By Pamela Alexander
On my way to the cafe for OneShul services, I passed by a large black dog, old and obviously well-fed, walking aimlessly down the sidewalk of a busy four-lane road. I was frightened for him as he seemed oblivious to the proximate danger at the curb, and my heart broke with each meandering step he took. Where were his owners? Did they know he was missing? How could they allow him to get away?
Certainly this was not the dog’s first walk around the neighborhood, absent both his leash and a human companion; I’m sure he has found his way home alone on several occasions. As I drove away, I asked G-d to continue His protection of the old dog. I know that it was HaShem He who had saved this beautiful animal from being hit by a car, for to believe otherwise is to give credit to chance or luck. I prefer to give it to G-d.
Dogs love us unconditionally and ask for little in return; this is in sharp contrast to humans who are naturally self-serving. Take our lost dog: he protects his owners without hesitation and yet his owners endangered him! Of course, we humans have the capacity to love others in a selfless manner, but to do so requires the study of Torah, prayer, a commitment to put others’ needs ahead of our own and considerable practice.
What is in the canine brain or heart that makes them love us so deeply? Is it instinctual owing to an evolutionary imperative because pack animals stood a greater chance of survival than those that roamed alone? Whatever the case, a dog’s love allows us to be vulnerable: we can cry without shame or fear of rejection. In our human relationships, we are burdened with the ever-present knowledge that we must change, at least in some small way, to be fully accepted. Dogs accept us just as G-d made us. Imagine that!
We may believe that the love we give (and receive) is selfless and free from expectations, but how quickly that hope is dashed when life goes wrong. In that moment we have two choices: extend more grace and kindness to our spouse or friend, or because we are hurt or angry, fight for our “right” to be loved and understood at any cost (as if G-d ever promised us an easy life). How easy it is to love without strings when we are first so loved. How difficult when we are not.
Why are relationships so difficult, marriage near impossible at times? Have we grown tired, jaded or just older? Or, is it because human nature is essentially narcissistic? We are selfish and stubborn, critical and contrary, jealous and judgmental. We must be taught benevolence and empathy. We must learn to accept and forgive others. And we must practice, practice, practice. Opposable thumbs or not, we have to learn what comes naturally to dogs.
I believe, ironically perhaps, that learning to live unselfishly is the way to true happiness and fulfillment. It is the only way we can bring real meaning into our otherwise self-absorbed lives. But, even as we know how content we will be when we will have learned to love others unconditionally, we also know how difficult change can be. Best to take it slowly, day by day, for becoming better Jews does not happen overnight.
All this got me thinking: what can I learn from my dogs? They walk me to the door when I leave, and greet me when I return. Do I do that for my husband, or do I call out to him from across the house? The latter. Dogs read our moods; they know when we are glad, mad or sad. Still, they choose to be with us. Do I want to be in the same room with my husband if he is angry, or in a mood that will try my human patience or peace of mind? Not really. Dogs are exceedingly patient. Do I show my husband the same patience and respect as I do my Brittanies? Hmmm.
I have no doubt that G-d worked overtime designing and creating our dogs. Although I have been a dog-owner for many years, I am still amazed at their intelligence, compassion and loyalty. Their unconditional love makes us feel accepted. They have a unique ability to teach us how to be better humans. I just hope that I can become the kind of friend to my human friends, to my husband, as my dogs Jazzy and Otto are to me.