Never Pet a Wounded Dog

Laughter is often a survival skill for those in less-than-ideal environments. I grew up in a family with wonderful parents who were often better apart than together. Yet, amid persistent struggles, all of us including my parents, we maintained a great sense of humor. Laughter is a gift from God for encouragement to the weary and reward for their effort. For me, growing up at times was exhausting and I was glad to enjoy laughter as a colleague and comforter.

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One time when I was a boy, one of my older siblings was extremely upset about something–I cannot remember what–and was furious. Being the assigned peacemaker in the family, I felt it my duty to rush in and comfort him. I knew my role; I had to help. My efforts to console were met with a harsh rebuke, yelling at me: “Get out of here! Leave me the hell alone!” I was crushed. Tears welled in my eyes as my effort to help was rejected. He calmed down long enough to say something in humor that has served me well: “Never pet a wounded dog.”

My dad passed along another saying that was common lingo on the farm where he grew up: “You’ll draw back a nub!” (It took me years to figure out this one.) It simply means, if you are not careful around farm machinery, you might reach into something and pull back only a nub of what used to be your arm. It may dramatically change your life to stick your hand into potentially volatile situations.

Let see… “Never pet a wounded dog or you may draw back a nub.”

A compassionate heart and a quick reaction may combine for an impulsive response. Pause. Slow down. Do not just rush into every explosive situation. Pay attention for the right time to offer input. I am not talking about neglecting duties to visit those who are angry. Just consider your timing. Avoid becoming part of the emotional dynamics too quickly, even if well intentioned.

One time I was leading a ministry team that had a terrible tension developing between two leaders. I was immature, well-intentioned, and completely lost my leadership objectivity. My desire to fix the problem became part of an explosive situation that destroyed the unity of the team. More recently, with the benefit of age and experience, I faced a similar situation where I moved more intentionally. I reminded them to behave like Christian adults and they responded appropriately. It kept me out of the middle of a fight between two “wounded dogs”. They talked through the tension, set new patterns, and strengthened the team, a much better outcome.

When a leader—particularly in ministry—first gets involved with a life-changing mission, it is intoxicating. I chose this word intentionally. We can become like a drunk who jumps into every fight, with the adrenaline rush of helping others. Somehow, it stops being about their needs and becomes about ours, and becomes a toxic threat to the unity of the team. Notice the similarity between intoxicating and toxic. An obsessive need to be needed becomes an unhealthy pattern that is actually makes people worse; the very ones you are trying to help.

Give to others in a way that protects your spiritual and physical life, and the health of your family and calling. Sure, you will get hurt occasionally, even if you are very careful ministry involves sacrifice and risk. Ultimately, being more careful helps the other person in their recovery. They do not want to injure you. They do not want the guilt of having lashed out at someone trying to help. Sometimes, people just need some time. Let them know you care, but be careful as you become more personally involved.

You may get bitten.

And it hurts.

In more ways than one.

Love sharpens sensitivity. The more deeply we love, the more deeply we can be hurt and the more deeply we feel joy and satisfaction.

Charles W. Conn

(This is a revision of an excerpt from my book Real-Life Wisdom: Stories for the Road.)

One thought on “Never Pet a Wounded Dog

  1. Thank you for sharing this perspective. Sometimes, wisdom develops from experienced pain. Our intentions are good, but sometimes not wise.


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