Max is a very committed dog. He shows it in so many ways from sweaty feet licks to enduring the baby making her Elmo figure run on his head.
Just the other week, though, he surprised me. I was out in the garage looking for a tool for yard work. It was proving itself to be very well hidden right where it was supposed to be, which is sometimes the hardest place to find something. Anyway, after several minutes of digging around right next to it, I looked up and there was Max just checking in on me. Mind you, our garage is out on the front of our house where there is no gate. I believed Max to be in the back yard, completely fenced in. So, it was quite the surprise to see him outside of the backyard, in the open space of our neighborhood.
Turns out that Max had walked out of the gate I left open (not my day for tools or gates). And instead of roaming off, he just walked around to find me and make sure I was doing ok.
Such commitment from a dog surprises me, because I grew up with a dog who would tear out of the house and run wild any chance he got. He certainly showed commitment in many other ways, but the freedom of the open, unleashed wild shed any sense of obligation to us he might have had.
However it is expressed, dogs tend to be remarkably good at commitment, and in coming around to check on me, Max taught me how much he cares about and values me. Either that, or how lazy he is, maybe a bit of both.
I’ve been thinking about commitment lately, in part because of some of the stuff I’ve been reading plus Max’s behavior, and all this has me reconsidering the low value I have placed on commitment. I have never felt a strong sense of commitment to things like a sports team or an alma mater or a brand or even a country or political party, things I see many others committing to readily. Even the things I do commit to deeply, for instance a faith tradition, are porous enough so that I can learn from and value free inspiration alongside committed devotion.
Part of what is at stake in commitment is restriction. Commitment is restrictive because it means giving something up or not pursuing something offered. Max taught me this clearly when he gave up the joy of running wild to come find me even when he had complete freedom. But giving up freedom in that way is difficult to do.
Freedom, after all, is a virtue and something I hope more and more get to experience fully. At the same time, saying and acting as if this thing or person matters is also a virtue and something I hope more and more get to experience fully. And while it can be uncomfortable to willingly embrace restriction, Max has taught me that commitment does not stand at odds with freedom.
Max has taught me that commitment is a way of identifying and acting upon what is worthy of my time and attention, especially in ways that take me beyond myself and expand my capacity for love and compassion. By committing to someone or something, I do limit how I interact with others, but at the same time, I open up a new, freer way to interact with others. For instance, when Max chose to find me, he was not denying himself the freedom of the open yard, but rather he was choosing to interact with that freedom with someone he cared about in a way that he valued.
In that regard, I like the word binding more than restrictive when it comes to commitment. Yes, committing to something means saying no to something else, but it doesn’t mean that something else is dead to me. It means that while I am bound to one thing or person, that will impact how I connect with everything else. That just sounds much more freeing than restrictive to me.
Regardless, Max has taught me to reexamine all my commitments and see how they really do allow for deep freedom – my spirituality, family, and work commitments have the power to bring even more value to my life than if I didn’t have them. Those commitments can open me to even more meaningful ways of engaging with the world around me and can help me to exercise a freedom to live out what truly matters most.
So, thank you Max for staying committed to me, even when I leave the gate open. Thank you for teaching me that there is a deep and valuable freedom in commitment.
P.S. A good deal has continued to change since I first wrote this in late May. First and foremost, we actually live in a completely different house now, with a garage in the fenced-in backyard, so here’s to hoping for no more accidentally opened gates! But more importantly, I find the need to be unnecessarily explicit in saying I believe the commitment I am talking about relates directly to a commitment to honoring the life of other people. That means a commitment to wear a mask and do all I can to protect others from Covid 19. It means a commitment to invest in black lives and businesses while leveraging my privilege for the well-being of those who do not share it. It means a commitment to the lives of all those who could be saved with less firearms (especially unnecessarily high powered ones) out in the world. It means a commitment to the especially vulnerable immigrants and refugees who are not receiving the support they need. It means a commitment to LGBTQ+ people who deserve a share in the same freedom and equality and respect I receive. I find that commitment to each of these people (the real people behind each category), is a way to cultivate the full freedom of every human being and experience the full freedom of my own humanity.