Dig It

Max is a pretty weird dog in that he doesn’t like swimming in water, won’t play fetch, prefers human attention over other dogs, and does not dig in the yard. At least (for that last one) until recently.

Last month, Max started digging little holes in the backyard. It came out of nowhere and I honestly thought he didn’t even know how to dig or that digging is a thing dogs tend to do.

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It really took me by surprise, and then I got mad and told him to stop. Since then, I have not seen any new holes, but that also could be because the weather is ridiculously hot now and Max does not want to be outside any more than he has to be.

Still, Max’s short foray into digging has made me really consider how well I do or do not know him. I don’t question that we have a bond and I recognize that I can typically predict his behavior, just as I am sure he can predict mine. But Max taught me that there is still some mystery hiding just below his surface.

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And often that mystery is frustrating, because I really want to know what’s going on with him (both in a good, helpful way and a not-so-good, prying, unnecessarily curious way). I too am tempted to dig. I want to find some way to uncover Max’s motivations and know without any shadow of doubt what makes him feel and behave the way he does.

I recognize my fear of uncertainty in that desire. Maybe it comes from wanting to control things or maybe it comes from discomfort with change, especially sudden unexplained change. Regardless, it is a gut reaction through which I seek to uncover something that is not really my business, or even worse it is a reaction through which I seek to impose my own desire on the matter.

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Then I remember scolding Max for digging and wonder if I should heed that advice myself. Max may confuse, frustrate, or even baffle me sometimes, but in doing so he reminds me that relationships are not equations to be solved or experiments to be dissected or forces to be controlled. Rather, Max has taught me that relationships are mysteries to be appreciated and explored.

To be sure, I am all about honesty and authenticity in even the most superficial of relationships, and Max consistently teaches me how to be and express myself openly and fully. He reminds me not to conceal or deceive by being transparently present in all he does. But it this moment of digging, he also taught me that I can’t claw my way into understanding someone completely. There are certainly layers to people which can be wonderful to uncover and explore, but a frantic disturbance only leaves fatigue and a dirty mess.

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Maybe that exploration is less like digging for information or certainty, and more like appreciating the deeper and deeper layers of connection we can share and develop as we live life together.

Maybe that exploration is less like exerting my control or insecurity on another, and more like embracing the reality that we are not simplistic and can consistently expand the ways we value one another.

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In that sense, I certainly dig Max and the many other important people in my life. I may not completely understand everyone or the things they do, but I dig the mysterious fullness of who we all are, and the way we can learn more and more about one another every day, even without unnecessarily digging into things.

So, thank you Max for teaching me the real value of exploring and appreciating the complex nature of our relationships with others. Please don’t dig any more holes in the yard, and know that I dig you even when I don’t understand you.

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What Is Love?

Max has consistently shown me love and taught me what love is. I recognize that I write this at the risk of overdoing it on this theme (even the last post was on love), but I continually find new and inspiring realizations from this very loving companion.

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To be fair, Max is only one in a large group of family and friends who have helped me continually discover and rediscover what love is, but through his pure and simple relationship with me, I see both my mistakes and the truth of love very clearly. And even when I thought I was describing and showing love pretty well, Max has taught me that there are some important things to sort out. 

This is what I have learned:

Love does not seek to hold power over another.

Love does not possess another.

Love does not seek to change the other.

Love does not insist on certain patterns or markers in life.

Love does not keep accounts.

Some of these are more obvious than others – love is in no way manipulative. But some of these things are actually important in my life and for Max – things like accountability and transformation (the whole point of this blog is the many ways I have been transformed through what I have learned in relationship with Max).

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Accountability to certain ideals can be a good, helpful thing in certain relationships. But Max has undoubtedly helped me realize that such accountability is not love. Real accountability is an act of care, if it is truly established to help people attain the values or goals they set in their lives (sadly, accountability is often twisted to describe punitive consequences when someone does not uphold another person’s values…which is not a helpful form of accountability, and definitely not a form of love).

I have often been tempted to say that my desire to keep someone accountable or to express power over others is love. Even in my relationship with Max, I have been tempted to think that my stern insistence on obedience is a form of love. It is not. It is important and keeps him safe, but it is not love.

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Here’s why – Max has taught me on the positive side that:

Love is merciful.

Love is self-giving.

Love is forgiving.

Love is patient.

Love is affirming and valuing of the other.

I don’t like thinking that I am limiting love, and am sure that there are plenty more descriptors, but Max has taught me that love is a distinct force of good in this world recognized in those ways. He has taught me that too often I use the word love to describe acts that are not merciful, self-giving, forgiving, patient, and affirming, even if those acts are helpful to incorporate into my life.

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My relationship with Max would be incomplete without a certain sense of accountability (extended both ways) and assertiveness and learning from one another. But my relationship with Max is fundamentally distorted if I think any of that is love.

So, thank you Max for loving me and teaching me what love really is and is not. Thank you for helping me be a more loving presence in your life and in the lives of many others I meet.

Paranoia

Max has developed a weird habit when we walk through a certain section of the trail around my apartment complex. He starts picking up speed and constantly looking back as if something threatening was chasing him. We sometimes even run through that section as he pulls me along. Then, once we get around the bend, he goes back to normal as if everything is fine.

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I think this behavior developed from a couple times when neighbor dogs that lived in that section got out and actually did chase him down. Normally Max loves encounters with other dogs, but these are the kind of dogs who really don’t want other dogs around their house, so they barked and chased Max until we were around the bend and far enough away.

So, I don’t blame Max for not liking that stretch of trail, I sure wouldn’t want little tiny bully dogs barking in my face (though I wish Max would realize how much bigger he is and that he really shouldn’t feel threatened).

But I also recognize that those encounters haven’t happened in a very long time. In fact I don’t even know if those dogs still live there, as there is so much turnover in these apartments. I can’t even hear them barking from within the house anymore.

And yet, Max is still haunted by something.

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Assuming it is the bad memories of the bully dogs, Max has taught me how gripping paranoid fear can be and how much it can impact daily tasks. Max is clearly uncomfortable in those times when he could be having a really nice walk. And this is a real shame, because he used to like that stretch and all the unique smells it had to offer.

Something from his past that is not even real anymore has taken control over how he is living his life now.

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Not to get too Freudian here, but Max has taught me that if he doesn’t face that fear, if he keeps running away from it, it will continue to haunt him. In running, that fear only chases him farther down the path. I am pretty sure that if Max walked over to that apartment and smelled around and realized that there was nothing to fear, he wouldn’t be so paranoid when walking by.

Max has taught me that it is easier just to run by, or to avoid that section when possible. He has taught me that it is easier to give that fear the space it needs to grow and prosper.

But he has also taught me that it is not a good, comfortable, wholesome way to live.

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The worst part is that Max doesn’t even realize he has created such a space of fear in his life, and until he does his fears are far from being resolved. So, he has taught me to examine my own life to see what fears I am running from, so that I might find ways to face them and create spaces of understanding, joy, and acceptance rather than paranoia.

So thank you Max, for teaching me that fears have real power over our lives, even though those fears are often unfounded. And thank you for teaching me that it is much better to face those fears than to run from them. I do hope you find a way to face your fears, overcome your paranoia, and begin to enjoy that stretch of our walks again.

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.

Control (part 2)

Max defies whatever fleeting control I have over him multiple times a day. Sometimes I think he means to do so and sometimes not. And I guess that, if nothing else, this behavior of Max has taught me over and over how little control I have over things around me outside of how I prepare for them and respond to them.

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And Max’s most consistent defiance of control? Pooping.

As they say, everybody poops….

Especially Max.

I guess it seems like an overwhelming frequent activity of his because I am present for every single one of his poops. The only time I am not present is when I am away and someone else is taking care of him. So, the only being besides Max with whom I’ve been present at a greater percentage of lifetime poops is myself.

I’ve gotten to where I can more or less predict when and where Max will poop. He, like many of us, likes his routine.

Before we got in synch though, it was really frustrating. I often think I’m busy and that I don’t have time to dally waiting for the…um…you-know-what to drop.

After we’ve more or less gotten in synch, it is still often frustrating. I still think I’m busy and that I can’t always dally waiting for, oh you know the rest.

But you really can’t control bowel movements. I guess you can kind of control your own, but you really can’t control another being’s.

I’ve wanted so desperately to make Max poop at a certain time in a certain place (right by the trash can), but I had to give up on that dream immediately.

And that lack of control has taught me more than anything that “bowel movements” happen. Things don’t always go the way I want them to or imagined they would. Often my life, and this world, is a mess, and no matter who is responsible, the grass simply isn’t so green anymore.

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Nevertheless, my experience with Max has made me realize I can be prepared for those moments and react to them appropriately. I can enter the situation with an attitude of service and willingness to clean rather than an attitude of flinging the stuff around or troding straight through it. I can dispose of it well, even if that means I have to turn around and go back the way I came or go a completely different route than I had planned.

Moreover, Max has taught me that often cleaning the poop up is a delicate procedure. It is all too easy to miss part or smush it into the ground more. Once the poop has dropped it is volatile and though it can be uncomfortable dealing with it, it must be handled with patience and delicacy.

But ultimately Max has taught me I have to do something. Poop happens and I have to respond in some way. I can leave it – that is an option. But then I have to be prepared to step in it some time later.

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So thank you Max for teaching me that poop happens and that while I often have no control of such crappy circumstances, I do have the option to respond in an appropriate way. Thank you for teaching me to clean up the poop in this world rather than making a bigger mess.

Control (transformed into love)

Valentine’s Day edition, for this hunk of burnin’ love:

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Max was thankfully already trained in basic commands when I got him. And while I continue to use those commands and work with him some, I am not stern enough to enforce any big changes in his behavior.

For instance, I have been trying to teach him to shake since October, and to no avail. I cannot transform him in that way.

Don't be fooled. This was staged.

Don’t be fooled. This was staged.

Of course, as is the case in these relationships, he has been a much better trainer of me than I of him.  He has trained me where to scratch him so that it feels the best to him, when to feed him and play with him, and to show him as much attention as I can.

During one of our walks I was thinking about this drive I have to transform him, to make him a better, more obedient pet.

And I realized that that drive extends beyond my relationship with Max.  I have a drive to transform the people around me too, especially those who are very close to me.  I want to help them become better people.  This desire has even unconsciously gotten wrapped up in my vocation, which is not hard being a part of a church that takes as its mission: “Transforming people to transform the world.”

But, Max got me thinking – is transforming people really the most important thing?  Is it even actually possible? And if it is not, what is the most important thing?

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As I thought about my relationship with Max and with other people, I came to the conclusion that I really can’t transform people.  That is something I literally cannot do. I can inspire, I can teach, I can set an example, but I cannot actually transform anyone.  That is something that has to happen within the person (or dog).

Moreover, this drive to transform the person (or dog), and thus control them, seems to mask the truly important thing in life.

So, what then is that most important thing?  Well, I asked Max, and over the months we’ve lived together he has shown me over and over that it is to love people (and dogs).  That is what matters.

That doesn’t mean that transformation can’t happen.  In fact, I’d say that love necessarily brings about transformation. Nothing is the same after love – real, complete, honest love. And I can still seek to inspire, teach, and live out an example with the hope that those things will convey love. But I must not seek to transform people as an immediate goal.

Because that intent to transform is one of control – and love does not seek to control.  Quite the contrary, love surrenders.  Love is surrender of self for all others. And it is surrender of the idea that we can control others and make them something else.

The only way true transformation can occur is through the surrender of self-sacrificial love. Control simply doesn’t have the same power, or any real power at all.

Thank you Max for teaching me that love is the most important thing, for proving that it is impossible for me to transform or control others, and for teaching me all this through your own love of me.