Guest commentary: How can we be as good as our dogs think we are?
Reminded of mortality by the Jewish High Holidays, I’ve been thinking about our 14 ½ year-old puppy, Leo. Though near life’s end, his ever-wagging tail signals he’s loving life.
Leo’s dog-sitter insists the secret to his longevity is acute FOMO — fear of missing out — because he loves me more than himself. With a teenager in the family, it’s nice to know that Leo’s always happy to see me!
There’s something God-like about dogs’ capacity to love and forgive — virtues encouraged by this reflective season. As Hunter Thompson said: “Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” That’s why mortality is a gift, for facing it reawakens the vitality and aspiration that slumber under blankets of complacency.
So how can we be as good as our dogs think we are, inspiring metaphorical tail-wagging in others thereby improving the world? I offer three thoughts, inspired by dogs, and some Jewish sages.
First is the art of listening, for to truly hear a dog is to know infinite love. To appreciate listening’s power, consider this story about Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and “Man’s Search for Meaning” author.
In a midnight call from a suicidal patient, Frankl offered her countless reasons to carry-on, and she promised she would. When asked later which reasons convinced her, she said none, only that a world in which someone was prepared to listen to another’s distress seemed to her one in which it was worthwhile to live. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
So, if you want to be as good as your dog thinks you are, listen. It can make all the difference.
Second is the power of hope, which enables dogs to live joyously while loving unconditionally, proving Friedrich Nietzsche’s truism: “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks believed that unlike optimism, hope requires courage and faith and is an active belief that, collectively, we make things better.
Consider Todd Beamer who, on 9/11, phoned an Airfone operator to relay events aboard UA93, including the plan to overtake the hijackers. Before disconnecting, they recited the Lord’s Prayer as passengers join in, concluding with Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for though art with me.”
In his TedTalk, Rabbi Sacks explained why that sentence is among religious literature’s most moving, because it means “we can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone.”
Hope for a better future for humanity prompted Beamer’s last words — “Let’s roll!” — saving the Capitol and countless lives.
Hope also is what moved righteous gentiles to hide Jews during the Holocaust. It’s what prompts firefighters to rush into burning buildings, brave souls to join the military, and classmates to shave their heads for graduation, in solidarity with their cancer-afflicted friend. It’s what inspired Mr. Rodgers to break TV’s racial barrier by inviting policeman Clemmons, an African-American, to cool their feet together in a kiddie pool. And it’s hope that stirred Danish charity-worker, Anja Loven, to adopt an abandoned 2-year-old Nigerian boy, nursing him to health.
She named him Hope.
So, if you want to be as good as your dog thinks you are, have a why and the hope to pursue it.
Finally, there’s gratitude, like that of our tail-wagging dogs. If we were half as grateful as they, wouldn’t we be twice the humans and happier to boot?
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches that to feel gratitude is to feel loved. Those who remember every not-nice-thing could feel happier and loved if only they remembered nice things.
Meanwhile, like gratitude, forgiveness makes life easier for not forgiving is like swallowing poison expecting another to suffer.
So, if you want to be as good as your dog thinks you are, listen, be hopeful and grateful, and resist resentment. We’ll be more like our dogs and God, which is why dogs are so divine.
Remember, you cannot waste time in advance, which is a gift! The Kotzker rabbi taught that the greatest miracle is not resurrecting the dead; it’s resurrecting the living, moving us toward the life we should be leading.
Thank Again — If we live that life and are granted as many years as Leo, we too can experience FOMO because the world is that much better because we’ve been in it.
Melanie Sturm aims to change communication for good through her training and writing. This column was adapted from remarks made during the High Holidays. Leo was there, tail-a-wagging as he lapped up attention and food. Alas, he passed shortly thereafter, leaving Melanie bereft. She feels better each day, knowing Leo would want her to live as he did, joyfully and gratefully. Melanie welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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