My children wanted a dog for a long time. I was less certain. Then I thought of a way to test dog ownership: sponsor a dog at our local shelter. Apparently we decided to “do it big or go home” because in about a week I went to the shelter to pick up a range of supplies and 11 dogs. The mom, a fawn pit bull, was Little Girl and her puppies were 10 days old. While the first few hours were nothing short of magical, “real life” quickly set in.
My body’s way of telling me that I’ve crossed a critical stress level is lower back pain. Around the third day of this puppy and not quite domesticated mommy experience, the back pain started. The fifth day arrived and all I could think about was how filthy the kids’ bathroom – where the puppies had been staying – how getting in and out of that room was following an invisible film of contamination everywhere, and that there was really nothing I could do but live with it for six more weeks. I knew that at some point in the future I would spend an entire Saturday washing carpets and whitewashing tiles.
Explaining my stress to my husband, he replied, “But that’s Future Maureen’s problem.”
“What?” He was talking nonsense to my brain in survival mode.
“There’s nothing you can do about it now. You know that. So why think about it? Just do what Now Maureen can do and know that the problem will be solved someday, but not today. You handle it when you can.”
It was perfectly logical. Be present and do what you can and don’t sweat things out of your hands. Within an hour, the back pain was gone.
This is perhaps the trickiest idea of this experiment. And that’s because we have a variety of understandings of happiness. One of them is pretty common, and I’m not a big fan of it.
In this first understanding, happiness means having an easy life, characterized by pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Aristotle (and St. Thomas Aquinas) had a different understanding. Happiness is the fulfillment of a person; it is the sign of a life well lived. It’s about having meaning, purpose, community and love. And anyone who has ever loved knows that to love is to suffer. Sure, you have a great connection with someone in a way that brings your personality to life, but when those you love are hurting, you are absolutely hurting alongside them. And you’ll also give up things that would make your life easier (eg, a good night’s sleep) if it ensures the well-being of a loved one (eg, a full belly for your newborn baby). Happiness does not mean the end of suffering, but by necessity includes it. And that kind of happiness gives true meaning to a life well lived, the fruits of which are generosity, joy, hope, gratitude and more.
The puppies were amazing. I can’t even describe the dopamine rush I got when 10 puppies would charge me like I was the most awesome person in the world. But they were demanding. In fact, my daughter asked if newborns were that tough; the 10 puppies were tougher. Cleaning up the poo took about two hours a day, and the kids kept their word and did it without complaining.
Lasting happiness undoubtedly attracts us and helps us see how precious we are and how fleeting life is. And when we are brought into another’s life in a way that makes both people beautifully vulnerable, our joys are shared, but so are our sorrows. And sometimes, most terribly, evil comes from our own making. Forgiveness, courage, devotion, faithfulness, hope, compassion — we don’t learn that with this first understanding of happiness; we have to go “all in” on this beatific version.
This was the most difficult vision for me, because I only realized too late that I was seeing badly. About three days after the puppies were weaned, we received an email saying that someone wanted to meet Little Girl on Sunday, hoping to adopt her. I didn’t expect the interest to happen so quickly as there are other dogs that have been there for over a year. Something puzzled me, but I ignored it.
Although the kids kept saying that Little Girl was a good dog and that she really belonged to us, I had a long list of reasons why we shouldn’t adopt her: so we could travel anywhere and anytime she wasn’t fully domesticated (and nothing seemed to work), and David – the youngest – would be going to college in five years and I would be in charge of the dog. There were many things not to do. And as long as there was a shouldn’t, I didn’t watch the shouldn’t.
The homework was less numerous, but convincing: she fitted in perfectly and it was right to adopt her. But with these should not loom, it was foolish to listen to the should not.
There are a lot of big decisions that require careful discernment of do’s and don’ts: who to marry, when to have that first child, a long-distance move, a career change. Owning a pet is certainly not as decisive as some of them, but it must nevertheless be the subject of real discernment.
I went to mass in the morning before bringing Little Girl to meet her potential owner. The Gospel reading was where Peter sees Jesus from the boat and does the “senseless” thing: He jumps out of the boat and swims the hundred meters to Jesus. The Gospel doesn’t say if Peter got to Jesus before or after the boat, but there was something about his foolish choice that always enlightened my heart and inspired me to dive more often, even when they didn’t have no Sens. .
But this time I didn’t. And the young woman brought Little Girl home. And me and the children cried a lot the following days. Regret is the consequence of an ill-judged choice, but regret is generous in still bringing wisdom for the future.
Discernment does not consist in eliminating all that is not necessary before acting. It’s about listening carefully to the right and wrong, and then choosing one wholeheartedly. It’s about looking at the big picture, taking careful note of the challenges that may still arise in the future, but leaning in faith on what to do or not and trusting yourself, making confidence in his community and in the process.
How did things end for us? The pups all found homes within three days of arriving at the shelter. Now we have Zod, who we chose because he was suffering from very severe stress. He is a sweet 7 year old pit/Labrador mix who loves children, but not other dogs (which prevents us from adopting him because my sister often visits me with her dog). In addition to the dog’s problem, he also suffers from epilepsy, and often a chronic illness adds to the challenge of finding his forever family. For now, he has meals, walks, belly massages, adults working from home, and kids to sleep with at night.
Catholic ideas will no doubt continue as we encounter the various animals (and humans) who find rest with our family.