Want to be as good as your dog thinks you are?

Melanie SturmMeaning of Life5 Comments

Because the Jewish High Holidays remind us of mortality, I’ve been thinking about our 14 ½ year old puppy, Leo.  Yes, he’s at the end of his life expectancy, but his ever-wagging tail is evidence that he’s still loving and appreciating life.  

Leo’s occasional caretaker thinks Leo has acute FOMO – fear of missing out – which she insists is the secret to his longevity because he loves me more than he loves himself. With a teenager in the family, it’s nice to know that at least someone in the house is always happy to see me!  

For example, imagine if I locked my son and Leo in our car’s trunk and opened it after an hour.  Which one would be most happy to see me?

I hate to over-glorify dogs, but there’s something God-like about their capacity to love and forgive – virtues which this season of reflection and renewal is designed to inspire. 

Its essence is captured in Hunter Thompson’s quip: “Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” That’s why mortality is life’s greatest gift, for facing death reawakens the vitality, urgency, and aspiration that slumber under blankets of complacency. 

Since this season is about second chances, I’d like to explore a couple questions: how can we become as good as our dogs think we are, and how can we inspire metaphorical tail-wagging in others, thereby helping make the world a better place?

I offer three thoughts, inspired by dogs, and my favorite Jewish sages.  

First, is the underrated art of listening.  The truth is, dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen! And if you know how to listen, the love expressed by a dog is infinite. 

To prove listening’s power, consider this story about Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and celebrated psychiatrist. Frankl wrote one of the twentieth century’s most important books, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” 

Frankl’s story involved a patient who phoned him at mid-night to tell him calmly that she was about to commit suicide. Frankl talked her through her depression, giving her countless reasons to carry-on. Eventually she promised she wouldn’t take her life.

When they met later, Frankl asked which of his reasons she’d found convincing. “None,” she replied. What persuaded her to live was not Frankl’s reasoning ability, but the fact he was willing to listen to her in the middle of the night. A world in which someone was prepared to listen to another’s distress seemed to her one in which it was worthwhile to live.

It’s an important life lesson – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  

So, if you want to be as good as your dog thinks you are, listen.  It can make all the difference!

Second, is the power of hope, which springs eternal for dogs who live each day joyously until they die, loving and protecting their families unconditionally. Dogs are testimony to Friedrich Nietzsche’s insight that “he who has a “why” to live for can bear with almost any how.”  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks believed that unlike optimism, hope is an active belief that collectively, we can make things better. Hope requires courage and faith, while optimism doesn’t.

Among the stories we recalled from the 20th anniversary of 9-11 was Todd Beamer’s, exemplifying the power of hope, courage, and faith. In his 14-minute call with an Airfone operator, Beamer coolly shared what was happening, including the plan to overtake the hijackers. Before hanging up, he asked the operator to recite with him the Lord’s Prayer, and she could hear passengers joining in. Then, Beamer recited Psalm 23, concluding, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for though art with me.” 

In his TedTalk, Rabbi Sacks explained why he considers that last sentence of Psalm 23 to be the most moving in religious literature because it means “we can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone.” 

And it was hope for a better future for humanity that prompted Beamer’s last words – “Are you guys ready? Ok, let’s roll.”  And the US Capitol and countless lives were saved.

Hope is also what moved righteous gentiles to hide Jews during the Holocaust.  It’s what prompts firefighters to rush burning buildings and brave souls to enlist in the military.  It’s what compels a class to shave their heads on graduation day, in solidarity with a classmate with cancer.  It’s what inspired Mr. Rodgers to break the color barrier on national TV by inviting Police Officer Clemmons, an African American, to cool their feet together in a kiddie pool. And it is hope that stirred Anja Ringgren Loven, the Danish charity-worker who adopted an abandoned and dying 2-year-old child in Nigeria, nursing him to health.  

She named him Hope.

So, if you want to be as good as your dog thinks you are, have a strong why, and the hope to achieve it.

Finally, there’s gratitude, which is not only a character marker; it’s a prerequisite for happiness.  Think about our dogs, whose tails wag in appreciation for the smallest deeds. If we were half as grateful as they are, don’t you think we’d be twice the humans we are, and happier to boot?  

About gratefulness, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observed that at the moment someone feels gratitude, they’re cultivating a feeling of being loved.  Conversely, “an ungrateful person reveals not only an emotionally stingy disposition, but how profoundly unloved they feel….There are people who are masters at remembering every not-nice thing someone did to them. You know how much happier you’ll be when you go around remembering the nice things people did? How much more loved you’ll feel? And we all want to feel loved,” Telushkin insisted.

Like gratitude, forgiveness makes our lives easier because we don’t expend energy to feel anger. Not forgiving someone is like swallowing poison while expecting the other person to die. They’re untouched, while we’re less happy.

So, if you want to be as good as your dog thinks you are, listen, let go of the past, forgive and seek forgiveness, live each moment contentedly, practice active hope, and be grateful for all your blessings! If you do all these things, you’ll not only be more like your dogs, you’ll be more like God, which is why dogs are so divine.  

This is what it means to be Jewish, according to Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who wrote that because every person is created in the image of God, “our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God.… A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings…. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

So as the minutes dwindle before the shofar sends us out to a new year of renewal and reinvention, I want to remind you that you cannot waste time in advance. It’s a gift that we’ve yet to squander a single second. What you do with your tomorrows is your choice. So how will you choose? 

The Kotzker rabbi famously said that everyone thinks the greatest miracle is to resurrect the dead. But the real miracle is to resurrect the living, so we live the life we should be leading. And if we do that, and God grants us successive years to live as long as Leo, we too may experience FOMA because the world is that much better because we’ve been in it.

May it be so!

This column is based on remarks I made at our Yom Kippur break-the-fast. Leo was there, tail-a-wagging, lapping up attention, and food. Apparently, he felt so contented, he passed 10 days later, leaving me bereft. But each day I feel better, knowing he would want me resume living life the way he did, joyfully and gratefully.

These Yom Kippur remarks are the sequel to the Rosh Hashanah remarks I made ten days prior – “For our unforgiving age, advice from an unassuming sage. On Rosh Hashanah, I focused on macro issues that impact our world, while on Yom Kippur, I focused on micro issues that impact how we can best live our lives, making the world a better place.

5 Comments on “Want to be as good as your dog thinks you are?”

  1. Terrific speech and perfect to reuse for other occasions. You hit all the good that we humans need to remember every day. And, for me I love the thought of keeping FOMA front and center, because FEAR OF MISSING OUT keeps us looking forward to the next joy. We also have to cultivate how to spot joy when it is right in front of our eyes. Living in the heart of NYC there is now much to see that is dark, reminding me of what I don’t like, but I make a habit of looking for beauty where it can be found; it is in the architecture, the flowers of spring along with newly budding trees, the beautiful babies/children I see every day and the dogs…..oh the dogs of ever color size and shape and then back to the babies and then it can be a brief conversation with a stranger on the bus or train.

  2. Beautifully written! Rest in peace, sweet Leo. What a joyful life you had with your loving family!

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