For weeks, I kept an internet meme on my desktop. It suggested a “new approach to self-care”: talking to yourself the way you talk to your dog. “What a good girl!” “Look at that sweet tummy!” “You’re so smart!” “Time for a treat?”
The idea amused and shamed me. I listened to myself babbling supportive, tender nonsense to our dog and realized I was seldom as exuberant with my husband, whose days are far rougher than nap-play-eat-scritches-chew-nap. And when was the last time I told myself I was good or sweet or smart? Or offered to (literally, not figuratively) scratch somebody’s back?
After two weeks of glancing at that meme every morning, I found myself injecting more wholehearted enthusiasm into my greetings, showing real delight when somebody entered my Zoom screen, hurling myself at my husband as he came through the door as though he had been gone for weeks. Then it occurred to me that the model should extend even further.
My hair has been falling out in clumps lately—the last gasp of hormonal fluctuation, the stress of the coming apocalypse, or just plain aging. I find it horrifying to pull away a dozen strands at a time, and the gleam of more scalp, a wider part, a patchier hairline, unnerves me. Yet when we clip our standard poodle and I see a few soft bare patches where his hair is finer (or maybe we came too close with the clippers) I smile and stroke the bare skin, so tender and vulnerable. He is only two and a half years old; a few bald spots do not spell decrepitude, or remind me of the misery of a friend’s chemo, or threaten the loss of social acceptability. Has anyone ever bought a dog a wig?
And why can I not see my wrinkles as adorable, the way they are on a Shar-Pei? Or my extra pounds as amusing, the way they are when a pug waddles toward you? I see my partner and instantly think of the honey-do list or social engagements I need to nag him about; I greet the pup with zero expectations of chores or contributions, which frees me to feel joy in his company.
When I see a dachshund gamely trundling along with one of those wheelie contraptions taking the place of a fourth leg, I smile tenderly, happy to see his resilience. But when I see a man swinging a stiff leg in a painful circle to move forward, his gait lopsided and effortful, I wince inside and avert my eyes, lest he see me staring. I do the same with somebody struggling up an incline in a wheelchair, determined to do it on his own. Sympathy, yes. Profound respect. But what happened to tenderness?
It is easy to accept animals that live with disabilities or are disfigured or comically unattractive (there are contests!). I never feel condescending or worry that I will seem patronizing if I ease their way. With human beings, I am so worried about seeming judgmental or repulsed that I bend over backwards and wind up either overly conscious of the difference or desperate to ignore it. Am I embarrassed for them? Do I need to be?
Maybe my awkwardness is survivor’s guilt; maybe it is fear. Maybe society has made too much of difference, and self-conscious comparisons place a wedge between us. I do not want to murmur of someone in the Para-Olympics, “Look at that l’il fella go!”—but I do want to feel the same uncomplicated admiration.
Why is there a double standard? Do we feel tender toward animals because they do not remind us of ourselves? Because we feel superior to them, able to look after them? Or in gratitude, because we know they are not judging us?
We expect so much more of ourselves than we do of them. We judge ourselves more harshly, compare more viciously. Granted, a show dog can outdo most narcissists in grooming hours, but that is the human companion’s doing, not the dog’s. Other animals do not judge themselves at all, and maybe that is what frees us to relate to them differently.
I once knew a Trappist monk, a man utterly at home in his own skin, delighted by the world, unconcerned with surfaces. In his nonjudgmental presence I felt a deep ease. The same peace comes over me when I am with people who are good to animals. Not that I should generalize; they often prefer the animals to other humans. But people who tend to animals are, by definition, capable of gentleness, nurture, and imaginative empathy. One of the first signs of a sociopath is cruelty to animals.
People on the autism spectrum often do better with animals than with people—probably because the communication is simpler, stripped of subtext, and calmer, making fewer demands. I understand that. Frazzled, I once came close to ordering a sweatshirt that reads “Today I’m only talking to my dog.”
All those pups adopted during lockdown? We have a lot to learn from them. How to be with someone who is suffering without making it all about us. How to remain steadfast. And how much we have in common. Dogs are often shyer than they let on, as are we. Jumping up or pawing often signals a need for reassurance, as do our acrobatic bids for attention. Humans struggled for centuries to understand rape and #MeToo sexual aggression, yet we easily remark to others at a dog park, “Oh, humping is often not sexual at all; it’s about dominance.” In dogs, biting often signals fear—as does human aggression or cantankerousness. And canine bad behavior is as sure a sign of overstimulation as a toddler’s tantrum. If a dog is nervous or destructive, it is often because they do not have enough to engage their mind and channel their energy. The same is true of us—and if we rattle around idle and purposeless for too long, we can get pretty destructive, emotionally if not physically.
Once I stayed overnight at a colleague’s house and watched his family exist in strained silence, exchanging only sporadic, terse remarks—all the while cooing at their dogs and showering them with unqualified affection. Dogs can be more fun than humans, more responsive and affectionate. But how much of that is because of the way we treat the humans?
We need more treats—by which I do not mean stuff, but long naps in the sunshine and times with friends when you laugh so hard, you are grateful. We need to throw each other a ball now and then. Lose the self-consciousness. Beg shamelessly for petting. Chase dreams. Give lavish and indiscriminate praise. Why are we scared to treat each other that generously? Did the Puritans do this to us?
There were no goldendoodles on those ships.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.