Man’s Best Reflection
When I first started dating my fiancé, before we had a dog, we discussed this hypothetical: if a dog that belonged to you and a human stranger were hanging in peril, and you only had the time and ability to save one of them, which is more deserving of rescue? At the time, I made a logically-framed argument, maintaining that humanity is fundamentally more valuable than the life of any other animal, that a person is capable of producing so much more good in the world than a dog is, and that the risk of the stranger being a complete monstrosity of a person after being saved from impending death would be minimal compared to the odds that he or she would be a valuable contributor to society. Her rebuttal: just wait until you get a dog.
I waited. We got a dog. She was right.
Not only would I now save my dog without so much as a flinching hesitation, I’d probably save a stranger’s dog before I’d save the stranger. Sure, having a dog of my own has helped change my mind, but there’s more to it than that. An honest inspection of humanity yields a much stronger argument. Dogs are better students of character than humans — they bark at those worth barking at, offer their belly to those deserving of intimacy — which begs the assumption that perhaps they are simply better than people.
The problem is, I know humans. I am one. If you’re reading this, good chance you are, too, and have been one for a while now. We’ve spent more time around humans than any other creature, and we should be proud of our species. Humans have done a lot of incredible, awesome things. But just like there’s a sour taste in your mouth whenever your mom compares you to your over-achieving cousin who went to Yale on an oboe scholarship, there’s something fleeting, unsatisfying, even anger-inducing about those great feats and accomplishments — especially when they’re not really yours.
It’s not that the geniuses and marvels of humanity aren’t deserving of recognition, but those are the astronomically few needles in the hayfields of our otherwise humdrum history. Most people suck, yet as a species the accomplishments of the few justify an exorbitant smugness in the many, as if our ability to send emails implies a latent genius inside of us that other people actually had in order to develop that technology in the first place.
People are dishonest, greedy, selfish, manipulative — a specific litany of words and expressions that are endemic to describing ourselves and ourselves only. If dogs have any knock against them, it’s that they are too enamored with their immediate, impulsive desires. And really, isn’t that considered a tragically admirable human trait? Can you hold it against a dog if it is so passionately enthralled with life that it doesn’t listen, or if it is so fanatically loyal to its owners that it barks at everyone else? Those sound like de facto job interview responses: “My biggest weaknesses? I work too hard! I care too much! I’m a perfectionist!” Only it’s no treacle with dogs; they’re the same with or without the promise of a treat. The only human comparison that comes close is a young child, but they eventually grow up and out of their earnestness. Dogs don’t.
I remember vividly the day our dog Thor came home. The man who sold him to us insisted he was 10 weeks old, but when I first held the fuzzy palm-sized potato in a single hand, I doubted he was older than six. He was the runt of his litter, and the last to go because of it. Being the youngest of four brothers, I felt a kinship with him. “I don’t care if your brothers are playing on the varsity basketball team,” I whispered, “I’ll go to all of your JV games.” Thor is my first dog, and though I’ve interacted with plenty of other dogs in my day, it’s not the same as when you own one. For the record, I cringe at the thought of “owning” a dog, especially since Thor is a dachshund, and anyone who has cohabited with a dachshund knows that the picture of who-owns-who becomes pretty unclear pretty quickly. But he’s not mine the way that my computer or books are mine; he’s mine like how my fiancé, or my parents and brothers are mine.
Anthropomorphism aside, I know Thor understands me when I tell him to quit barking, or to stop chewing whatever it is he’s chewing, but instead of following orders like a “good dog,” he looks up at me, pauses, tilts his head, and continues whatever he’s doing while staring me in the eye. My thumping footsteps follow, causing him to belly-up and tuck his paws neatly into his chest — a tried-and-true method to instantaneously absolve him of any wrongdoing, transforming his punishment from a scolding to a belly rub. I’m tempted to say Thor has learned nothing, but he has. He’s learned how to tow me around on a leash, his undeniable cuteness the strings to my marionette.
Prior to becoming an uncle, the baby pictures of friends and relatives were beginning to mound into one generic visage. See one baby and you’ve seen them all. My niece Esther, though — she’s something else. I still couldn’t tell her face apart from any other baby, but I’ve spent enough time with her to distinguish her from her diapered peers through her behavior. Child-rearing feels to me like reality television or romance novels; not something I see myself getting into, but I get the appeal. To watch that cute little blob of a person forge the first signs of a personality, or to see her display the Herculean resilience of learning the tricks of bipedalism, it’s easy to catch the fever. The unbridled curiosity of a child is moving. Even her tantrums, sporadic as they may be, wear a certain charm. I’m sure my brother and sister-in-law don’t quite share the enthusiasm the rest of the family does when we see those little tear droplets scale the curvature of her chubby baby cheeks, but to us, she can do no wrong. She is too cute to hold even the most pungent of diapers against her.
No example of our willful ignorance towards babies is stranger than what you will find if you search the internet for 3 words: “cute,” “baby,” and “poop.” Countless videos pop up of babies shifting seamlessly from giggling to clenching, with faceless “oohs” and “awwws” audible behind the cameras. Human feces usually only exists as disgusting and/or funny. Apparently, our species is high enough on oxytocin to graft a third offshoot of “cute” when it comes to babies. I pray that caveat never extends to adults.
While I haven’t heard anyone describe Esther’s poop as cute (or at all, for that matter, which leads me to believe she’s hiding something), our family is no less innocent of being intentionally revisionist when it comes to her less attractive qualities. Esther’s charming baby flaws, to us, will one day become the headaches of someone else. I know from experience.
I had taught elementary and middle school for a number of years by the time Esther was born, and the contrast was jarring. Every day I worked with a classroom full of someone’s precious little angel. Being around them — playing with them, teaching them, herding them and shooing them around the school — was the single most effective form of contraception. Singed in my memory is one student in particular. Let’s call him Derek.
Derek was the nightmare of the school. Within seconds of being escorted into the classroom ala Hannibal Lecter, he would grab the closest object he could find and forcibly introduce it to the closest person he could find. This sort of hyper-aggression made it so he couldn’t be left unattended for even a moment. After the previous teacher quit, I was appointed as his shadow. One day, in the middle of class, he informed us that he had to use the bathroom by swiftly up-and-leaving. I followed, waiting outside the bathroom, having previously been warned that I was a male working at an elementary school, and all it would take was a single accusation to ruin my life forever.
Derek unzipped his pants and dropped them to his ankles before entering the stall, looking back with a smile and a laugh as he showed me his naked buttocks. “Derek,” I scolded, “do your business, please.” I heard the crack of the toilet seat as it was whipped down, and shortly after, a deep sploosh. Everything seemed to be in order. Then I heard another splash, but something was off about it. It wasn’t a single-drop, rather more of a person learning to swim kind of splash, like a kid kicking in a pool while holding a mini-flotation board. My first thought was that he was blowing out his anus in some grotesque way, so I stepped in to make sure he was fine. What I saw was truly, hauntingly unforgettable: Derek, having successfully fished out his freshly-plopped turd, was mid-chew with a smile on his face. It quickly faded into a look of horror. It was the first time I felt comprehensively helpless as a teacher, utterly confused about professional protocol. I slapped the log out of his hand as he started to spray the stall with whatever was coming out of his mouth, vowing to never have children as the pitch of his banshee-shriek ascended.
When asked when we’re planning on taking the pregnancy plunge, my fiancé and I always joke that we already have a kid, he’s just covered in fur. The rehearsed follow-up is to note that dogs, unlike kids, can legally undergo ownership that would be deemed negligent for humans. When we go to work, Thor stays behind in our apartment to fend for himself, kept company by toys and knots made from old socks tied together. Try telling a woman fresh out of the pregnancy ward to do the same with her child.
Beyond that, though, Thor is everything anyone could ever want in a child. He’s always excited to see us, never stops loving us, and is adorable even when he is at his most annoying. I’ve taught too many kids, for too long, to be convinced that any child is as reliably well-behaved as Thor. Watching him do “people things” is no less adorable than when an infant does “adult things.” Even when Thor’s behavior is the same as my niece Esther’s — or even Derek’s, for that matter — we still bestow a sense of pure innocence upon pets that humans aren’t afforded past the age of five or so. Or, until they begin eating their own shit, in which case they have irrevocably forfeited it.
We had to move apartments a while ago, and the overnight change of scenery got to Thor. A few days went by where we noticed that his food wasn’t making it out the other end. He ate a little bit, but he spent more time poking at his food with his long nose, retiring to his warm spot under the couch shortly after. Even when we made him chicken, his favorite, he seemed uninterested after a few bites. At night, he would suddenly leap up from his usual position wedged between our heads, jump to the floor, and start throwing up.
Naturally, we took him to the vet. Everything checked out, but we knew he wasn’t fine. After three days that seemed like a constipated eternity, he finally sloshed one out. A maniacal celebration ensued; we were dancing and singing about sloppy dogshit on the floor. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was cute, but it was definitely not as disgusting as it probably should have been. I’m just thankful that Thor didn’t attempt to eat it. That would have really tested the boundaries of my ability to look past his flaws and love him unconditionally. Yet that’s a limit that doesn’t exist in Thor’s beautiful, perfectly simple world.
That’s the whole point: even though my love for Thor is a deep aquifer, somewhere, at some point, it has a bedrock. I’ve earned my fair share of glares from onlookers who watch while I allow Thor to lick my face. As far as I can tell, it’s his way of showing his love (or that he enjoys whatever crumbs are hiding on my face), and I kiss him right back; I’m one of those people. Still, if I see Thor lick himself, let’s say, inappropriately (see: on his dick), best believe I’m not letting him near my face until he’s chewed down a couple of those green minty toothbrush treats. There’s a point where my willingness to accept his affection hits a snag. There are circumstances where I will reject him, however infrequent, insignificant, or innocuous they may be, but no such point exists from his end. No matter what I’ve done, no matter where my hands and lips have been, he eagerly invites them to pet and kiss.
Dogs are lucky, if anything, to not live within the boundaries that we constantly navigate. Social norms of working routines, interpersonal expectations, even hygiene fence us in and away from truly existing — for better and for worse. Of course it’s a good thing that we don’t struggle for daily survival, lick our genitals to keep them clean, or shit on the floor — those are easily defensible evolutionary developments. What I’m not so sure about is our insistence on schedules and busyness; our capitulation to and adulation of ambition; our servile obsession with the rat-race; our distinctions of normal, acceptable, tolerable — and all their opposites — in any facet of the modern human life.
It’s not that we necessarily want to subject ourselves to such confines, we’ve just reached the point of no relapse. We’ve erected unshakeable walls that herd us into a mass, shared collusion. Even when we want to escape them, we can’t. They exist because of our inability to reconcile the logical orderliness of our evolved states with our basic, animal instincts. It’s a fundamentally human paradox, our modern Scylla and Charybdis.
The societal fabric that we have contrived is an unprecedented feat of organization and cohabitation. As a species, we’ve fine-tuned the spatial mechanics of living between buildings next to other people living between buildings, everyone complicit in general unspoken principles of putting up with each other’s sights, smells and sounds. Somewhere along the line, between property-line fences and neighboring walls, invisible structures of social behavior and public decorum grew to enclose us similarly, to the point we can’t manage our most primal tendencies inside its walls. Our macro, species-wide engineering is fascinating, if for nothing more than the fact we’ve built something too big for us to naturally operate within.
It sounds obvious, but the fact that we need to tame ourselves is exactly why we do it. We have our social awnings and enclosures because we can’t completely shake the perfidious bloodlust writhing inside of us somewhere, and even though most of us know better than to rip our clothes off and spring on each other — or bark at strangers passing by, or unceremoniously thrust our faces into our food, or impulsively snatch things we want upon seeing them — those rules keep us in line just in case. It’s why I can’t leave the door open when I go to work, lest Thor becomes too distractedly excited by the sights and sounds of the world that he bolts into the middle of the street and gets hit by a bus. For all the charms his simple love of life holds, it’s not worth the risk. So we shut the door when we leave. He may not subscribe to our social-behavioral structures, but he’s bound by our physical ones whether he likes it or not.
Dogs are man’s best friend because they’re man’s best mirror. To see a dog so earnestly happy — to play, to eat good food, to run outside — is to relive the sincerity of childhood. That isn’t to endow dogs with infallibility, because they can certainly be the opposite. The same can be said of any child, too. The point isn’t that dogs or children are perfect, it’s that their imperfections are unequivocally honest. Adulthood, along with the social confines that dictate it, eliminates that purity. We’ve told ourselves that we should know better, that we shouldn’t act like children. We’ve grown up. But really, what is more childish than a persistent desire to be a grown-up?
People have built a lot. Ceilings intercept walls while doors and windows convince us that these are rooms we spend our lives in. I don’t doubt that these structures keep us safe, keep us alive even, but I do worry about what we have left outside. Sometimes, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to chase the sunlight into the outside world, tongue out in the wind as it sweeps past us, to defy our petty jurisdictions and dash across the street, even if we risk getting hit. I have to believe that it’s better than waiting inside for someone to open the door.