Most human traditions celebrate the harvest as a time of thanks giving. George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
Among these favours are our dogs. Now, some of you may be thinking it’s beneath the dignity of the occasion to be talking about dogs. But let’s face it, dogs may be a more fitting subject for thanks giving than most of your relatives.
With that bit of heresy as preface, let me begin this day’s meditation on gratitude by adding a footnote to my post, Cold Comforts, in which I discussed grieving over dogs. It is common for owners to feel more grief when their dog dies than when a relative or friend does. For many people, this is an unsettling experience, often accompanied by shame. After all, you ask yourself, what has it come to when I care more about my dog than about Bob, my uncle?
Well, here’s what I think it’s come to. In the first place, merely being human doesn’t make anyone more worthy of love than a dog. In this vein, I’ve always loved Thurber’s remark: “I am not a dog lover. A dog lover to me means a dog that is in love with another dog. I am a great admirer of certain dogs, just as I am an admirer of certain men, and I dislike certain dogs as much as I dislike certain men.”
Besides recognizing that some dogs may indeed be more worth grieving over than some people, keep in mind that our dogs live with us, as most relatives and friends do not. Aristotle calls living together (the Greek is sunousia, which means “being-with”) the mark of friends. True friends, he says, want to spend their days together, doing whatever it is they love. Like children or spouses—and quite unlike most friends and family—dogs are woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. In our house, for example, each day begins and ends with the ritual of going for a walk with Aktis. For some, the fact of the dog’s physical dependence means they become a more regular, because nonnegotiable, part of their life’s fabric than anyone else.
There’s more to say about why dogs are worthy of our love and respect—interested or skeptical readers will find more in my book—but here it’s enough to indicate why losing a dog is so hard. A dog’s death, like that of a spouse or a child, tears the fabric, the very form and texture, of our life. In contrast, the death of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and distant friends may sadden us without altering the fabric of our lives in the least. Our care about them is more adumbrated and abstract than the love we have for a dog we’ve lived with day in, day out, for 15 years, whose health and education and happiness have been our care, who’s traveled with us, whom we’ve touched and often slept beside daily, for whom our affection is often less complicated and thus less conditional than with fellow humans—it’s no surprise their death causes us grief.
So what does this have to do with thanksgiving? The Buddhists are right that meditating on impermanence leads by a fairly direct path to feelings of love and gratitude. When Aktis was very sick, showing signs of his impermanence, my attention and thus my love and gratitude, grew more keen. Though he’s well again, remaining mindful of his mortality helps me be grateful for what I have, for now. (Here’s a recent example from my own life of gratitude and its pleasures inspired by thoughts of impermanence.)
So, while we still have them among us, let’s give thanks for family and friends, and thanks for dogs (who may belong to either, or both, of those categories).
And to inspire the thanks giving, recall the cruel irony that those nearest and dearest to us are the ones we most easily take for granted. Like good habits, we often fail to notice them, or appreciate their presence when we do notice! That’s why it’s good to have occasions devoted to paying attention and giving thanks for all we have, those many and signal favours—before death shoves the brutal, painful facts in our face, reminding us again and again that everyone we love, and we ourselves, will die.
On a lighter note, I’m reposting a hilarious guided meditation, an inspiring example of having the courage to be grateful, even to one’s devourer—the perfect thing to share with family and friends on this day of thanksgiving.