It started out so innocently.
I still miss having pets. The rest of our family does not. Thankfully, we had a couple of squirrels in the backyard, and I took to feeding them occasionally. Or often. Maybe calling them pets. And generally pretending that they appreciated me for more than my nuts. So we went from one squirrel to a couple of squirrels. Squirrel babies. A couple more squirrels. And then I came out one morning to discover 3 grown squirrels, 7 baby squirrels, and 1 very confused little bunny.
As the rest of you probably guessed already, this does not end well.
It took me awhile to see it, what with all the cute little animals running about. But after noticing that our growing summer green beans are now thoroughly leafless–why yes, squirrels do climb PVC pipe and eat green bean leaves with the greatest of ease, even if they also eat a steady diet of nuts, thank you very much–we committed to the extrication of the squirrels. Humanely, of course. With tears. Did I mention what a pet person I am?
But everything–everything–has a lesson from the Lord. Here’s what He’s teaching me:
1) Identify your needs
Those spaces in our hearts, we fill them with all sorts of things. Food, clothes, legalism, etc. Even squirrels. I might say on the surface that I needed a pet, but I was also lonely, slowly left behind by school-bound children. That hole, I’m never going to be able to fill it without know what shape it is, and that might require opening myself up to find out.
2) Accept no substitute
Once that need is recognized, be very careful to be filling it with the right thing. I might gently argue that most of those right things come from God, but in the very practical sense, I was not going to meet the need for a pet by calling a wild squirrel by the same name. Substituting at this stage may seem like the ideal solution–it certainly did to me–but it ends up causing even more pain when you recognize that you’re just going to have to rip that ill-fitting piece out of the hole. Trust me.
3) Boundaries are there for a reason
God bless boundaries. The limits we set on our time, our space, our values–they are there to keep our hearts safe. It may seem to easy to toe the line, to cross it every now and again, say yes to something that we know we shouldn’t. Just this once, we tell ourselves. But crossing boundaries is a tricky feat, because there often is something else just a little farther begging our attention. And once we’ve crossed that line, it’s hard to see it quite so clearly anymore. So the one squirrel turns into two turns into an extended animal family. Before you know it, it’s not you on their territory but them on yours–your heart, your values, your green beans. What started out as cute, helpful, or gracious ends up hurting things you value. So guard what you value carefully.
4) Right stuff is often hard, and hard stuff is often right
Reestablishing those boundaries, removing substitutions, and taking a long hard look at what you really need are all super big feats. They may be the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with a hefty emotional price tag. Trapping those beloved squirrels, taking them elsewhere, watching them scamper away, returning to an empty backyard–talk about traumatic. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do. Give yourself some time, some space, and a whole lot of grace. It’s okay for it to be hard. Stay the course and rely on your team. Which means–
5) Know your team
These are the people on your side. God, spouse, family, friends. You know, the people who don’t think you’re crazy for befriending a squirrel (or at least try to understand it). Whatever you substituted, that’s probably not on your team. Like the squirrel, who did not seem to care where my boundaries should be or why green beans weren’t included. Know who’s on that team and turn to them for support. In turn, be ready to support them when they struggle–be gentle in helping them see the need, eliminate substitutes, maintain boundaries. And be especially graceful as you walk with them through the hard stuff. Next time it might be your squirrel heading up the block. You want to dole out the kind of grace you’re going to need.
So that’s that. Squirrels and decimated green beans and heavy emotional fallout. God truly does work in mysterious ways, but I take heart that I can trust in their inevitable goodness.