inevitable loneliness, sadness, meaninglessness, hurt.  We can connect with others through relationships, through our spirituality, our cause - but we can also connect with life through the natural world, through plants and animals.  Now here is where I assume I will lose a few of you - animals? plants? Really?

Yes. A plant will make your life better.  So will a dog (or cat, or fish, or ferret, whatever).

Today, in a highly technological world, despite the booming population we feel more disconnected than ever.  We have been separated from each other, and from the natural life that surrounds us.  So how do we reconnect with the abstract idea of "life"?  I offer up this idea: one way we can reconnect is by experiencing a relationship with a living thing, any living thing.  A small plant, while unobtrusive, requires patience, responsibility, and in return gives you purpose.  Ultimately, because you spent time and energy on this plant, you are connected to its life. You are connected as living, breathing things who have become intertwined.  Imagine how that experience might be amplified with an animal; a creature with a heartbeat, wanting to connect back.

Consider this.  In your day to day life, how often would you say you stop and attend to the well-being of another? (parents, you can disregard this question) What would that do to you?  Science tells us that caring for an animal can extend your life, decrease stress, and increase positive feelings about yourself.  Even the simple act of petting an animal slows your heart rate and breathing.  History tells us that human beings have always searched for a way to connect to things greater than ourselves.  The Earth, community, life energy, your god.  These are all attempts at the same thing: connection. Yet feeling connected in these ways can be a life-long journey.  A plant, a pet - these are ways for you to feel connected right now, in your real, everyday life.

Try it. Even if your situation isn't as dire as homelessness, spend some time really caring for a life other than your own.  You could find connection, purpose, joy - or at the very least, a little bit of company.