At the risk of continuing to paint an exceedingly unattractively misanthropic and cranky picture of myself, I must confess that this picture is a lie. I don’t actually like our dog this much. She’s a divorce-guilt dog, and a capitulation to my animal-adoring daughter, who asked literally every day for 5 years if she could pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaase have a dog. To the dog (hopefully not to the daughter!) I’m like the wire mommy in those awful monkey experiments–I provide food, water, and occasional walks, but very little sincere affection or cuddliness.
Nonetheless, I think I have gone some ways towards achieving what Bennion’s 7th commandment aims at: I have, at least, learned to like home and visiting teaching.
In The Little Prince, St. Exupery’s hero meets a fox, who wants to be tamed by the boy. When the little prince asks how this taming is to be done, the fox replies:
‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’
The next day the little prince came back.
‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’
Once upon a time, I liked to complain about how artificial visiting teaching is. I argued that it couldn’t be “real” friendship because it is assigned and ritualized, not based on mutual interests or authentic fellow-feeling. The thing dogs and visiting teaching want to show us is that we’re not so very complicated after all, that a monthly visit, even on the last day of the month, will eventually tame us–we will learn first to expect the visit, then to depend on it, then to enjoy and finally look forward to it in a way that makes its pleasure and comfort permanent in our lives. We are creatures, happier if we acknowledge our needs and desires as frankly as dogs do, and blessed if we learn to be content with the mere presence of another breathing, sensate being to save us from being alone in the universe.
I can happily say that I do, really, without much effort, love the song of birds, which teaches the humbling lesson of our creatureliness even more profoundly. To hear a bird sing, to really listen, is to confront the truth that the earth is full of beauty that, for all our large-brainedness, we cannot begin to understand or imitate. Try as we may, we cannot learn either the words or the tune of birds’ calling to each other, cannot be initiated into their mystery.
To like the company of dogs and the song of birds is to accept that we are embodied as animals, as fleshy, hairy, breathing beasts that need food and water and mates. We may as well learn to like dogs, because they are ours and we are theirs, all strangers in a world none of us understand, but all strangers together–mourning and celebrating our exile and our belonging, howling and singing by turns.