The way the dog trots out the front door
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.
— — Poet Laureate Billy Collins*
Fifty years ago, “It’s a dog’s life” meant a miserably unhappy existence. Certainly not today, certainly not in America. Now dogs are the objects of our affection and the subjects of scientific study. According to a report published in the journal Animal Cognition, dogs can tell if people are untrustworthy: Fool around with their trust and your reliability is suspect. In fact, dogs are credited with the ability to sense human emotions. Dogs whose owners are undependable often develop behavioral disorders.
However, despite a dog’s seeming connection with its trustworthy owner, they’re not like us. On the plus side, dogs have fewer preconceptions and conceits. Dogs don’t talk to themselves about the past. When dogs encounter a situation, they respond to what’s there. They live in the present. They trot out the front door unencumbered: without money or keys and, if well treated, without psychological baggage.
Of course, we humans live in a complex world whose demands on our responsive potential are uniquely different. Unlike dogs, we can’t avoid thinking about the implications of our actions or inactions or leave the future up to the consistent good will of our owners.
Yes, as with dogs and other animals, the natural and human-made forces that account for our existence bind us. Yet, because we can think for ourselves, we possess the means to “own” ourselves and to fulfill our systemically responsive desire to live a life of our own design.
When we lay out our life plans, two crucial factors must be taken into account.
- We must inventory and be responsible for that to which we are obligated by law or choice.
- We must inventory, affirm and be responsible for what is meaningful to us.
This sets the criteria for how to interpret and respond to whatever is presented to us including what we present to ourselves. In sum, as is in the whole of our transformative fate, leading a meaningful life is in our hands as a function of our plans for the life we see fit to live.
Billy Collins’ poem continues with:
Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance?
Thoreau in his curtain less hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?
Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
*Billy Collins, American, born in 1941, Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.
This is an article previously posted on my blog titled, “Without a hat or umbrella.”
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