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.

IMG_0954

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.

IMG_4100

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.

IMG_3508

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.

IMG_1889

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.

IMG_0950

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.

Advertisements

Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

After apologizing to Max last week for forgetting his birthday, I finally gave him a new toy that I had been saving. It was a plush penguin (and I use the past tense very intentionally).

IMG_3720

Needless to say, he enjoyed it immensely. And in the first couple hours he had already torn off the nose and was pulling the stuffing out of the head. The toy wasn’t even stuffed all the way through – just in the head. But somehow he found the one way to make the biggest mess with that toy possible.

This tends to be the way he treats all his toys. Even tug toys that seem very sturdy come apart much more quickly than I’d expect. Max takes some strange pleasure in ripping things to shreds.

IMG_3468

I am very glad that he is obedient enough to shred mostly his own toys, and not my belongings. If I leave out empty bags that had food in them while he is home alone, those usually get destroyed too, but he has never chewed up any actual belongings.

Still, I can’t help but think – was that really worth it? Did you really have to destroy that brand new toy? This is why we can’t have nice things.

But in tearing up the toys, Max also keeps me grounded and teaches me that maybe having nice things is not the best goal in life. Maybe a better goal is enjoying what we have. Max is like the little brother who takes the G.I. Joe out of the packaging to actually play with it, instead of leaving it in the packaging so that it will retain the highest value. But I think there is a lot of value in playing with those things the way they are meant to be played.

IMG_3719

Max also does something else with his newly destroyed toys that is weird to me. As he is pulling the stuffing out of the penguin’s head, he often stops, looks at me, and then brings it to me and drops it in my lap. I, of course, want nothing to do with that slobbery toy anymore, but Max wants to share the joy.

Max has taught me that one of the true joys in this life is not having nice things, and it is not even centered on what he has at all. Rather, it is enjoying what he has with the people he cares about.

And Max has taught me that things are not for admiring, but rather they are tools to create joy and goodness in the world. And that understanding means that it can be a very valuable experience to give up something I treasure to someone else who could benefit more from it, even if that person does not use the thing in the right way.

IMG_3281

While we may not be able to have nice things, we can have a robust relationship and experience some joyful fun with whatever we do have, especially when we don’t get hung up with the value of the item and instead pay more attention to what is really valuable in life.

So, thank you Max for teaching me that there are many things more important that having nice things. And thank you for wanting to share those not nice things with me.

In the Way

Max always seems to find the one place where he will be most in the way. He especially employs this practice when I am cooking. My kitchen is pretty small so laying anywhere in there is more or less in the way, but he seems to find the exact spot where I need to stand.

IMG_2428

Similarly, Max often lays down right in front of the sink of my bathroom so that I either have to shoo him away or lean way over him when I need to brush my teeth.

And even when I am trying to let him out on my balcony, he just doesn’t seem to understand that I actually have to get past him to open the door. Instead of letting me through, he shuffles around always stepping right in front of me.

His getting in the way is frustrating and sometimes even dangerous. Yesterday I accidentally kicked him in the head because I did not know he had lain down behind me while I was cooking.

IMG_1661

But he’s not the only one to get in my way. I drive around a lot and there are countless drivers who get in my way. There are people who write things and do things that seem to me to be getting in the way of more important things.

It’s a busy world and everybody is just getting in each other’s way.

IMG_2689

But Max has taught me to take a step back from myself and try to better understand why others are in my way.

In doing so, I realize that Max has some decent reasons for laying and walking where he does. The kitchen and the bathroom both have cool tile, and he gets hot very easily. And I know that he is just very excited to go out and can’t understand the mechanics of opening the door. So, I can’t blame him for finding a cool place to lay or for being excited.

IMG_2747

Max has taught me to be more humble and to put myself in his and other people’s shoes (or paws). He has taught me that my plan and way of understanding the world is not the only one, nor probably the best or most comprehensible one.

He has taught me that maybe others aren’t just out to frustrate and annoy me. Maybe they have a good reason for thinking and acting as they do. And maybe I’m stumbling around in their way unknowingly too.

Max has taught me that sharing this world with others will involved some clashing and some getting in each other’s ways, but that instead of crashing together like two determined, unswerving drivers we can instead clang together like wind chimes, making more harmonious noises.

IMG_2568

I will probably still be frustrated when Max lays right in my way or when drivers keep me from making that turn I need to take, but Max has taught me to take a step out of my own limited perspective and try to understand how others are not necessarily intentionally in my way.

So, thank you Max for opening my eyes to consider why other people seem to be in my way, and for helping me learn that there are often good reasons. Thank you for trying my patience so that I may eventually grow to have a little more. And thank you for keeping me humble and open to the perspectives of others.

Living (with)

Max and I have lived in the same apartment now for a little over a year. He was actually a rather good roommate from the beginning, as he already knew to go to the bathroom outside and learned quickly what furniture he could get on.

Sure, he has woken me up at unfavorable times and doesn’t clean up after himself, but he is not the first roommate of mine to do that.

And I’m still waiting for the day when he cooks me breakfast…

IMG_1746

Having lived in the same place as Max for a year now, I have gained some insight into the dynamics of sharing space and life with another being. Granted, such lessons come in various ways with any human or non-human roommate, but certain aspects have really hit home with Max.

Ultimately, Max has taught me the difference between living in the same place as someone and living with that person/animal.

Sadly, this lesson has revealed that I far too often display the attitude and actions that prove I am merely living in the same place as Max. We often go about our business with a passing acknowledgement of each other’s existence.

Such behavior is especially prevalent when I get busy with work and life. There are days when I run in after work, take Max out, feed him, and then dash back out to my next activity only to return late and tired enough to zombily take Max out again before crashing. These days I am most definitely living in the same place as Max, and not much else.

IMG_0597

Of course there are many better days when I am truly living with Max – the days when we have a good long morning walk during which I am not preoccupied with the things I have to do that day but rather discover the world anew with Max, the days when I really play with him and show him honest affection (not with the end goal of getting him to stop bothering me), the days when we fully appreciate each other’s presence and realize how our lives are being made better through that company.

IMG_0020

These are not merely the days I am less busy or at home most the day. There have been many weekends that I am consumed in a book or TV show and do not truly live with Max, even if I am around him all day.

IMG_1745

The important difference Max has taught me is that living with someone involves sharing life and participating together in something greater than the two of us – joy or love or sadness or anger that we experience in solidarity. It means focusing on the other rather than myself.

Moreover, Max has taught me that this act of living with, rather than living in the same place, is what makes a house into a home. It is what makes a space welcoming and full of life.

 

 

So thank you Max for living with me. Thank you for teaching me the important difference of living with and living in the same place and for challenging me to be more fully present in living with you. And thank you for helping me make our little apartment into an expansive home.

IMG_0022