Trying(!) to keep this shorter than the classic shaggy dog tale, I just had to share this saga from my morning walk in the woods. I do two distinct kinds of walk with my dog Rudi: those in the kind of woods and parks where we are likely to meet other people and dogs for him to ‘play’ with and those where we, well, simply don’t but, rather, stride out across fields and countryside, contented and complete in our own company. Lately, through mixture of choice and circumstance (at their core, they are the same…), I’ve done more of the latter and its felt right to spend time on our own but, this morning, I felt drawn to go somewhere that we could interact with ‘the world’, maybe spark some of those conversations that come about with other dog owners and just see what happens.
Heading to a favourite wood with a lake at its centre, we started our walk by following the winding paths that weave across heath and beneath trees yet the only people we met were a pair of women with two dogs, one of whom was as eager to play with mine as Rudi was to play with him and yet the owner made it clear she didn’t want the two dogs to interact and so I kept shooing Rudi on and tried to keep my distance. This walk hadn’t turned out to be as social as I’d hoped, I thought, as I started to circle back towards the car and, in fact, I wandered around taking photographs like I normally would on one of our more solitary walks.
When we reached the lake and sat down for what is usually my fifteen minutes of almost meditative appreciation of the view, the same pair of women gathered within earshot, joined by a man with two dogs….plus one of those dogs that looks like a mop on legs. Overhearing their conversation, I gathered that the shaggy dog was a stray that had been following the man for some time but that none of them wanted to do anything about it, they all regaled each other with stories of how they had got involved with helping strays before and how the owners were never suitably grateful, it really wasn’t worth the time or bother of getting involved and, besides, nobody wanted to put their hand into this dog’s considerable fur to look for a phone number on his collar. They all stood around laughing and joking as the stray weaved between their legs, offering them a paw and seeking their attention in vain and then the man from the group walked past me and tried to engage me in the same conversation about how annoying stray dogs were before walking on, unperturbed by the fact that Shaggy was now standing by the lakeside looking forlorn.
Already, I knew I was about to get involved. I’ve done it before…several times…taking up a couple of hours of my time to rescue a lost animal or find one. There was one occasion when I met a woman in the woods who was so bereft at losing her dog that I became quite determined I would personally reunite them so walked the woods and lake three times calling his name (to the confusion of Rudi who kept looking at me with eyes that said “but I’m here, and that’s not my name…”) then drove around the busy roads near the woods until, spotting said dog crossing two carriageways in front of abruptly breaking cars then disappearing down a side street, I abandoned my own car, sprinted down the road and dived into someone’s back garden to retrieve him, sitting with him until the owner had been summoned to the scene. The woman, who was a complete stranger, was overjoyed but that’s not why I did it. I did it because it felt absolutely right to do it, I couldn’t have not done it and still enjoyed my morning and I knew just how sick I would have felt (had felt…) about my dog being missing. It was the same story on the occasion I parked up to shepherd to safety a swan and her four cygnets that were steadfastly marching down the main road at rush hour one day when all of the other cars were just swerving and beeping their horns and, only yesterday, I dashed home to telephone the local farm to say one of their sheep was out of the field and trying to graze on the verge of the road on a blind bend!
Anyway, within moments of the other people dispersing, Rudi and I had found the shaggy dog and I had delved my hand into the depths of his matted and very smelly coat to look for a tag with a phone number. There were two: the first rang unanswered, the second got though to the owner, who was at work and sounded surprised and grateful. He told me there was someone at his house and that they would be summoned to collect the dog within ten minutes, if I didn’t mind waiting. Our party of three headed for another bench by the lakeside and, yes, I felt the bloom of self-accolade unfurling inside of me, pleased at my own good deed, then I found myself judging those other people who hadn’t been prepared to do what I was now doing, telling myself they didn’t know what they were missing compared to the cold-comfort they would have gained from walking away scot free. Where was the hardship in this brief involvement, I asked myself. It was a win-win situation because I felt really good, the owner was grateful, the dog was safe and all I had to do was sit on a bench by a beautiful lake and keep two dogs entertained for another five minutes…
Half an hour later, a little cold now, late for what I had planned for my morning and with two bored dogs…one of whom kept trying to wander off, I admit this viewpoint was beginning to feel a little jaded. I phoned the owner’s work number once again and was told his friend hadn’t been at home after all but, rather, in the next town…he was heading home now, should be at the house literally any minute, would get the dogs lead and walk down to get him…really he must be moments away. Oops sorry, he’d forgotten to get my number so hadn’t been able to tell me about the delay. His tone sounded a bit like he wasn’t that worried about the dog or implied that maybe he’d done this before, perhaps many times…
Then, when his friend finally appeared ten minutes later, I only knew him from the fact he was walking towards the lake with an empty dog lead. I called over “Is this your dog?” “No,” he said flatly, still walking towards it. “I mean, it’s the dog you’ve come to collect?” “Yeah!”
That, without exaggeration, was the full extent of our conversation. No thanks, no apology, no praise was forthcoming and he didn’t even look me in the eye. That was it, my shaggy dog story was over and I was very late getting home. I could have been really annoyed. I could have become cynical like all those other people who (at face value) had been right – the owner and his friend didn’t seem to care that I had gone out on a limb on their behalf, there was no real gratitude and, if that was indeed the holy grail of doing ‘good’ deeds then, by trying to help, you were risking going home empty handed every time. And in a world where many (most?) value judgements are made by doing that quick mental tally we learn to do in our heads, as children, to calculate “what’s in it for me” it would indeed be a no brainer to walk away indiscriminately from others’ problems, shrugging and saying “its none of my business”, for fear of giving away more than you gain.
Yet here was my pearl to be found lurking within what could have seemed to be a very dreary and closed situation, another case in point that it really wasn’t worth getting involved in other people’s affairs. I suddenly realised with a skip of pleasure that I simply didn’t feel like that about the situation, I felt no regret whilst knowing, in the same moment, that once upon a time I would have felt just as teed-off as those other people. I felt no sting at all as the man collared up the dog and walked silently away without a word of thanks. I found myself smiling.
For me, I suppose, it came down to this one core thing – if my dog went missing, I would be fervently hoping that somebody would do what I just did for me, that they wouldn’t just leave him lolloping around a wood that is pretty extensive and which has several unbarred exits onto busy main roads. I would hope that they would care enough for me, for Rudi, for everyone that would be affected by his loss to want to help to put that right, even without knowing us, again, because they too recognised that they would feel like this if it happened to them. And, no, we don’t know everybody intimately, we don’t know all of their circumstances, why their dog gets out, how busy they are, why they seem rude or uncaring or don’t seem to want to be bothered, what ‘plots’ are playing out in their lives that inform their outward behaviour. These are just the variables and there is no point whatsoever in trying to compare them or second-guess them. Yet at the deeper level, the one where we more easily intersect with our fellow beings because there are universal truths at play, we can anticipate the raw emotions of fear, loss, anxiety and so on that they are likely to experience in a particular situation because they are the ones that we share with them, those emotions are universal and the same: at that level, we are all the same. And operating at that level (as I increasingly try to), I believe, there is a cumulative effect – the more people that tune into these base-line emotions and act empathically towards others based upon them, the more those on the receiving end of that will sense (perhaps a little like the dog owner, who sounded genuinely surprised at me taking the trouble…), then attune to and so assimilate that kind of reaction in their own responses to others. It might not happen overnight but if enough of us are doing this, there must come a point when we universally move beyond some sort of point scoring, tally-keeping, tit-for-tat kind of world and into one where the kind of feel-good factor I got from helping that dog today, of feeling connected and instrumental to somebody else’s outcome, holds more sway for the vast majority of people than the hollow thrill of the self-righteous shrug of non-involvement and supposed freedom (albeit temporary…until they need something from somebody else) of walking away in disengagement and separateness.
Going back to the start of my tale, I told you that I sensed there was a reason that I went for the kind of walk today that would generate some sort of interaction with others, enabling me to cross paths with people, in a very literal sense, and in a way that has a habit of providing me with a new perspective or the kind of overview on a situation that can be extrapolated far beyond the limits of those woods we were walking in. These days, I consider that every experience I have, without exception, holds a lesson (not as in learning something new but, rather, as in reminding me of something that I already know but had forgotten) or a potential for expansion within it that is meant just for me. For the owner of the dog, there would have been a lesson in there for him too. They are there for everyone, in each and every so called trivial interaction and occurrence that we experience, all of the time, day in and day out and, collectively, these lessons are called Life. And when we regard Life from this perspective, there can be no truly ‘bad’ or even ‘frustrating’ outcomes; there simply are no winners or losers from this stance. As Shaggy was put on his lead and taken back to his home (only to run away another day, I now strongly suspect), I found myself smiling all the way to the car.