Of Dogs and Doormats

Many of you know the Washington Post news and opinion columns are major sources for my blog topics, but you may be surprised to learn I’m also a devoted reader of the comics and of Miss Manners. If, like most people I talk to, you don’t read them you have no idea what you’re missing. The comics provide deep philosophical truths. Miss Manners provides endless laughs.

Those who write to Miss Manners can be divided into three general categories: Doormats who are seeking guidance on how to deal in a mannerly fashion with unmannerly people who use them or try to use them for their selfish purposes, the unmannerly who whine to Miss M. when people don’t enjoy being used, and the few remaining anachronistic fussbudgets who are mortified by the thought that they might use the wrong eating utensil, wear the wrong clothing or not write the perfect thank you or condolence card.

Being a shrink, my advice to the doormats would be different from those of Miss Manners. She proposes polite ways to say “bug off.” I’d opt for a less ambiguous response.

I also enjoy the Horoscope, both mine and my wife’s. Not that I believe a word of it, but it’s fun to keep track of the cosmic forces that may affect our day even though they don’t. Ours often relate to each other. Today I have a “moon alert.” I may be inclined to make a decision I will regret. My wife also has a moon alert, but hers involves a tendency to coerce someone to make a decision. Talk about star crossed lovers!

Another column I enjoy is John Kelly’s. He offers stories of local human interest, obscure DC history and philosophical musings about life, including his own.

For the past two years, readers have been following the progress of his relationship with his nine year old rescue dog, Archie. Most of the Archie stories describe, in gentle terms, the fact that the dog is pretty much a pain in the butt. I imagine if the Kellys had read the horoscope on the day they adopted him they would have received a moon alert similar to the one I got today.

The Kellys finally broke down and hired a dog trainer to help them deal with Archie’s pathological dependence. Archie definitely had a pre-existing condition, but John deserves credit for knowing it takes two to tango.

Most of us have experienced the heartrending pain of trying to ignore the cries of a baby who must be ignored in order to learn how to get by without constant attention. No doubt the Kellys had to endure this agony with their offspring. They are now reliving it with Archie. My heart goes out to them.

Rather than savoring the joys of the empty nest, they made the inexplicable decision to saddle themselves with a seven year old canine diagnosed with PTSD. They are not alone. Many dogs were adopted during the initial lockdown of the Covid epidemic. People, stuck at home isolated from social activities and with a lot of time on their hands failed to foresee that, at some point, they’d be stuck at home with the dog.

While it’s a kindness to teach a dog independence, the process is unpleasant and complex. In a nutshell, people crave the feeling of being needed and unconditionally loved. (Which, by the way, underlies the dilemma of the assertiveness challenged who write to Miss Manners.) While humans are unlikely to fill these desires, dogs have been bred for that purpose.

There’s a price to be paid for feeling loved, wanted and needed. We hesitate to disappoint those who provide it lest we provoke their disapproval. It feels good to be adored and bad to be resented. Archie is not the first con artist to capitalize on this universal human trait.

I am guessing John’s heart is breaking not only for his miserable ignored dog but also for himself. Training Archie requires him to sacrifice the constant feeling of being worshipped as a perfect being, a feeling not even his “Lovely Wife” (doubtless a well deserved moniker) can be expected to provide. (Actually, judging from my own spouse’s intimate knowledge of my many shortcomings, maybe especially not she.)

A dog’s adoration is so addictive that it compels otherwise sane people to get tied down by a smelly animal who licks them with the same tongue that licks its hindquarters, rolls in the dirt prior to sleeping in their bed, won’t let them eat in peace and requires them to venture outdoors at all hours and in all kinds of weather to pick up poop. As if this isn’t bad enough, it chains them to the home unless they go to extraordinary trouble or expense to provide for the animal’s care in their absence.

Though Archie must learn he can survive without John’s constant attention (if not without his janitorial services) John must face the fact none of us is as lovable nor indispensable as dogs make us feel. In the grand scheme of things our existence as individuals or as a species is of no consequence.

While this is painful to acknowledge, there is comfort to be found in it as well. Thanks to years of dealing with overly needy people I long ago came to appreciate the positive side of knowing I’m not indispensable.

We were not missed before we arrived. For want of anything better to do we serve whatever purposes we choose while we are here. After we are gone we may be missed for a short while by a handful of people before fading into the vast pool of the anonymous departed. The world and the universe will go on unperturbed.

It’s wise to accept this sad truth, even embrace it. It helps keep the daily struggles of life in perspective and reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously. It can also allay worry about whether we please unmannerly demanding people. Or, for that matter, dogs.

Among the many reasons people enjoy owning dogs is that their pet’s undying love pushes thoughts of their own irrelevance away. No one should be blamed for wanting that, but for those who are tormented by the guilt that comes with teaching a pet how to respect the owner’s autonomy or from telling needy, grasping, selfish people to flake off, it can be helpful to remain aware of our insignificance.

No small task this. It requires us to tolerate not only the pain inherent in rejecting the perceived needs others, but the pain that comes with letting go of our own needs as well.

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