A Good Dog in Trouble
My beloved Orson kept biting people. What should I do?
So, there we were. Four choices, none of them good.
In trouble, I turn inward, trying to reason through what must be done. But I've also come to rely on the thinking and writings of a few people who've inspired or guided me. They never quite tell me what to do, but always help me figure it out. I call them my secret board of directors.
It's a very distinguished membership, including the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Abraham Lincoln, and philosopher Hannah Arendt. I especially cherished her Responsibility and Judgment, a series of essays about right and wrong and how each of us decides which is which. I've often turned to it when I faced rough choices and it has never failed me.
So, I settled on the porch with Orson and read one of Arendt's chapters on moral conduct. It was a warm late afternoon, and the hawks were circling slowly over the meadow in front of the farmhouse. Orson was dozing near me, Rose sitting by the fence, eyeing the sheep. Clementine was on the lawn on her back, snoring contentedly. It was terribly discouraging to have made it through these five-plus decades, to struggle to reach this place with Orson's great help and inspiration, to be living on this beautiful farm, sitting on the porch on a lazy summer day—and be contemplating this awful act.
I felt old, weary, and sad.
So, I read. Moral conduct, Arendt wrote, depends mostly on the discussions we have with ourselves. We must not contradict ourselves by making exceptions in our own favor. We must not place ourselves in positions in which we would have to despise ourselves.
"It certainly is not a matter of concern with the other but with the self," she'd written. "The standard is neither the love of some neighbor nor self-love, but self-respect."
It did not matter what other people, or other dog lovers, would do or would think of whatever I decided. It mattered what I thought of myself; the respect I needed to seek was my own. The world is filled with people of certainty, who have a sure sense of what others ought to do. Nowhere were they more numerous than in the vast network of people and institutions that constituted the dog culture. Yet if life with dogs had taught me anything, it was to be less, not more, certain. Animals have ways of teaching you that for all your books, vet, Web sites, and holistic practitioners, you are not in control. Animals live by their own lights.
There was a preacher I'd met a few miles south of here, years ago, who walked the hills and valleys looking to save souls. I was fond of him, admired his energy and faith. He'd never saved a single soul, he told me, but never missed a day of trying. He used to stop by my little mountaintop cabin once or twice a year, and although he didn't get far with my soul, I usually gave him a cup of tea. We talked for a few minutes while he gathered himself for the rest of his arduous day.
I thought of him that afternoon and wished he would come along. At some point during every visit, he used to say that the devil was the world's best theologian, because he knew right and wrong better than anyone. I would have liked to meet somebody that sure. Instead, I was the sole judge, legislator, and theologian of my world.
What pushed me through my lethargy was a passage Arendt cited from Immanuel Kant: "Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me."