Disturbing the Peace

This past week, Max woke me up in the middle of the night twice on Monday and once Tuesday. And by middle of the night I mean right in the dead center of what would have otherwise been some really peaceful sleep.

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He usually does not wake up in the middle of the night, but he had spent all weekend with some other dogs and had partied a little too hard.

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He had all kinds of stuff making his stomach turn that he normally doesn’t – other dog’s food, lots of bones, and even probably some people food. I expected it to be rough for him, but I did not expect to be woken up in the middle of the night. And on multiple occasions.

Max disturbed my peace.

And I have realized he disturbs my peace quite often, even when not in the middle of the night. I often work from home when I have things to do that require more focus than I am afforded at my job. And most days, while I am trying to get a lot done at my computer, Max comes up to me desiring some attention. Whether he is wielding a toy or just forcing his cute head onto my lap, it is clear that Max is on a mission to disturb my peace.

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While I understand the behavior, I usually get annoyed and let him outside. But the thing about having my peace disturbed is that there is another byproduct that I am beginning to notice. The community I help lead has been digging into the notion that when peace is disturbed, often inner thoughts are more fully revealed.

Max has been teaching and reinforcing that lesson as well. He has revealed that I have many assumptions and default motivations that rest just under the surface and which I often don’t really notice. And Max has taught me that I need a little disruption in order to bring those thoughts more fully into the light.

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When Max disturbs the peace I construct around myself in order to get more work done, he reveals that I don’t take enough time to slow down and really be present to what’s going on around me or especially to the people and dogs in my life. Max has taught me that my actions show that I value productivity over meaningful time spent with others and that my inner thoughts are focused far more on accomplishing tasks than on compassionately and lovingly attending to those around me.

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But Max has also taught me that there is some hope. In disrupting my peaceful sleep so much this week, Max has also revealed some more positive inner thoughts. Max has revealed that I care deeply for him, because I am convinced that a sure test of what people most value is what we will wake up for in the middle of the night. And Max has taught me that if I am willing to forego sleep to care for him, perhaps that level of care and compassion can influence all of my life, even when my inner thoughts seem locked in the little world I create.

So thank you Max for disturbing my peace, and in so doing revealing some of my inner thoughts. And thank you for helping me direct those inner thoughts in a more caring, compassionate manner.

But, I’d also be grateful if you didn’t disturb my peaceful sleep anymore…

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When Eyes are the Windows to the Soul

Max has a remarkably expressive face, particularly his eyes. Though I may never really know what is going on in his brain, I think I can make a pretty good guess as to how he is feeling.

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Sometimes, he seems confused. I can tell by the way his eyes are cast that he just doesn’t fully know what’s going on, like in the past when I have rearranged furniture or when I start talking to him in goofy voices. And Max has taught me that it is natural to furrow my brow in confusion when I naively misunderstand something about the world.

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Sometimes, he is clearly anxious. I can tell by his eyes that he knows exactly what’s going on and is worried about it, like when I pack bags to go on a trip and he knows that he’ll be left alone, or when I pack boxes to move the whole house to a completely unknown place. And Max has taught me that it is natural to stare open-eyed in anxious anticipation of something that is likely not to turn out well.

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Sometimes, he is longing for something out of reach. I can tell by his eyes when he desperately wants to go outside or eat more food. And Max has taught me that it is natural to gaze longingly at a hoped-for outcome that suddenly seems so distant.

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Max has taught me that I can turn my eyes a lot of different ways in times like these – to the ground in despair, unfixed in the distance in apathy and hopelessness, or toward the “other” in anger. He has taught me that it is a natural reaction and that in many ways, my eyes do convey the state of my soul.

But Max has also taught me that I have control of my eyes and that I can cast them where and how I desire. And he has taught me that how I cast my eyes will direct what I take in and where I go.

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So, while my eyes have been turned in many ways the past few days, Max has taught me the importance of lifting them up from being grounded in despair. He has taught me to stop staring off in the apathetic distance. He has taught me that I can peer angrily at problems and the people who perpetuate them, as long as the cataracts of hate do not begin to cloud my vision. And so he has taught me to open my eyes wide in compassionate love so that I might literally take into my mind and body the images of as many people as possible, so that I might take in the awful complexity of a broken and beautiful world.

This is aspirational and it means I probably need glasses to provide the hope that I can’t seem to squint hard enough to see myself. Max has also taught me that eyes can fail, that the scope of my vision is limited. There are many times he does not even notice a car coming down the street on our walks. And so he has taught me to perceive this world alongside many others who can see what I don’t, and he has taught me to use resources and people who can help add color and clarity to my short-sightedness.

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Finally, Max has taught me that eyes are vulnerable. Sometimes, when scratching his head, he turns abruptly and my finger pokes his eye. I hate when that happens because I know it must hurt, but it reminds me how soft eyes are. It reminds me that when eyes or hearts or souls are hardened, they take in a distorted picture of the world and lead to distorted outcomes. There are too many hard-set eyes and hearts – I need to keep mine vulnerable and loving.

So, thank you Max for assuring me that it is natural when my eyes drift down in despair, off in hopelessness, or become furrowed in anger. But thank you also for teaching me to lift those eyes in loving compassion that can help bring hope into richer focus.

Sympathy

The first day of summer is just around the corner, and it is already quite hot. I know it will only get worse and worse over the next several months; yet, Max still has to be walked outside.

I prefer the warmth over the cold, but I dread being out in the hot Texas sun, even for a little while and even when I am able to dress as cooly as possible. Then I look down at poor Max who is excited to be outside, but is beat and exhausted from the suffocating heat.

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Max has so much hair, even after shedding gobs of it, and he looks pretty miserable in the heat under that thick coat.

As we walk, I find myself starting to sweat profusely, and I look down at him to see how he is holding up. I am amazed at how differently his body is built to handle the heat. Max’s body is not built to sweat like mine is, so he pants to cool down. Our skin and how our bodies respond to the heat are fundamentally different from each other.

I am more and more amazed at this simple fact the more I think about it. Max can’t feel the light cool breeze that gives me such relief outside (at least not in the way I feel it). And even indoors, Max can’t feel the reassuring warmth of a light touch (at least not the way I feel it). I have to rub or scratch him pretty forcefully for him to feel that comfort.

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Through this difference, Max has taught me that though we can experience similar circumstances and feelings, I will never fully understand what it’s like to be him.

We both get very hot in the summer, and I can sympathize with his exhaustion, but I will never know what it is really like to bear the heat under his fur. We both get hungry, and I can sympathize with him when I have to wait a little too long for a meal, but I will never know what it is really like not to be able to fix that hunger myself.

Max has taught me that sympathy has limits. I can experience the same thing as other people, and, in good faith, attempt to connect to them through sympathy. But I will not really know what it is like for that other person to go through it.

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This reality seems to me to apply across many differences, such as races, genders, and cultures. For instance, I know what it is like to be insulted and mocked, but I will never know what it is like to experience that as a Black, Asian, Native, or Mexican American. I know what it feels like to nurture and care for another, but I will never know what it is like to experience motherhood.

Given these fundamental differences in experience, I sometimes wonder if attempting to sympathize is unhelpful. But Max has taught me that sympathy is an incredible tool in relating to others. When people seek to share and understand the deep pains and joys of life, something incredible happens to bring them together. Max has taught me that sympathy has its limits, but that just means I have to find appropriate ways to exercise it.

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I can use the openness and attentive understanding of others to be more compassionate and thus be joyful when others are joyful or bring comfort in distressing situations. I can connect with others on more than a superficial level.

But, I cannot say I know what it feels like. Because I don’t. My biology or cultural heritage or society’s response to me is fundamentally different. And it is only when I am fully honest about such differences that I can make the turn to really listen and try to understand what the other person is going through.

Yet, Max has also taught me that these very differences are incredibly valuable and are meant to be celebrated and cherished. I learn things from Max that I would not otherwise think about because he is so different. Moreover, I am pulled out of my own self-centered world in order to sympathize with Max. As I become more open to him, that openness begins to define my connection to many different people.

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It is fascinating and fantastic that Max is different and it is fascinating and fantastic that I can learn from him, establish a relationship with him, and find ways to step outside my own world to walk with him sympathetically – bearing the heat together (even if it means one of us is panting and the other sweating) and exploring the beauty of creation together (even if that means one of us is sniffing all around the ground and one is gazing across the horizon).

Max and I are fundamentally different in many ways, but when we embrace and respect those differences, we can begin the work of open-hearted understanding that is the foundation of our sympathetic bond.

So, thank you Max for teaching me about how limited, yet important, sympathy can be. Thank you for teaching me how to better connect with people who experience the world in vastly different ways compared to me. And thank you for bearing those hot, summer walks with me.

Drool

Dogs rule, but Max sure does drool.

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I noticed him drooling more than normal the past couple times I’ve taken him to a new dog park. There are many dogs there and I guess all the new smells and sights make him excited. The past two times we have gone he has walked around and played a bit, and then he looked up at me and had two long strands of drool hanging off his mouth.

He also drools at meals times. When he sees me grab his bowl to fill it up, he follows me. And as I walk back across the kitchen to give him the food, my feet often find every little spot of drool he has left across the floor.

It is pretty gross, whether I am looking at it or inadvertently cleaning it up with my feet.

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But Max doesn’t care, because it’s just a part of who he is. And it is just an expression of his happiness. He has the freedom to be happy and excited and let it show in whatever ways it naturally comes out.

I, on the other hand, am very bad at expressing my emotions. I spent a long time trying to be as stoic as I could and that is now my natural reaction to both happy, exciting things and sad, depressing things.

Being stoic in this way is not always bad, but it does inhibit how I can relate to others in those extremely happy or sad times. And it makes it much harder for me to convey how and when I am passionate about something.

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But Max has taught me to ease up on the reigns of controlling those emotions a little. He has taught me that it is good and natural to express myself, even if that leads to a nasty drool puddle.

He has taught me not to worry about whether I look a little strange, but rather to allow myself to be invested in situations and to know that however I react is a worthwhile part of me.

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And he has taught me to look at other people’s drool puddles in a more compassionate way. Everyone has natural reactions to emotionally powerful events, and instead of being confused by those reactions or being bothered by them, I can now focus more on celebrating or mourning with those people.

So thank you Max for teaching me that sometimes you just gotta drool. Sometimes you just gotta let loose and be excited, even it if means you look funny. And thank you for teaching me that your drool is not meant to offend, but rather to convey your deeply felt emotions.

Bad Dog

Max is a rotten little egg thief.

Yesterday I came home from work and found several duck eggs that had been graciously given to me strewn about the floor – and one happy, but quickly turning guilty, dog. Max hardly ever makes a mess or gets on my kitchen counters, so I was more surprised than mad. But then at 6am this morning when he started getting sick, it was hard for me to find any sympathy for him.

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And yet, Max is not solely a rotten little egg thief.

As I took him outside much earlier than I’d like to be awake on a Friday, I had to force myself to see him as a being in pain. This outlook became especially difficult as I had to clean up part two of a mess that should never have been made at all, and for which I was not responsible (ok, maybe I should have put the eggs completely out of his reach, but he really should know better).

When I looked at Max in those early hours at first I could only think, bad dog!

And to be fair, he was a bad dog. He did something I have trained him not to do.

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But “bad dog” is not his complete identity. As hard as it was to convince myself in the moment, or even a couple hours later when he had to go out again for the same reason, he is a good dog too.

The one act of bad behavior did not change the fact that Max is generally a remarkably good dog.

And Max taught me in that moment that there are things which people do to or around me by which it is all too easy to define them. When someone lies to me it is all too easy for me to brand that person forever as “liar”.

But that person is not solely a liar. That person is probably not even primarily a liar. That person is a complex being with many good qualities and some bad qualities.

Just like me. Just like Max.

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And Max taught me that this is the mystery in which we live – we have many qualities and characteristics, some good and some not so good. I can choose to let one incident color my whole view of another or I can step back and realize that there is a much bigger picture with infinite more colors.

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I don’t think that this issue is just about seeing the good in others rather than seeing the bad, because both are there in us all and it is just willful ignorance to try to overlook one part. I think what Max taught me is that it is more important to accept the whole being, try to better understand why he or she is stealing eggs and throwing up at 6am, and then walk beside that other regardless of what happened, knowing that together you can walk more directly toward the better, fuller realization of the good self.

So, thank you Max for waking me up when it was too early for me to comprehend my anger toward you so that instead my mind could drift to some more compassionate understanding of why you do bad things. And thank you for being patient with me as I move past seeing you as just a bad dog and instead embrace the totality of who you are.

Pulling Against

Max is stubborn, but so am I. Lately I have noticed how much strain we put on each other during walks. Max frequently likes to dart off to explore a scent or sight and I have to pull hard against the leash to reel him back.

It’s not that I always want him to stay on the path; I understand a desire to explore new things even if it takes you off the path. But I just do not want him darting off wildly. And I don’t want him pulling me along as he darts off. I like my course and I like my control.

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But he lurches off, I hold tight, and when the short leash reaches its length we both feel the harsh jarring of the impact of the force. And my shoulder has really taken a beating.

Somehow, Max and I have a hard time walking together.

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Nevertheless, it seems easier to carry on as we have been even though it causes both of us (I presume) some pain. We don’t have to consider each other too much, but rather just do our own thing. We don’t have to take the time to think about what the other wants to do, we can stay in our own respective worlds.

But that leash connects us whether we want it to or not.

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Max has taught me that we too often pull against each other – especially those we don’t understand well. It is hard to step in the other person’s shoes (especially when they have none) and think about how they experience the journey. So we go our own way, mindless of those to whom we are inherently connected.

And through the struggle against this connection, Max has taught me that it really does hurt every party when we refuse to walk together.

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So, what do we do, I think as I continue to drag Max along the path. There has to be some better way of walking alongside each other. Perhaps it involves stopping on the way and getting to know each other and our differences. Perhaps it involves allowing a longer leash of freedom to be different from one another and to be perfectly fine with going down the same path in very different ways. Perhaps it means taking a chance and following the other instead of insisting on staying my own comfortable course.

Regardless, there has to be a way to see and experience that connection between myself and others as a benefit, as something that allows us to encounter the path in more meaningful ways, rather than something to struggle against.

So thank you Max for teaching me that working toward a way to walk together is much better than continually straining against each other. It may be hard and uncomfortable, but you have taught me that it is worth it so that we might live more peacefully connected to one another.

Being Barked At

I often wonder how Max perceives the world. Both how he actually senses things and also how he understands all that is going on around him.

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I have wondered this about all animals, but I am especially intrigued by Max because he is such a chill dog. Sure, he gets riled up when he is ready to play, he obnoxiously seeks attention, and he is very eager to smell new things on walks, but in general he has a very even temperament.

For instance, Max encounters other dogs pretty frequently on our walks. Just this morning we walked by three dogs whom all barked very ferociously at Max. The humans walking these dogs had to pull tight on their leashes and walk well out of our way.

The ferocity of the barking startled me each time, but Max trotted right on by. He noticed it and seemingly acknowledged the other dogs, but he neither ran from them nor returned their barking.

This is something for which I am incredibly grateful as Max’s human companion. I rarely have to hold him back unless he really wants to play with another dog and I never have to scold him for barking at others ferociously.

But today I also learned something from Max’s reaction. In the face of a rather chaotic encounter where others are barking at him, Max retains a remarkably centered peacefulness.

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Granted, I do not know all that is going on in those interactions between dogs, but from my human point of view I see much worth applying to my own interactions with others.

When I enter chaotic situations and face those who oppose me or ideas and beliefs I hold dear (whether this is a face to face interaction or, as seems increasingly the case, on the internet), there are two reactions that immediately bubble up within me.

First, I often want to return the barking that is directed at me. I feel that power or control in the situation can only be gained through being louder. I want to fight back. Second, I want to run away and put the situation behind me. I feel like it is a pointless encounter and nothing good will be gained from it. I want to flee.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that those evolutionary responses of fight or flight are experienced even in non-physical encounters. And yet, neither option really deals with or helps the situation.

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So, I come back to Max, who has taught me a different way of responding. Max has taught me to encounter the barking (or quacking or whatever is directed at him) without returning it and without turning away from it. Rather, he has taught me to be open to it and take it in and show a little compassion. He has taught me to understand that the barking is an honest expression of the other. It is not to be judged or run away from, but rather accepted and maybe even appreciated.

Max does engage the other dogs, but in a way that demonstrates he accepts them and their barking while choosing not to reciprocate. Thus he engages them in a way that redefines how power and control in a situation can be realized – not in force but rather in understanding.

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In this way, Max has taught me a little more about what it takes to bring peace to chaotic situations.

So thank you Max, for your chill presence. And thank you for teaching me how to react to the barking in my own life with patience and acceptance rather than fight or flight.