In writing about the death of a dog belonging to a mutual friend (the wonderful Rose, partnered with writer Jon Katz,), my friend Suzi had this to say: “I’ve learned so much <about pet ownership>… I hope my dogs forgive me for what I didn’t know.”
Those words rang in my head with a poignant sort of pain because I’ve thought them a million times. What is it about pet ownership that makes us berate ourselves (often after that pet is gone), that makes us so willing (prone; eager, even) to heap onto our shoulders tons of guilt and remorse? Is it the grief we feel at their passing? The lost chances? The things unsaid or undone? Or is it the understanding that we are flawed works-in-progress?
I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful teachers in my life. A few were adults who impacted my formative years. Some were peers, presenting a mirror in which I might spy both my glorious and inglorious moments. Many have been little children who, with their frank honesty and penchant for cutting through the bullshit, cast a glaring light on my transgressions and illuminated those times when I rose to the occasion.
But I’ve learned most about myself, the sometimes harsh and honest truth of the darkness that lurks in my soul, from the animals who have partnered my life.
What have I learned? That I’m not always patient (a penchant I fight daily to overcome.) That I’m not always caring or sympathetic or particularly kind. Sometimes I’m downright cruel and mean. I hate myself most at those times, in the aftermath of whatever awfulness I’ve created through my lack of sensitivity or self-awareness or willingness to take a step back from the brink and wait for the foul emotion to pass, to let my better instincts take hold.
The animals, Zen-beasts that they are, offer up no guilt-laying, no recrimination or rebuke. They merely look at me. And that looks says, “I am here for you to do as you will. I am in your hands.” And another voices adds, “If you were to die in this instant, is this how you wish to be remembered?”
With any luck, I’m learning from all this and growing into a better person as the years pass. With any luck, by the time my journey here is through, I’ll have become more like the animals who have graced my life. And I think grace is definitely the right word.