A Canine Blessing

3 Sep

IMG_8536 2On this past June 29 we said goodbye to our sweet Eko. Our 12-year-old yellow lab mutt was truly the sweetest dog in the world. We picked up Eko as a pup from a rescue home two-and-a-half-hours away. He and his sister had been found wandering in the woods, emaciated and tick-infested. Sometime into his second year, he contracted a serious auto-immune disease (Pemphigus Vulgaris) from which he made a full recovery after months of deterioration and seemingly on the brink of death. I remember 13-year-old Tricia exclaiming in tears one night, “Eko’s going to die, isn’t he, daddy? Why does he have to die, daddy?” Ugh!  All of that and he was still so sweet.

Tricia found Eko online a few months after we said goodbye to our first family dog, Buddy. We had waited as long as we could, maybe too long, to let Buddy go. We knew it was time when high-school-football-playing Robb came home alone to find our grey-bearded, weak-hipped, black lab upstairs (he climbed all those stairs!) hiding under a bed, refusing to come out. Robb called us in a panic, knowing something was wrong.

Deciding when to send a pet over the rainbow bridge can be a wrenching decision. My wife Bonnie and I made the decision about Eko before we were to leave town for a week and it was even more complicated than that. You see, my 77-year-old mom moved in with us a couple of years ago some months after a traumatic letting-go of her husband back in Massachusetts. They were each pretty much all the other had for more than 30  years, aside from my own family 1,500 miles away. Bereaved and moving 1,500 away from the only place she’d ever lived, my mom really bonded with Eko; he was an important part of her healing during that first year of mourning and still up until his passing. As my mom explains it, “I’m really going to miss him. He saved my life.”

At one point during Eko’s last couple of weeks mom noted that he didn’t seem to be in pain because he wasn’t whimpering or anything. I explained how dogs may appear stoic and suppress signs of pain so they don’t appear weak, a carry-over instinct to protect themselves and their social standing. It’s a self-protection instinct, so I’ve read.

Fast forward to this past Friday, about 7:30 AM. In our men’s Life Group discussion at church, 82-year-old Ron, sitting thigh-by-thigh immediately to my left on the sofa, noted the predisposition of people, and particularly men, to hide their pain inside so as not to appear weak. I jerked to attention and thought, “God, yes! It’s the same!”  Ron acknowledged his own journey of learning that mentality as a youth and then continuing to live it as a working adult striving to survive in the professional world to make a living for he and the woman he loves. We all nodded in understanding. I turned to Ron and offered my dog thought: “Just like dogs! We hide our pain inside so we don’t appear weak and vulnerable.” Ron nodded, then with a pseudo-grim smile noted, “Dogs are better than us.”

Someone acknowledged that after thousands and thousands of years of humanity and civilization we continue to default to the same predispositions and behaviors that keep giving the same results: conflict, hurt, pain, war. Even the Adam and Eve narrative shows that from Day One (more or less) humans have had fear and hiding, pretending and lying, going on. Some writer certainly noticed something about human nature. We really haven’t defaulted to a better way of being despite our wise ones and spiritual traditions forever pointing to a different way, calling us to choose to act from a higher nature as a way of transforming relationships and the world.

In Taekwondo training we emphasize keeping your guard up. At one level this means physically keeping your hands up when you are fighting or potentially under attack. Dropping your guard can get you clocked. It also means mental focus and attention. A lapse in attention — letting your guard down — can also get you clocked.

When students train until they are gassed and then stop to put their hands on their knees I admonish them to stand up and keep moving, to look strong and ready even if they feel they are about to fall over. I want them to make that posture a habit, a default, so they naturally don’t show their pain and weakness when they are in battle. In the ring I want a fighter to not show their weakness, to pretend, to not be honest, maybe not even with themselves. A warrior keeps their guard up and doesn’t let others see what going on inside.

For me the rub is that I can go through my days on guard, keeping people at arm’s length, pretending, hiding my pain, fear, insecurity (it’s all pain, right?) — acting like a cautious, hurt animal — all while trying to do my best human interaction. My animal nature dominates: don’t step out from behind my protection, keep my guard and head up, don’t look weak.

I’m coming to see that for me being a real warrior and showing true courage is choosing to let down my guard and step out into the open to relate to others.  I’m coming to discover what is real honesty and how much courage it actually takes to live that. I’m coming to see that I am most powerful and most respected when I offer my full humanity to others, and that people respond better to that and I respond better to them.  I’m finding that I can’t do my best work and be my best self with others if I don’t take the risk of putting down my guard and showing what’s behind it: happy, sad, good, bad, pretty or not. I know that I respond best to what’s real, what’s honest, what’s open.

My mom was hurt badly three years ago, and hurt again a few weeks ago.  After losing Eko she was’t sure she wanted another dog around and we haven’t wanted to get another if she didn’t want one. Still, she says it’s our decision. A week ago she peeked into the living room and asked me, “So, I’ve been wondering, if you were thinking of getting a dog, what kind of dog would you be thinking about?”

Brave woman. Warrior.

The irony I am shaking my head over is this: we humans give in to our animal natures of not showing our pain and then we can’t interact with others the best we might. Dogs hide their pain and they still come forward openly to accept and to express, to receive and to love. Maybe Ron was right: “Dogs are better than us.” They are certainly a blessing.

May we not only be half the person our dogs think we are; may we be one-tenth of the person our dogs are!

Bow wow.

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