Let's get one thing clear: This isn't going to be a mushy, squishy post about how my dog adores me and doesn't judge me and thus teaches me how it feels to be loved unconditionally. That might be true sometimes, but this post isn't about that sort of sentimental, heartwarming love. It's about love in a Christian sense. The kind of love Jesus modeled and that God calls us to. The kind of love that can change the world if we allow ourselves to practice it.
Last Friday was St. Francis's day, when we traditionally give thanks for the animals in our lives, in remembrance of the saint who renounced his considerable wealth to live a life of poverty in communion with the natural world, including animals. I'd like to celebrate St. Francis by telling you about our dog, Sunday, and three things Sunday is teaching me about what love—Christian love, gospel love, world-changing love, the kind of love Jesus was talking about in the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor—looks like.
1. Doing the right thing isn't easy or simple, especially when it's not clear what the "right thing" is.
Sunday is the third dog we adopted over a period of eight months. The first two were adult dogs (around two or three years old) who were typical "rescue" dogs—they had been given up or neglected by previous owners for a variety of reasons. In planning for getting a dog some day, we were committed to getting a rescue dog—a mutt that desperately needed a home—rather than paying a breeder. This was a practical choice (rescuing a dog is far cheaper) and an ethical one. We were moved by ad campaigns and the personal testimony of dog lovers who insisted that rescuing is the clear best way to add a pet to one's family.
With much heartache, angst, and many tears, we had to relinquish our first two rescue dogs when it became clear that, even with extensive training and behavior modification, they were not safe dogs for a household with children.
Chastened and cautious, we adopted one more dog—this time a puppy whom we could socialize to our busy household from the start. While Sunday is technically also a "rescue" dog because we adopted her from a nonprofit rescue organization, as an adorable white fluffball of a puppy, she would have easily found another home if we hadn't taken her. So she didn't fit the profile of the ethically pure rescue-dog adoption.
Friends have told me that, after witnessing our first two failed dog adoptions, they see those Facebook posts or late-night cable ads touting the clear ethical superiority of rescuing abandoned pets differently. They understand that rescuing an abandoned or neglected dog isn't always the right choice for some families, or for the dogs, who end up experiencing yet one more failed relationship with humans.
We like to talk as if the right thing—the ethically superior action, the most loving action—is always crystal clear. We like to bring such certainty to our declarations of which political party, government spending priority, charitable organization, or daily life choice (e.g., how and what to eat, how to procure a pet) is obviously best. For everybody. Always.
Adopting Sunday after our heartbreaking failed adoptions has taught me that doing the "right thing" is rarely simple or straightforward. While I will always support those considering a rescue dog for their family, and we give regular donations to the rescue group from which we adopted Sunday, I will also never judge those who decide to get exactly the kind of dog they want from a breeder. We may do that very thing ourselves one day.
2. Sometimes the work of love has to come before feelings of love.
When Sunday came to us at eight weeks old, she was, of course, adorable. But she also required a lot of care and intervention. I slept her first few nights home on the den couch, so I could take her out at 2 or 3 a.m. for bathroom breaks. During the day, I took her out about every hour. She required constant care and vigilance—not unlike a newborn human. But unlike with my newborn humans, I didn't experience an immediate, overwhelming sense of love and belonging, that deep parental certainty that my primary job on this earth right now is to ensure the survival of this small, helpless being. Sunday was cute enough, but I had work to do, three children and a household to care for. Taking care of Sunday was kind of a pain, during those first weeks and even as she grew, as we had to continually dodge her little teeth and their desire to gnaw on our shoelaces, as we learned that no game of "fetch" is ever long enough for Sunday's satisfaction.
There have been moments over the past year and a half, in other words, that I have wondered why I chose to add another reckless, needy, disorderly being to our household, when we already had three of those in human form who were keeping us plenty busy.
But especially given our previous failed adoptions, I knew that Sunday was here to stay—obnoxious and destructive and needy as she can be. And by getting up each day committed to feeding and walking her, to playing "fetch" past the point that it is any fun for me, and to taking her to the vet for her shots or when she became gravely ill after eating something toxic (24 hours in a pet ER....cha ching!), I have come to love her.
Loving our neighbors can be a lot like the way I learned to love Sunday. We start by doing what we know we must and should do. We start by doing loving things. We greet the new person at church even when we're eager to get home to relish the Sunday paper. We sign up for the MLK Day of Service even when we might prefer to sleep in and go out to breakfast with the family. We teach Sunday School even when we're not sure we have what it takes to engage a room full of second graders. We stop to ask the homeless guy who sits outside our office building his name and buy him a cup of coffee even though we'd rather walk by and ignore him. And the more we do those sorts of things, the more connected we begin to feel, the more we realize how much the other people to whom we offer care and attention are actually giving back to us. We begin to feel love only after we have done what love requires.
3. Caring for those who can't take care of themselves is the most important work there is.
For me, this time in our family life is about a gajillion times harder than the early days of nighttime feedings and endless diaper changes. I loved having babies, despite the sleep deprivation and physicality of it, for lots of reasons. Including that babies don't talk. Which means they don't whine and defy. Babies don't turn up their noses at what is served for dinner. Also, babies don't have homework, choir practice, piano practice, violin practice, acting class, gymnastics class, swim class, and 4H—all of which generally happen between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weeknights. Also, when I had babies, we made a clear decision that my number one job was their care. Now, I'm trying to take care of three growing kids while also building a freelance career writing about such nice low-key topic as religion, politics, sexuality, and reproduction, which makes me a magnet for Internet trolls who call me things like "ninnypoop" (and far worse). So yeah, this time of our family's life? Not so easy.
But there's this moment that comes nearly every evening. The cat, Stormy, returns from her twilight wanderings (she makes nightly visits to an indoor-only cat two doors down; they apparently discuss whatever it is cats discuss through the screened porch windows). I feed her, and she retires upstairs to find a cozy spot for the night. Sunday winds down from her nightly "witching hour," when she is a complete maniac from about 5 to 8 p.m. (I consider this cosmic payback for the fact that I never had a colicky infant.) Climbing onto the couch, she yawns and her eyelids droop. Soon, she is stretched out sideways, leaving her belly helpfully accessible to anyone who might want to bestow a scratch upon it.
Upstairs, I stop in the children's rooms to say goodnight. I smooth their still-damp, freshly washed hair, note their clean hands and faces. After reminding them of anything out of the ordinary coming up tomorrow, I say goodnight and leave them with their books, or in my teenager's case, texting her friends on her cell phone.
As I get myself ready for bed, I feel, for a few moments, a profound sense of calm. For the moment, all of the small, needy, vulnerable creatures entrusted to my care are right here, safe, fed, clean, and resting. I have yet to find any work as tangibly satisfying as tending to the basic needs of small, vulnerable creatures. In these moments, I see how my work tending to this particular family of creatures is vital, central, necessary.
In the Gospels, we read:
Whoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much. (Luke 16:10)
…As you did to the least of these, you did to me (Matthew 25:40)
These passages are really about justice, about how we share our resources with those in need in a sense that goes far beyond domestic life. But they speak also to how caring for the small, vulnerable creatures in our own homes reveals what love looks like, the kind of love Jesus was talking about—love that responds to a vulnerable one in need simply because the vulnerable one and the needs exist, not because of the needy one’s personality or history or righteousness or ability to pay us back in some way. There is, of course, much joy and “pay back” in loving children and pets. But there’s also tedium and fatigue and crabbiness and a host of reasons why, sometimes, I’d like to ignore the meowing cat, the obnoxious dog, or the whining children, forget about the family dinner and eat a bowl of ice cream by myself, crawl into bed without first ensuring that everyone is fed and washed and tucked in, the homework done, the lunches made. In such moments, love is clearly a verb; love is what I continue to do for the needy ones in my household even when I don’t much feel like doing it.
Legends tell of St. Francis preaching to the birds and taming a wolf. All I do is take care of one small, crazy dog with a chewing fetish and an inordinate talent for fetching. It doesn't seem like much, especially given the depth and scope of pain and tragedy in the world. But sometimes I think that caring for small, vulnerable creatures like her is the most important work there is.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.