Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How I Know a Dog Has a Soul

“Here I can saunter for hours, bending my eye forward, stopping and turning to look back, thinking to strike off into some less trodden path, yet hesitating to quit the one I am in, afraid to snap the brittle threads of memory.”

          -William Hazlitt
          “A Farewell to Essay Writing”

Gus died today a year ago, and the approaching anniversary gave me a moment to think about what a dog’s life means.

Some people treat their dogs like children, call them people, and seem to have trouble distinguishing between a human’s life and a dog’s life. I love these people, but I am not one of them. Some people think a dog is just a dog, and I don’t count myself in that camp either, nor do I feel so much warmth for those in it.

I love my dogs precisely because they’re not people. A dog does not envy nor boast; he is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. A dog only desires food, something to chase and chew, and some small kindness from friends. They may be less than we, but if a human’s soul is a light capable of great brightness, a dog’s light is at least a steady one.

I don’t know if I have a soul or not. I’ve heard that I do, but I’ve heard many things. I think I prefer the mystery. Nothing of moment resolves itself into satisfying packages and assimilated truths, and if there is something beyond what we can see and taste, then the important truths were meant to be unreconcilable. And if there isn’t any such invisible intent, well then that unreconcilability is part of how things are.

Still, if there’s any way to measure our souls or perhaps our humanity, it must be in our gentleness and our ability to love. In that respect, I would be lucky to count one half as much soul in myself as my dogs have.

Life has meaning, even if I can’t set calipers to its source. Therefore, according to any definition that matters, though not necessarily any of matter, life means, and a dog’s life means too.

“Why do I not hang an image of this in some dusky corner of my brain, and turn an eye upon it ever and anon, as I have need of some such talisman to calm my troubled thoughts?” (Hazlitt)

Some trust to saints to save their souls. What’s measurable in mine is made of memory, and the prayer I’ve learned is just for gentleness, love, and gratitude.