By Patricia McConnell
We were going to go to Hawaii. And then we weren’t. Last summer, when COVID-19 rates went down, we spent a gazillion hours and a lot of laughter planning a trip to the islands with friends for February 2022. Two weeks before departure, we canceled. Hello, omicron.
I was heartsick. I’d wanted to go to Hawaii most of my life. And yet, deep inside, I felt a little relieved. Not just because I was afraid of catching the latest iteration of the virus, but because of the question I’d been asking myself every day for months: “Is it OK to be happy?” How could I justify being happy — truly, blissfully happy (“vacation happy,” I call it) — while the world around me is mired in suffering? So many had lost loved ones. Lost their homes, their countries, their hopes for the future. How could I go to Hawaii and swim in a vivid aquamarine pool below a picturesque waterfall surrounded by tropical flowers amidst so much misery? How could I?
I suspect I am not alone. I wonder if some of us are suffering from a kind of “survivor’s guilt” in which those of us who are lucky — with homes, jobs and relative health — feel ashamed because our lives are so good compared to others’. It’s not just the pandemic that has caused so much pain these past few years. The “Four Horsemen,” as I see them, are saddled up and riding hard. COVID-19, yes, but also existential threats to democracy, an unprecedented environmental crisis and profound hardships caused by armed conflicts. The world is awash in misery, and if you’re not deeply concerned, you’re not paying attention.
But empathy can be a double-edged sword, paralyzing us into shame and inaction. I’m paraphrasing, but I was once moved by a quote from psychologist Jeanine Joy that said something like, “If we couldn’t be happy until there was no suffering in the world, no one would be happy.” And so, along with paying attention to the news and taking compassionate action to help when I can, I pay attention to my border collies, Maggie and Skip.
Twice a day, they tug as we walk around the hills overlooking our farmhouse. Skip is big and fast and powerful, and has a 10-pound advantage. Maggie is small, smart and agile — and completely runs the show, the Gal Gadot of dogs. While Skip uses his strength to get the toy to himself, Maggie, an expert in canine jiu-jitsu, flips his energy against him until Skip finally concedes, his sides heaving, his tongue pink and long.
I laugh every time, often out loud, clapping my hands with delight at the only live performance I’ve been able to enjoy in the last two-plus years. Later, during the black holes of Wisconsin winter nights, Maggie snuggles against me on the couch, all warm and silky soft. I stroke her belly and run my fingers up the channel between her eyebrows, the same place on a human face that holds worry and fear. If I stop, she looks up at me, and I turn my head and look into her eyes. She stares back while I cup my hands around her head, and I can feel my body soften.
I am not sure how I could cope without my dogs right now, and I am in good company. Dog lovers (and many cat owners, too) have known for centuries that a pet snuggled up beside us is worth its weight in gold. Or perhaps I should say its weight in anti-anxiety medication. Our perceptions are solid: Research confirms that having a pet dog can substantially increase our levels of oxytocin, the hormone that builds trust, decreases anxiety and even boosts our immune systems. Surely we need all the healthy help that we can get.
Of course, owning dogs is not all roses. I just spoke with a woman who adopted a dog, and she is overwhelmed with anxiety about how to handle its litany of behavioral problems. In my memoir, “The Education of Will,” I wrote about my own dog, Willie, whose reactivity worsened my PTSD before it forced me to make it better. I had thought that therapy and meditation had put my past traumas of sexual assaults and a shocking, violent death behind me, but then I got a puppy who behaved as if he’d come back from two tours in Afghanistan. His fears made me feel worse at first, but then forced me to dig deeper and helped me to heal in a way I never had before.
The fact is, in spite of the costs, our pets give many of us something priceless, something we simply can’t get anywhere else. There’s a reason all that oxytocin flows when we stroke their bellies. If you look, for example, at our relationships with dogs, we know that they often provide the perception of unconditional love we all crave as children. (The fact that they can’t speak English and curse us out loud doesn’t hurt — make no mistake, sometimes they might want to.) On the other hand, our dogs create the same feelings of love and protectiveness that our infants elicit. Like babies, they are completely dependent upon us — unless you’ve given your Labrador the keys to the car so that she can go out and buy dog food.
In other words, our dogs can get us coming and going — they are both the parents we need and the baby mammals who need us. I can think of no other creature who can fill both of those roles simultaneously.
We did end up going to Hawaii earlier this year, and I did swim in a cool, tropical pool beneath a waterfall. I was able to realize the dream of a lifetime, and even enjoy it. It was because of watching Maggie play, her face radiant with joy, that I understood in my bones how desperately I needed to feel like that. That to be the person I want to be — an active, committed citizen — I needed to take a break, to be “vacation happy” for just for a few days. Perhaps that is what dogs give us — a muddy-pawed, slobbery reminder that experiencing joy is one of the greatest gifts of being alive, even amidst the pain and suffering all around us. No wonder we call them our best friends.
Patricia McConnell is a guest essayist to Madison Magazine. McConnell is a certified applied animal behaviorist and author of numerous books, including “The Other End of the Leash.”
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