Max is noble and loyal, a very great dog, and a consistent presence of care and joy. He has done many great things to help me out and better my life. But Max has never in his life earned a belly rub.
And yet, he gets belly rubs fairly often, especially when visitors come over (he knows how to work a crowd). I, too, give him many belly rubs, even if it is not as many as he’d like.
Nevertheless, I stand by my statement that he has never earned any belly rubs. Because it is my sincere hope that such belly rubs are a sign of pro bono gratefulness, something Max has taught me a lot about.
Max is, of course, pro bone, and will gnaw one down any chance he is given. But that is not what I mean here.
Pro bono is a Latin phrase that means for good or for free. It describes a situation where something is given with no expectation of return and no prior action deserving that good. And Max has helped teach me that pro bono is really the best way to understand and share gratitude.*
As good and obedient and smart as Max is, I do not believe he can conceive of a relationship where he could earn or elicit gratefulness. Rather, he lives fully in a world where free gifts come to him with no expectation of return and with no prior action deserving that good. Sure, he has been trained with treats and attention and I still try to reinforce good behavior, but Max’s day to day life is filled with unearned gifts – food that comes from a mysterious bag, walks that happen even if he has been stubborn, attention whether he is a pest or not, and of course the occasional bone, pro bono.
And in a world where so much turns on what I can get back for what I put in, where strings are so often attached, or where everything seems to be based on this for that earning and deserving, Max provides a much needed reprieve and new way of relating. His very presence helps me enact pro bono gifts and gratefulness, and then begin to see how I might relate to others in a similar way – not expecting any repayment for giving, but rather receiving and loving gracefully and gratefully.
We could say that Max’s love and attention are the exchange given to me that either repays what I have done or provide the basis of what I am repaying. But I’m very uncomfortable with quantifying affection in that way, and I really do not think Max offers love and affection for any reason other than it is who he is and he knows it makes life and the world better.
And yet, Max does offer something else back to me – foot and leg and arm and hand and face licks. Even so, I believe these “gifts” are also pro bono, and the gratefulness that inspires them is one that is not a repayment, but rather an honest outpouring of love. Just as Max has done nothing to earn his belly rubs, I certainly have done nothing to earn all those sloppy dog licks (or slobbery toys).
And so Max teaches me and challenges me to be a little sloppier and more pro bono with my gifts and gratitude. He teaches me that the most loving forms of relating to others cannot revolve around what we expect to get from each other, but rather what we are willing to give for free, for good.
Pro bono gratefulness is the belly rubs of life, and Max would like nothing better than to prove that to each and every person he meets.
So, thank you Max, for reorienting my view of gratefulness to focus more on the gifts and gratitude we can give for free. Thank you for freely receiving my gifts of love, and freely giving back.
*I originally learned this from Diana Butler Bass, who explores the concept in her book, “Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks.” I give her all the credit for the concept, and I try to highlight here how Max has brought that concept to life in my home.