What I’ve Learned From Dogs
The season promises change as the warmth of the summer sun gives way to the cool breezes of early fall. Just one year ago, I was walking with Lucy, my thirteen-year-old Australian Shepherd and dear friend. We headed down the wooden path toward the ocean like we had so many times before, except this time I had to carry her down the stairs to the beach because she was weak and off balance. The sun shone warmly as we settled into our favorite spot. I sat watching her, her face pointing into the wind. She raised her head to catch the smells of the ocean, and it seemed she pondered them for a long time. She watched other dogs playing and looked as though she hoped to join them. Her youthful heart was alive and well; it was her body that was failing. Her spirit was vibrant even as she was finally giving in to her end-stage liver cancer. We had come here so many times, yet none so poignant as now. She would be with me only a few more days.
I have learned so much from my dogs. In Psalm 104, the writer describes God’s creation and names the many creatures and their roles. They are the servants of God, designed for a purpose, and they faithfully fulfill the role they are given. All are from God, and they know their place and their boundaries. At the end of the psalm the writer exclaims, “O Lord, how many are thy works! In wisdom Thou hast made them all; the earth is full of Thy possessions.”
My first Aussie, Dillon, came to me when I was just finishing college. He was six weeks old, and as I beheld the furry bundle in my lap I wondered what in the world I had done: promising to care for this helpless creature when I could barely care for myself. The commitment frightened me, and I took it seriously.
We had many delightful years together and also some distressing times. Once when he was sick and almost died with pancreatitis, he needed IV fluids for several days. He stayed at the vet’s clinic during the days, and I brought him home to care for him at night. He had a catheter inserted in a vein in his front leg, and he was miserable. It seemed he considered this treatment nothing short of cruelty, and he would often look at me as if to say, “What are you thinking? The hour was late on one of those nights, and I remember him lying on the floor on the green living room carpet, barely able to lift his head. I was lying next to him, stroking his soft fur and trying to comfort him. I had just finished giving him some treatment that he did not understand, and I was deeply aware that I was unable to explain to him that my remedy, seemingly so harsh, would ultimately save his life and bring him back to health. I wanted to explain to him that my deep love for him motivated me, not the cruelty he might suppose. Despite his inability to understand, he looked up at me with only trust in his eyes.
I wondered: Is this what God might say to me as I thrash about in my life and struggle to understand the difficult things that He has brought to pass for me? From my limited vantage point, I do not understand God’s mysterious ways, but perhaps after all, it is His love that motivates His actions. As the great Physician, perhaps He knows best what treatment will ultimately free my imprisoned heart and cure my greatest need. As He wisely and accurately applies His instruments to my life, I come to know what is valuable and what is not. I need to be taught this wisdom because I do not know it. I am gravely ill in my blindness and disobedience. Perhaps it is God’s judicious use of suffering that will instruct me, restore me to health, and capture my heart for good.
Dillon recovered from his illness and lived several more happy years. He was almost fifteen when his bones finally gave out. When I was twenty-three with a bouncing puppy on my lap, I had no idea that fifteen years could pass so quickly or that loving another being could grow my capacity for love even more. Dillon was a wonderful gift from God to me.
I began to understand the gift of Lucy during another autumn, now long ago. She came to me as a three-month-old homeless puppy when I offered to keep her just long enough to find her a home. For months I tried earnestly to find that home for her before finally recognizing that she had already found it, and it was with me.
I was in the throes of a back injury, questioning once again how a good God could allow such disappointment and suffering to be part of my life. I was in a difficult personal process of clarifying what was promised in the gospel and what was not. I was beginning to comprehend that my life here was not where the promised victory and blessing were to be found. Rather, the promise of the gospel was a true and lasting freedom from my sin and death. In the Life to come, my stubborn heart would finally be brought to its true moral beauty. This was the promise. But this was for later. Life now is the journey toward that place. I was beginning to comprehend this, but I was not yet so willing to accept it.
If this were indeed the case, how in the world was I to think about surviving the grueling ordeal that life now had become, with chronic pain and immobility, alone and struggling to move? I lay flat on the living room floor, pillows under my knees, crying out to a seemingly deaf God, who was apparently leaving me there in my pain. I felt angry and betrayed. I wondered whether I could trust this God who seemed more cruel than loving to me just then. I remembered the lesson of Dillon as I stared up at the ceiling from that same green carpet.
It was then that Puppy Lucy bounced over, lightly and playfully jumping onto my chest, snugly and soft. In the midst of my weeping, I found myself laughing. Then this thought occurred to me: Both my pain and this puppy are from the same God. The same God that rules earthquakes and disasters, including my immediate and personal one, is the God who gives puppies. And He gave this one, with her boundless energy and enthusiasm, to me.
This was a profound insight. I began to realize that pain and joy come together, inextricably linked in this life. Alongside the pain and difficulty, there are cool breezes and refreshing moments, given by God for our pure enjoyment. And I wondered: Perhaps in not being open to the pain of life around and inside me, I was also limiting my experience of true joy and satisfaction. If, indeed, the same God brought both, perhaps joy and goodness are signposts along the way, sent to encourage us for the road ahead. As my capacity for sadness grows, as I come to accept it rather than avoid it, perhaps my capacity for joy can grow as well.
Indeed Lucy provided much joy in my life—and also much perspective. Over the years, she spent many hours waiting in the car for me. She loved to ride along and never seemed to mind the wait. In fact, her whole life was one of waiting. She waited in the car. She waited at home. She waited for dinner. She waited for the fun of a walk. She was content to wait expectantly for whatever might come next. Between the bursts of fun and delight, like walks or rides, there was much waiting. It occurred to me that this is like my life, only I am not so content as Lucy with the waiting times. There are seasons of joy and satisfaction punctuated with seasons of bitterness and dismay. As Lucy waited, so I wait before God for His provision of care and perspective. And when He does not provide in the way that I think is best for me, I must strive to trust. And I must wait. Lucy seemed to trust better than I that the provision would come eventually, that her needs would be met. Or if they were not, something else would come along. I wish I were more like her in this way.
Another lesson came from Bo, my eager Aussie who came to live with me a few years ago when he was already seven. He tends to bound out first and ask questions later. One day we were partaking of one of life’s great pleasures: picking blackberries. While I picked, he was next to me, “grazing” on the lower-lying berries. Suddenly I heard a yelp, and Bo was stuck, his lip hooked on a thorn. Motionless and pleading, he looked up at me for help. I reached down and freed his lip, but even after such personal insult and injury, he continued working carefully to eat the berries that lay among the thorns.
And so I ponder: There have been a lot of thorns lately. One friend watches with her siblings as their father leaves this life, and another has just learned that his father will soon be gone. Another friend is hurting with the pain of chronic illness and the loss of her youthful stamina. Still another wrestles with understanding why God eases one person’s burden only to increase his. And I feel my body age, reminding me that this life does not last, that youth is not immortal. I feel the weight of these difficulties as each of us labors to trust the God who asks us to continue hoping even when life is hard and hope seems dim.
How does the soul become mature, except through such waiting and struggle? The blackberries need hot sun and drought to ripen fully. Perhaps our times of lack and loss are the assignments we are given to carry out, our purpose to fulfill faithfully. These tasks are the sweat of our lives. To stay on course in the midst of this work load is the real victory. Fresh joy, like ripe blackberries, reminds me that the work will be worth it. And the growth of my soul is becoming more attractive to me. Like Bo and the berries, I become more willing to endure the thorns, to carry this sometimes heavy load, as I experience the sweetness of the perspective it brings. And I am encouraged that the journey will be worth it.
And so I reflect on life’s sweetness as well. The warmth of the summer sun coaxes my sunflowers to bloom. The sharing of a good meal with the people I love reminds me that we can carry our loads together. And a walk by a beautiful mountain lake restores my soul and reconnects me with friends who share history and perspective. I notice my taste for joy awakening as I perceive these simple pleasures as generous gifts from God. And best of all, the restless prayer asking for faith is answered once again, and I find myself trusting that He is good.
Late last summer, I sat by sweet Lucy’s grave, yellow roses marking her final resting place. I missed her so much already. Although the grief was huge and at times overpowering, I realized I did not feel as afraid of it as I had in the past. I looked back on other partings and recalled my terror. And now I was learning that, although I did not relish it, I did not fear my grief quite so much as I once did.
Such a wonderful companion to me over all those years, Lucy was a delight that God graciously and unexpectedly gave. She brought much joy and, in the end, much sadness. I am learning that joy and sadness are very much connected, inseparably tied together in this life. And the lessons of Dillon, Lucy, and Bo bring warm memory and grateful hope for more to come.
Copyright October 2006 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.