Monday, September 10, 2012

The meaning of life

An interesting side effect of getting a dog is that I have begun to read a lot of books about dogs.

Now I've always been an avid reader. When I was nine years old, I spent my summer vacation reading all nine volumes of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. (What a geek!) Over the years, my tastes have bounced all over the map: non-fiction, political biographies, CanLit, fantasy, and historical fiction. But I'd never really read a book about canines until I picked up A Dog Year by Jon Katz, lent to me by a friend when I started talking about adopting a dog of my own. Now, almost two years later, my book shelves - physical and electronic - are filled with "doggie lit". Books about training, books about herding, books about breeds, (auto)biographical works about dogs and their people, and most recently, novels about dogs.

One of the most recent books that I read is called A Dog's Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron.

I first stumbled across it last Easter long weekend, when I ended up stranded at Regan International Airport for four very long hours. After drinking a couple of overly-expensive and even-more-overly-watered-down American beers in the airport bar, I wandered over to the bookstore. And there it was - this little black doggie snout looking up at me from a blue cover. "Huh. I wonder what this is?" I said to myself. So I picked it up and started to read Chapter 1. And quickly realized that the novel was written from the perspective of a newborn pup. Cute, right?

So I bought it. And finally got around to reading it this summer. Without giving too much of it away, this book is about a dog (d'uh) who lives a number of lives (it's not just for felines anymore). Four, in fact. Each time he dies, he comes back as another dog - a different breed, sometimes a different sex, who lives a very different life surrounded by very different people in very different circumstances. About mid-way through his lives, he realizes that he is going to keep coming back as another dog until he fulfills his true purpose in life. He spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what that true purpose might be. And every time he thinks that he has figured it out and that he will escape reincarnation, he opens his eyes and finds himself a suckling pup yet again.

On each new quest, the hero understands that his life has meaning because of what he does for the humans around him. And all of his lives bring him back full circle to helping one human in particular, who is in dire need of friendship and loyalty. And therein lies the message behind the book. Dogs love humans with selfless abandon. Their needs, their wants, and their desires are ultimately sacrificed so that they can fulfill their destiny as "man's best friend."

I do have to admit that this touching tale made me cry a little a lot. And like any crazy dog person who reads novels about dogs good dog owner, I could not help but think about my own wee Fergus as I read the lovable protagonist and his many personalities.

Now admittedly, there are times when I don't think that Fergus really cares too much about what Hubby and I want, and that all meaning in his life revolves around fulfilling his basest needs. Why else would he terrorize the neighbourhood children by barking at the top of his lungs whenever they play out on the street. Or jump in the swampy, disgusting, smelly Arboretum pond when I tell him not to. Or roll around in rotting plant material that sticks to his fur for days on end. Or go on periodic hunger strikes in a bid to get us to feed him human food instead of kibble. Or howl at the church bells like a dog possessed when we walk down the street. Or... well, you get the picture. He does a lot of things that aren't exactly designed to make me happy...

So then what the heck is his purpose? Surely, it can't be to drive me crazy with his bad behaviour?

For days after finishing the book, I tried to figure out Fergus' true purpose in life. But I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I mean, there are lots of things that he does to make me smile. But some grand destiny related to making my life infinitely better - I just couldn't see it. And it was bothering me. I mean, I just read a book that promised me that every dog had a purpose in life! Mine had to have one too, dammit!

So, after about a week of still not being quite able to put my finger on it, I gave up and asked Hubby. He seemed puzzled. "Isn't it obvious?" he said. "His purpose is to make you happy!"

"Well of course, he makes me happy!" I said. "That's not what I mean! I mean what is his, you know, ultimate purpose for being on this planet? What is his destiny? Why did we end up with him? Is it because the universe sensed that we needed something that only he could give? What is it about being with us that gives his life meaning?"

Long pause, followed by, "I think you should stop reading novels about dogs." He is ever helpful, that Hubby of mine...

Still, his answer got me thinking. Can it really be that simple? Is Fergus here simply to make me a happier person?

To answer that, I've considered all the ways that my life has changed since the Beast galloped through the door in a blur of red and white fur:

  • I feel safer on my runs. And since running is something that I love to do, and since there are times when I'm too scared to be out there on my own, well, having the Beast makes me happy.
  • I have better work-life balance. Sure, I still work long hours and weekends, but I never do so at the expense of coming home and caring for my boy. Having him forces me to take a time out, which might, on the surface, be for him, but ultimately benefits me. And this makes me happier.
  • On a related note, I don't feel as much stress as I used to. And this despite having the most stressful job of my career thus far. Again, this is because I have to take the time to take care of the Beast, which means that I have to park any negative feelings I am having about work or my uber-sensitive primadonna will know it and act out. This means that I am forced to take better care of myself. Which makes me happier.
  • I spend more quality time with my husband. Almost every weekend, he and I take the dog out for a walk together, giving us precious time to catch up. Which makes me happier.
  • My husband and I work better as a team now, a phenomenon which, I am convinced, is because of all the hours that we have had to put into training Fergus. We don't often find ourselves on the same page when it comes to how things should be done (ask him one time to tell you how I have banned him from painting because he doesn't do it right), but for the Beast's sake, we had to agree early on to the rules of canine engagement so that our overly-intelligent pup could not play us off of one another in a bid to take over. I know this makes Hubby happier because I am not constantly nagging him. And it makes me happier because, well, he is not constantly ignoring me nagging him.
  • I'm more excited to come home, especially because it means being greeted by a bum that won't stop wagging and a head that just wants to bury itself in my lap so that I can give it ear scratches. It doesn't matter how bad of a day I might have had. The Beast's overly exuberant reaction, each and every time I walk through the door, makes me happy.
  • I'm more patient. I'm far from being Mother Theresa, but learning to deal with Fergus' behaviours - both good and bad - has forced me to take a step back from being the neurotic, emotionally-driven gong show that is my standard default whenever something doesn't go my way. I've learned to take a deeper breath and collect myself before I react, which is no small feat for a girl like me. And which, I realize, makes me happier than I was when I was flying off the handle at the slightest little thing.
So maybe it really is that simple. Maybe I'm not some kid who fell down a well and needs to be rescued. Maybe I'm not some old, lonely bachelorette who needs companionship in her dying days. And maybe I'm not a policewoman who needs a new partner to help me catch the bad guys. 

Maybe I am just a regular girl, who has a pretty good life, but who just needs to take a little better care of herself, to better appreciate the people around her, and to simply smile a little bit more every now and then. 

In which case, Fergus is the perfect dog for me. And if you don't believe me, just look at this face:

Or this one:

Or this one:

How could that little bugger not be meant to make me happy?