(this article was originally written in Dutch)
At the beginning of 2016, my dog Jura hurt her knee. It was obvious that this wasn’t just a minor pain, something was really wrong. A few weeks earlier, we hiked 50 kilometers along the coast together. All day long we struggled against a stormy wind and rain. The temperature just above freezing my clothes and her fur were drenched and when we got home it took hours just to feel something again. This wasn’t a problem for us, we did this often.
After her knee injury, Jura had two surgeries. The first wasn’t a success. And although the second operation was, one thing was certain: those long hikes, so important for both of us, were no longer possible. Something else hit me like a bus. Jura wasn’t indestructible and one day I will have to go on without her.
Many people regret that they did not get everything out of life
We must not forget that we are vulnerable and we will die eventually. In Roman times, a slave would continuously whisper ‘Remember you are mortal’ in the ears of victorious generals as they were paraded through the streets after coming home, triumphant. This later became known as Memento Mori. Similar ideas can be found in every religion and many philosophies. This may sound lurid, but it is not. Memento Mori keeps us humble and also reminds us that if we want something in this life we must act.
In “Top Five Regrets of the Dying” Bronnie Ware writes about the regrets people nearing their death have. They speak about the things they haven’t done, should have done or shouldn’t have spend so much of their precious life on. Almost all regret that they haven’t gotten everything out of life, spent too much time on nonsense and therefore haven’t enjoyed life as much as they could have. Stories like that, and the knowledge that Jura doesn’t live forever, make me even more motivated to live life to the fullest, every day.
When is it time?
Now, three years later, Jura is just as happy as before. Especially since we started living in a quieter environment with a (small) forest just around the corner. Apart from some bad days, she can easily hike ten or fifteen kilometers. Maybe not every day and under all circumstances, but she is in much better shape than I could have hoped for.
The last couple of years I have had plenty of time to think about that moment that will always come. My idea is that, no matter how emotional the situation is, I should not let empathy be my main guide when it comes to making a decision for her. That probably needs some explanation.
“Empathy is feeling with someone else. Compassion is feeling concern for someone else.”
In his book “Against Empathy — The Case for Rational Compassion”, professor Paul Bloom lashes out at all politicians, scientists and activists who constantly insist on more empathy. Empathy, he says, often has a negative effect on our judgment and can even cause unnecessary harm or suffering. Bloom himself argues for “rational compassion.”
In his new book “De Meeste Mensen Deugen” (Dutch for: “Most people are good” I hope sincerely that this book will be translated soon) Rutger Bregman explains the difference between rational compassion and empathy as follows: “Empathy is feeling with someone else. Compassion is feeling concern for someone else.”
Compassion is less biased, less upsetting and exhausting than empathy is. It doesn’t make you share the suffering of the other, but it does help you to see and understand his or her suffering. And more importantly: it helps you to take action and make better decisions.
In contrast to empathy, compassion does not cost energy but gives energy. Because let’s be honest, if a child is afraid of the dark, as a parent you do not want to cry in a corner of the room with the kid(empathy). No, you want to comfort and reassure him(compassion).
Of course empathy is extremely important. What is a relationship worth if you don’t empathize with your best friend? You want to share their happiness and joy but also their pain and doubts. You want to feel what they feel in order to understand them better. Nevertheless, decisions based solely on empathy are often bad decisions.
My rubber backbone (this is a literal Dutch translation with obvious meaning) has been responsible for many bad decisions. So many times I’ve said “yes” to Jura because she wanted to do something so badly. Even when I knew it was probably too much for her, I let her. Because I felt with her, shared her emotions, I gave in, and because of that, she suffered. Now, a painful knee for one or two days is one thing, needless suffering at the end of a life is a completely different story. I simply can’t make such an important decision based on a feeling. This is where HHHHHMM comes in.
No the title above is not a typo. HHHHHMM stands for: Hurt, Hunger, Hydration, Hygiene, Happiness, Mobility and More good days than bad days. It is a scale developed by Dr. Alice Villalobos, veterinarian and researcher in the field of human-dog relationships. For each element (hurt, hunger, etc.) you give a score of 1–10, with 1 being very bad and 10 being very good. If the dog scores less than 35 in total, it is wise to think about the end.
This scale forces you to look at the overall situation. And keeps from focusing on just one of the elements. We humans are prone to do that. If your dog is in pain you will be affected (If not… you need to see a psychologist). Sometimes this element has such a strong impact that you may overlook all other facets of life (joy for example). The other way around is also true. One relatively good day can be a reason for some of us to simply don’t see the whole picture which might be really bad.
Of course this scale is not perfect. When your dog is only in pain and still scores reasonably well on other components, the 35 point limit no longer really matters. That is also not the purpose of the scale. The goal is to take some distance to oversee all facets of what constitutes a dignified dog’s life.
I hope that when the time comes, I can say that together we have achieved everything from life. That I have the wisdom to make the best decision. Until then I hope for countless adventures, for many hours snoring together on the couch, farting under the covers, and even more shared meals.
“As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.” — Leonardo DaVinci