Friday, June 19, 2009

Four-footed Enlightenment

Yesterday I was struck with the idea of how living with an animal (in my case, my dog Tom Ripley) enhances the experience of life in ways that living with other human beings does not. Let me say right off that I’m not one of those people who prefer non-human to human animals—but I can’t say how much (if at all) I value them less. I’ve met a number of dogs that I’ve taken an immediate dislike to—high-strung, haranguing, undisciplined, vicious, almost as bad as their human counterparts with similar traits. And most dogs, like most humans, leave me cold. Still, I think animal companionship of some type is a large part of my assessment of quality of life.

Having a non-human comrade who pads along beside me is a good reminder of the ordinary movements of daily life. Ripley, for instance, adds emphasis and a sense of purpose to my instinct to get up from time to time and move about my home as if in search of something, though I have nothing in particular to look for. I make my habitual “rounds,” and he silently dogs my every step. Such instincts may be the body’s way of relieving nervous tension and providing a bit of a stretch and exercise, or they may be survival mechanisms evolved over millennia, to ensure safety or afford opportunities for discovery.

Dogs and cats are also good reminders of the need to play—and specifically to play aimlessly, without rules, parameters, or set goals—even in adulthood. Maturity for rational humans usually means relinquishing or thinning down the impulse to play, substituting less kinetic forms of make-believe, like reading, television watching, puzzle solving, or daydreaming. Action, we learn, has to have a justification and purpose. But my dog shows me how physical competitiveness need not be fierce or lead to absolute domination. No egos are involved when I play with an animal (not, at any rate, on the part of the animal). In an age when playtimes and vacations are unnecessarily purposeful and directed and almost always subject to some sort of scoring and assessment, an unscored, open-ended game of tag or catch involves zen-like trust in intuition and repetition for their own sake.

Moreover, Ripley has taught me the pragmatic side of affection. Sure, it involves some degree of sentiment and sensuality, even eroticism—and what’s so bad about any of these things? But cuddling up with another warm-blooded being does not have to be a come-on, an imposition, or a show of objectifying disrespect; it can be a simple, elegant way to stay warm, sheltered, and connected. A part of me thinks we humans, civilized humans, might be better off if we could, say, pet each other from time to time, without setting off panic, annoyance, or lust. Do dogs and cats feel demeaned by being treated as “pets” the way humans would? If they do, I can’t tell.

Frankly, if a human acquaintance started all of a sudden to casually stroke behind my ears or rub my belly, I would be bewildered, perhaps even offended, but right now that reaction strikes me as excessively uptight, squeamish, and insecure. Have humans always been so out of touch with their bodies and so fearful of other people’s touch? Or by what process of culture, brainwashing, and environment have we lost a pervasive sense of our connection to other living things?

Animal companions apparently cannot help us let loose of these inhibitions entirely, but they can, from time to time, relieve us from the awful pressure of our solitude and anxiety. They can redirect our heightened self-consciousness, both a blessing and a curse to our species, back to our nature, our physicality in space, and our existence in the present moment.


  1. Kismet! To The Best of Our Knowledge seems to echo your sentiments this very week:



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