By Jennifer Shannon, MFT with Doug Shannon
The Challenge of Uncertainty
On the Sunday evening before the wildfires struck my husband and I were returning later than planned from a weekend in Tahoe with friends, so I called the kennel that was boarding him and arranged for Mojo, our beloved eleven-year-old Jack Russell mix, to stay another night. When we made our escape at 2am the following morning, Mojo wasn’t on our minds. He was safe with the dog boarder, or so we thought.
At 4am my cell phone rang. It was the dog boarders. Their area was called to evacuate also, and someone in the neighborhood, thinking the dogs were in danger, broke in and turned all the dogs loose—dozens of them— before the boarders could evacuate them. They were out rounding them up, but so far, Mojo could not be found.
If you are a dog owner you know how I felt. Mojo was more than a part of our family. When our three children left home, little ten-pound Mojo somehow filled our empty nest. Part lap dog, part yapping mail truck chaser, Mojo was exactly what his name stands for, a magic charm, a talisman, a hairy little bag of spirit that in a real sense, hung around our necks over our hearts. It was another shock on top of our shock. Doug was catching a little sleep—one of his superpowers, even in a crisis. What should I do? I thought. What can I do?
Every day in my private practice I help people learn to deal with the uncertainty of life. When the monkey mind sounds the alarm that something is wrong, our natural response is to do something to fix it. It’s our first response to fear and anxiety. Do something, do anything to gain control and make the feeling go away. When it’s not a false alarm, and what we hold dear is in real danger, the urge to act is overwhelming. But when the situation is beyond our direct control, the question I ask my clients is, which is the better skill to practice right now— trying to control what is uncontrollable, or trying to stay in the moment tolerating uncertainty and negative emotions?
I knew the answer to this question. The situation was beyond my direct control. I couldn’t drive into an evacuated zone in the dark and cruise the streets looking for my dog. I was helpless. The only thing I could do was practice what I preach, tolerating uncertainty. I knew I may never see Mojo again. But if that turned out to be the case, I’d have a chance to practice flexibility and resilience.
Things got worse. After the fire swept our condo complex it roared down the hill, jumped highway 101, and attacked Coffey Park, a dense suburban area where the dog boarders were located. As the news trickled in, it became obvious just how much human life was threatened. Uncertainty was the new normal for everyone. On Tuesday morning my daughter Rose went to work posting photos of Mojo on Facebook and calling all the animal shelters, but considering the destruction we feared the worst.
Then, 36 hours after the call from the dog boarder, I received another call. “Hello, is this Jennifer Shannon? I found your dog.” Oh joy! A young man and his girlfriend—dog owners/lovers themselves—spotted Mojo wandering the street and tried to pick him up. But Mojo was so traumatized he was running away from everyone and everything. This wonderful man chased Mojo for blocks, finally fishing him out of a swimming pool, getting bit for his troubles in the process. When I peered into the back seat of their car, little Mo looked back with wide, vacant eyes. He didn’t even recognize me.
There’s more to this story, of course. The vet who bandaged his bloody paws and didn’t charge for it. The folks who volunteered to foster Mojo until we found a place where we could keep him. There is so much love in the world in times of crisis. That’s one thing I can be certain about, even when I’m uncertain about everything else.
As a therapist and author who specializes in stress and anxiety, and has lost my home in the Santa Rosa fire, I am writing this blog to remind myself of the powerful tools I use in my practice with my clients. If It helps others to deal with their own challenges, nothing would please me more.