Territorial

Max has started to become a little more territorial. Until recently, he did not have much space that was his. We lived in a small apartment with no yard. But now he is more settled in our new house and is more comfortable spending time in the back yard.

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He is also more comfortable walking around our neighborhood. And he’s gotten to the point where he will bark pretty intensely at some of the other dogs whose back yards we pass. The dogs may bark at each other as a way of communicating any number of things or just for the fun of it, but I sense a subtle ferocity that seems to convey this is mine, get back.

And of course Max has now peed all over the neighborhood, marking his new territory.

These expressions of territorialism trouble me, because the neighborhood and even the back yard are not really Max’s. He has no more ownership over those areas than any other dogs, other animals, or humans. And I wonder what gives him the right to be overly protective or territorial.

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And I see in Max some of my own tendencies to selfishly protect what I claim is mine. He has taught me that it is all too natural to be territorial and to allow that territorialism to motivate me to be defensive and restrictive.

Max has also taught me the very problematic nature of believing something belongs to me and that I must guard it against others. He has taught me that it leads to divisiveness and unprovoked aggression. He has taught me that it leads to anxiety as he frantically pees at every corner to make sure his mark is there.

Max has taught me that this extreme form of self-absorbed territorialism is destructive to relations with others and keeps us bound in our own little anxious sphere of the world.

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But Max has also shown me an understanding of territory that is much more open and which can lead to good impact.

Max often chases away squirrels and birds when he sees them in the back yard, but the other day I looked out and he and a squirrel were very close and just looking at one another. It was unnatural, but it helped me realize that territory can be a point of welcome, not just a point of barrier.

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Max has also always been very welcoming when guests come over into his space. He is excited to share the room and time with them. When his territorialism is not self-absorbed, but rather other-focused, he establishes the space as one of openness and welcome.

And Max has also taught me that his investment in the territory shows that he really cares about what’s going on in the neighborhood and is willing to do something to make sure that it is a better place for all.

Too often I am content in just occupying a space. I take little responsibility for it and I don’t go out of my way to make sure it is taken care of and is a place where others can be taken care of. But Max has taught me that I should care more and that I should do something to impact the territory I am in so that it can be a place of openness and hope. He has taught me that there will always be others who are working to make neighborhoods more closed off and who are turning territories into barriers. Yet, to recreate such spaces I need to express in real ways the care I have for that territory.

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Max has taught me that concern for a specific space is powerful and can lead to incredible impact. And he has taught me that impact can be either anxious and restrictive or hopeful and open, depending on my intentions and perspective.

So thank you Max, for teaching me how impactful care for territory can be. Thank you for showing me both the problematic nature of territorialism as well as how deep care for a space can transform it into being more inviting.

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Sniffing Butts

Max likes to sniff the butts of other dogs. And I’m going to go ahead and embrace my inner 5-year-old and give that a good chuckle.

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Sniffing butts is one of those classic things all dogs do. And I’ve always assumed there is a good, scientific reason they do it, though I’ve never taken the time to research it. Instead, I’ve just been content snickering whenever I see Max or any other dog sniffing each others’ butts.

It’s funny to me because it seems like such a weird, disgusting thing to do. It is very much outside what I would consider proper behavior. And yet, even in this bizarre practice, Max has been teaching me something significant.

When Max sniffs butts, he finds a way to value even the stinkiest, crappiest parts of other beings. And Max has taught me that I too can value people in that way, even if I am not literally sniffing butts.

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Max has taught me that everyone has crappy parts of their lives, but also that everyone is worthy of getting to know beyond that crap. He has taught me not to turn my face away at the first sign of stink, but rather to push through it and show others that they are loved and accepted even with those stinky parts.

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Moreover, Max does not sniff butts in order to judge. He does not search out the stink so that he can hold it against someone or point out how crappy that being has been. Rather, he understands very well that everyone has smelly parts (himself included) and that even those smelly parts can be valued.

Max has taught me to love and accept others not in spite of their stinkyness, but rather including it. This in not an easy thing to do, though. Those crappy parts of people are often very offensive. The terrible things we’ve thought or done cling to us in a way that can too easily define who we are. And it is easy to forget that the whole person is much more than that one crappy smell.

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While Max sniffs butts, he does not stop there. He knows there is much more to the other being than the smelly parts. After sniffing the butt, Max moves around the other dog and recognizes the fullness of that being. He does not get caught up on one part.

Now, that does not mean that Max likes every dog. There are many times he decides he does not want to be around a certain dog. But he has taught me not to jump to judgment just because of one smelly thing I perceive on another. Rather, he has taught me to get to know and value the whole person and then decide how to interact or not.

And yet, it is hard to find a way to value the person without condoning any hatefulness that can easily arise out of the stink. But Max has taught me that often stinkyness is the result of a lot of crappy stuff that has happened to someone else, not necessarily the hateful, crappy actions of the person. And whatever the case may be, I will only know how better to relate to the person after valuing them and getting to know them for who they really are.

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Finding value in crappy aspects of others is also hard because it makes me more aware of my own stinky parts. And it means that I have to find a way to value and accept myself not in spite of those things, but including them. And I have to trust that other people will smell more than just that stink on me.

So, thank you Max for loving and accepting me, even with my own stinkyness. And thank you for teaching me how to better encounter other peoples’ stinkyness in a way that values them for the full person they are. I may still snicker every time you sniff a butt, but I will also be encouraged and inspired to do that hard work in my own life.