Most of us know that some dogs make better pets than others: they might be less destructive, easier to train or simply possess a more pleasing personality. This is also the case with people: certain people are just easier to get along with than others. If one observes the relationship between any two individuals (be it two people, two dogs or a person and a dog), it quickly becomes apparent that the harmony (or lack of harmony) in any given relationship is largely dictated by the individual temperaments involved.
As a result of their fifty-year study of temperament in people that was discussed in Chapter Three, Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess determined that there are three basic temperamental types in people:
1. Easy or flexible
2. Difficult or active and feisty
3. Slow-to-warm-up or cautious
Thomas and Chess also discovered that each of our individual temperaments is defined by the particular traits we exhibit in nine categories of behavior. Those categories
of behavior are:
1. Activity level
2. Regularity or rhythmicity
3. Initial response to new people and situations
8. Persistence or attention span
Thomas and Chess determined that about 40% of the individuals in their study possessed an easy temperament,
10% had a difficult temperament and around 15% were slow-to-warm-up. The remaining 35% possessed some mixture of the three.
As one might imagine, individuals with an easy temperament are typically very Golden retriever-like: they’re cheerful and outgoing and they seem to effortlessly adapt to unfamiliar situations. Since they’re mostly calm and levelheaded, they typically respond to their environment with only mild or moderate intensity. And, as they’re easy-going and love to please, they are rarely a source of conflict in their relationships.
Difficult temperaments (as one might expect) are the opposite of easy. Individuals with a difficult temperament often respond to unfamiliar situations with frustration and tears. And, since they tend to feel overwhelmed by all the various stimuli in their lives, they attempt to protect themselves by shutting themselves off from others. Due to the fact that their moods are frequently negative and gloomy, they tend to whine and complain a lot. And, as hyperactivity is the hallmark feature of a difficult temperament, they’re often extremely challenging to deal with.
Interestingly, individuals with a slow-to-warm-up temperament display many of the traits found in a difficult temperament but they have decreased activity levels and less of an extreme reaction to external stimuli. Individuals with a slow-to-warm-up temperament are often the invisible ones in a group as they have a tendency to linger on the periphery.
Due to the fact that temperament is what determines how we’re received in the world, those individuals with an easy temperament typically receive a much more positive response than those who possess a difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament. With their cheerful attitude and easy-going nature, easy temperaments tend to be rewarded with acceptance and popularity while difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperaments are often avoided or passed over.
Since temperament is hard-wired by our DNA, it’s extremely difficult for us to ever change or modify it. Any attempt to do so always results in a long uphill battle. Yet, because humans have the ability to evaluate and critique themselves, we at least have the capacity to change ourselves intentionally. We humans are the only creatures on Earth who can willfully change ourselves. Since dogs don’t have the ability to intentionally change themselves, they can only ever be who they were born to be (which is one reason why we love them so much!) We can’t help but marvel at how dogs are always in the moment, how they never have to regret the past or fear the unforeseeable future. Any fears a dog has are reserved for the here and now and, once that fear passes, the dog doesn’t spend another second of his existence worrying about whatever scares him: he simply becomes fearful when the next fearful situation presents itself. That’s in contrast to humans who spend countless hours anticipating and dreading whatever it is they happen to find fearful.
Dogs also completely unaware that they have faults (until, of course, we humans point them out!) Dogs simply “are.” They are unapologetically themselves day in and day out. There’s no façade, no pretending. So, even though dogs have plenty of expectations (such as being fed or being taken out for a walk) and longings (for food, shelter and companionship), they’re never tormented by all the failed hopes and broken dreams like humans are.
Oddly enough, the very trait that makes it possible for dogs to live such pure and authentic lives is the same trait that limits them: they’re only able to live in the moment. Since dogs are incapable of being able to evaluate or critique themselves, they can’t intentionally change themselves. That’s why any change a dog ever makes will either be in response to his environment or at the hands of a human.
So, even though it’s not easy for us humans to make changes to our temperaments, at least we can make a conscious effort to try. Sometimes, with a lot of hard work, we can actually modify our inborn temperament. For example, consider the person who’s been born with an excessively sensitive temperament. For this individual, any exposure to loud noises, bright lights or crowded rooms creates such an intense anxiety that the individual is consumed with a desperate need to escape. To ever be able to modify this extremely debilitating response, the person would need to first decide that trying to change is worth the effort. Then, he’d need to find and be able to maintain both the motivation and determination needed to bring about the desired change. If all of this is accomplished, then this extremely sensitive person just might be able to learn (through various calming techniques and other practiced skills) how to feel more relaxed in situations that had previously caused him such horrible distress.
Any change that any of us ever tries to make to our inborn temperament will always involve a mountain’s worth of practice and training. An individual’s ability to change or be trained is very much a function of temperament. That’s why some of us have a much harder time changing or being trained as compared to others. As one might expect, those individuals who have an easy temperament tend to have a much easier time changing and being trained than those individuals who have a difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament.
Personally, I’ve always been shocked at how certain people have temperaments that permit them to be able to incorporate or eliminate almost any behavior they so choose. These individuals can control what and how much they eat, how frequently they exercise and how diligently they practice an instrument or other similar pursuit. The rest of us (myself included) simply weren’t born that kind of temperament (which explains why so many of our attempts to change are doomed to failure!)
When it comes to a dog’s ability to change or be trained, there’s a dramatic difference between the dogs that are
easy to train (the easy temperaments) and the ones that are challenging (the difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperaments.) During my long career as a veterinarian, I’ve encountered the entire spectrum of temperament in dogs: from those who are a dream to deal with to those who’re a nightmare. So many skittish and ill-tempered dogs have crossed my path over the years that it’s all become a bit of a blur at this point in time. But, I must say that there is one dog that will forever stand out as one of the most obstinate and difficult dogs that I’ve ever encountered.
This most infamous of dogs was an absolutely magnificent Rottweiler who’d been brought into my clinic one hot summer’s day for a rabies shot. Simple enough, I’d thought as I perused the dog’s chart before entering the exam room. But, the very moment that I laid eyes on the dog, a voice in my head moaned, “Oh no.” I could instantly tell by the dog’s demeanor that he was going to be touchy with a capital “T.” The dog looked as if he’d been mounted in the middle of the room since he was as still and rigid as a statue: the only movement the shifting of his eyes in precise increments as he strategically tracked my every move. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as I watched him size me up in the same way that a tiger might size up a tasty gazelle.
A tingle of fear crept over me as I realized that I was about to bite off more than I could chew. Probably picking up on my fear, the dog decided to make sure that I knew who was in charge. Lifting his massive lips so that I wouldn’t miss his gigantic pearly whites, he released a long, low, penetrating growl that skittered straight up my spine. His message was crystal clear: “Forget the shot, Doc!”
Most vets, when faced with a potentially biting dog typically err on the side of caution and preemptively muzzle the dog. Since the Rottweiler kept staring at me as if he’d like to have me for lunch, I requested that the owner muzzle the dog as a precaution. With absolute confidence, the owner accepted the muzzle from me and turned to face his dog. The dog looked stuffed except for the fact that he was breathing. Yet, I could feel the waves of apprehension pouring off him as he stared at the muzzle. He clearly knew that it was an instrument of torture meant for him. Though he allowed the owner to stand next to him and pat his ginormous head, the dog looked primed to bolt at any moment. When the owner went to slip the muzzle over the dog’s nose, apparently some kind of switch was flipped inside the dog’s head because he went completely nuts! Thrashing his basketball-sized head from side to side like it was a battering ram, he knocked over all the chairs in the room and upended the trashcan. The owner scrambled after the dog like a linebacker hustling after a loose ball, all the while screaming at the dog to stop while, at the same time, his wife was yelling at him to stop as she thought he was only making things worse by chasing the dog! What a madhouse!
Thankfully, the owner finally pooped out and, just as his wife had been saying, once the dog was no longer being chased, he stopped running. As the man and the dog recovered (both were huffing and puffing), I retrieved the saliva-soaked muzzle and tossed it in the sink: clearly, a muzzle wasn’t going to work on this dog. The owner was now glaring at his dog but I tried to reassure him that all was not lost, that there was another technique we could try that might allow us to subdue his dog just long enough to give him the shot.
This particular method of restraint had always worked astonishingly well for me in the past whenever I had to deal with overly frightened or cantankerous dogs that didn’t want me touching them. I’d actually grown to love the looks of amazement and appreciation on owners’ faces when I’d managed to handle their freaked out dog with ease by simply wrapping the dog in a towel or a blanket. I’m sure being that just being swaddled had to have helped some but, by far, the biggest benefit had to do with the fact that if a dog can’t see what I’m doing, they’re simply not as afraid. That’s why I call this method of restraint the “see no evil, fear no evil” method of restrain. It’s based on the same principle we’ve all seen demonstrated in old-timey Westerns where a horse has to have its head covered before it’ll allow itself to be led out of
a burning barn.
Yet, despite the fact that I’d had a lot of success in the past with this method of restraint, I was nervous that this dog was going to be the exception to the rule! Still, I retrieved the biggest blanket that we had at the clinic, determined to giving it our best shot. Since I still couldn’t approach the dog, I asked the owner if he thought he might be able to cover his dog with the blanket. He said yes but I could tell that his enthusiasm was lagging this time around. He took the blanket and tried hide it behind his back as he approached his dog, chanting soothingly, “Good boy, good boy.” The dog was so tense from the muzzle fiasco that it looked like his eyes were going to bug out of his head! Still, he let the owner come over to him with the blanket trailing behind him. I experienced a fleeting surge of optimism that was instantly dashed the moment the owner tried to cover the dog with the blanket. Exactly like before, the dog went nuts! He catapulted into the air like a rodeo bull committed to getting a cowboy off his back. The owner did his best to hang on to both the blanket and the dog but, somehow, in his efforts to hang on for dear life, he got a corner of the blanket tangled up in the dog’s collar. When the owner finally lost his grip and fell to the floor, the dog’s hysterics escalated through the roof. From all the frantic looks he kept making behind himself, the dog had apparently concluded that he was being chased by the blue, blanket boogieman!
Thankfully, the owner showed some quick thinking when he stuck out his foot and stomped on the blanket as the dog sped by in one of his panic-stricken orbits around the room. With the blanket now lifeless on the floor, the dog instantly ran out of steam. The owner, in an act of pure, unadulterated frustration, picked up the blanket and threw it across the room!
Clearly, it was time for me to speak up. I announced that it looked as if we’d all had quite enough for one day and that it was probably going to be best to come back another day when we could preemptively tranquilize the dog. The owner, now clearly pissed, answered with a simple and emphatic “no.” He proclaimed that he’d had just about enough of this nonsense and that he was going to get his dog to behave if it was the last thing he ever did! Two words flashed through my mind: “Oh, oh.”
The owner’s wife did her best to dissuade her husband but evidently his mind was made up. He had a combination of resolve and determination etched on his face, looking for all the world like a father who’s just realized that it’s time for him to march his son out to the woodpile for some overdue discipline. Again I thought: “Oh, oh.”
Without nary a clue as to what he planned to do, the man once more knelt down beside his dog, gently resting his forehead against the side of the dog’s head. My first thought was that he was going to whisper something into the dog’s ear: possibly try one last attempt at sweet-talking the dog or maybe offer him a bribe: a juicy steak in exchange for some good behavior. But, in a move that was so lightning fast that it completely caught me off guard (the dog too), the man seized the dog’s neck in an absolutely vicious headlock that would have made any Wild World of Wrestling wrestler proud! The dog responded with instant outrage! He instantly began to frantically wiggle and writhe in a desperate attempt to get free. The man’s face, completely contorted in a ghastly grimace, turned a frightful red as he held on for all he was worth. Then, in an act that reminded me of stories of super-human strength where a person could pick up a car in an effort to save someone, the man managed to levitate his hundred and fifty-pound dog completely off the floor, somehow flipped him sideways in mid-air and then finally slammed him down on the floor again in the most incredible takedown I’ve ever seen! Finally, to top it off, the man sealed the deal by locking his arms and legs around the dog’s in what looked to be some form of competitive spooning!
What an incredible battle of man versus dog! I was so transfixed by the gladiatorial contest in front of me that I almost forgot my part in it! Snapping out of my trance, I made a beeline for the dog’s butt, my syringe at the ready. But, just as I was lining up the shot, the dog made an amazing come back, flipping the tables on defeat! Like some kind of mythical phoenix rising from the ashes, the dog ever so slowly rose to his feet dragging the still-attached owner with him! Then, with the explosiveness of a cork being shot from a bottle of Champagne, the dog’s head popped free from the owner’s grasp, banging with unbelievable force right into the owner’s face! A horrid, crunching noise filled the room and we all froze as the owner appeared to be seeing stars. Then, like a dam opening its floodgates, blood gushed from the owner’s nose. (We later learned that the dog had indeed broken his nose!) Now, curled up in a fetal position as he cupped his bleeding nose, the man let loose a barrage of unmentionables at the dog who was miserably hunkered down in a corner of the room looking about as wretched
as any dog I’d ever seen. And, all the while buzzing in the background like a deranged fly desperately in need of swatting, the man’s wife droned on and on saying, “I told you so, you idiot, I told you so.”
One of my staff ran to get some ice while the rest of us tried to clean the blood up before someone slipped in it. At least twenty minutes passed before calm was restored and, even though part of me was loath to do so, I found myself telling the owner that there was one more thing that we could try to get his dog vaccinated. I was amazed because, in spite of everything he’d been through, the man instantly perked up, looking up at me with rapt curiosity from behind his ice pack. His wife, on the other hand, stared at me as if
I’d just grown a third eye!
I explained to the owner that, while I’d watched him wrestle with his dog, I’d had a flashback to the days when
I’d volunteered at a large animal clinic in Bryan, Texas. Back then, whenever we needed to restrain a cow for a particular procedure, we always ran the cow through an amazing contraption called a squeeze chute.
Squeeze chutes were lifesavers (literally!) whenever a huge, untamed animal had to be restrained. But, there was always a tricky aspect to the squeeze chute process that could generate a comedic or precarious scenario. It had to do with the squeeze chute operator’s ability to close the chute at just the precise moment so that the chute closed around the cow with the cow’s head poking out of the end of the chute. To do this, the operator had to be able to exactly time the pulling of a huge, heavy metal lever. If the lever was pulled too soon, the cow’s head would be inside the chute and, unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to do anything with a cow when its head is loose. To remedy this scenario, the operator would have to open the chute just enough to allow the cow to see some daylight so she’d try to make a break for it. When she makes her beeline for freedom, the operator then has a second chance to close the chute at the correct time.
On the other hand, if the lever’s pulled too late, an especially fast cow can actually zip through the chute and be out the other side before the chute has a chance to close. If a cow doesn’t have that kind of speed, she’ll simply end up with one of her legs or a shoulder sticking out the end of the chute. In this situation, the operator must only open the chute by mere inches so the cow can’t escape but the ranch hands can try to shove the cow’s legs or shoulders back into chute. If they can’t get the cow pushed back into the chute, then the cow has to be release and the whole process started over again.
Thinking about my past experience with squeeze chutes in the past made me realize that if we could restrain a fifteen hundred pound cow back in those days, then we should be able to restrain a hundred and fifty pound dog in the clinic here today! We’d just have to improvise and I was already thinking that the exam room’s heavy door would make the perfect improvisational squeeze chute!
I discussed with the owner the various roles we’d have to play. First, the owner would walk his dog ever so slowly through the exam room door, letting the dog think that we’d given up for the day. Then, when the dog was precisely half the way through the door, two of my techs (strategically positioned behind the door) would forcefully shut the door against the dog. Then, while the owner kept the dog from front moving forward, I’d grab the dog’s rump and administer the shot.
None of us will ever know if the Rottweiler had simply had enough for one day or if the universe had finally decided to cut us a break but, for whatever reason, our very first attempt at using the improvisational squeeze chute worked like a charm! In fact, it proved to be a bit anti-climactic! Considering how our first two encounters had gone with the dog, we were all pumped up and prepared for almost anything but compliance. Instead, the dog just stood there with the door shoved up against him! Of course, we didn’t make him stand there long! In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever given a shot so fast!
My only regret is that I don’t have a video of the whole ordeal so that I could memorialize it forever! Throughout the years, I must have told this story a hundred times but, as the old saying goes, “Seeing is truly believing!”
But, as we return to our discussion of temperament and genetics, the most important point we must take away from the Rottweiler story is that the Rottweiler’s behavior was entirely the result of his genetics. The office visit would have been a completely different scenario if the Rottweiler had been a Golden Retriever or a Labrador. The Rottweiler was simply being a Rottweiler! His behavior wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t even conscious. The Rottweiler was simply responding in typical Rottweiler fashion to a set of circumstances that he considered to be threatening or hostile.
All creatures respond to their environment in accordance to their individual temperaments but we humans are different in that we have the ability to analyze and critique ourselves. And, as we critique and evaluate what we like and don’t like about ourselves, we have the option of trying to intentionally change ourselves. Dogs (and other creatures) don’t have that ability. The Rottweiler in our story had no choice but to be a Rottweiler and he certainly shouldn’t be faulted for that! Yet, even though we humans have the capacity to evaluate and change ourselves, in reality it’s very difficult to truly change our temperament because it’s as much of a consequence of our genetics as is our eye color.
It’s extremely hard for us humans to wrap our minds around the fact that our behavior is dictated by our genetics. We desperately want to believe that we have (or at least should have) the ability to change ourselves into whomever we so choose. Because of that belief, we completely hold ourselves as being responsible (or to blame) for our behavior. It actually turns out that this is a very convenient belief for us because, if we believe that we have (or at least should have) the ability to control our behavior, then we’re justified in demanding change from ourselves and others.
This feeling of being “all powerful” originates from our conviction that we’re superior to all other creatures. Yet, even though it’s true that we humans have some amazing qualities and abilities as compared to other creatures, we still have a lot in common with other creatures such as dogs. In fact, there’s a lot that we can learn from those similarities, the most important being that our behavior is just as influenced by our DNA as is the behavior of dogs and other creatures. The truth of the matter is we don’t have nearly as much power over our behavior as we think we do.
Due to the strict requirements that we have for our behavior, if any of us ever fails to toe the line (as we’re bound to do), we automatically start thinking about how to change ourselves. Yet, even though we believe that we should be able to change ourselves doesn’t mean that we can. Due to the influence of our genetics, it’s actually very hard for any of us to ever really change that much.
The only advantage humans have as we attempt to contend with the impact of our genetics is our capacity for self-analysis. It at least gives us the ability to try and change ourselves intentionally. No other creature can do that. So, in spite of the fact that we can’t ever escape the influence that our genetics has on our behavior, we have the ability to at least try to willfully modify those inherited temperamental traits.
Though dogs can’t train themselves like humans can, they can be trained. And, there’s no doubt in my mind that
if the Rottweiler in our story had been extensively trained, the office visit would have gone much more smoothly. Still, we can’t set our hopes too high because, even with training, we can’t be something that we’re not. No matter how much training a Rottweiler might receive, he’s never going to be a Golden Retriever! Rottweilers are always going to be extremely dominant, stubborn and opinionated while Golden Retrievers are primarily friendly, outgoing and compliant. Anyone who’s familiar with the Rottweiler breed knows that they’re simply not a roll-over-and-rub-my-tummy kind of dog. That’s just not the dog that they were bred to be.
And, that is how it is with temperament: every human and every dog is born with a very specific temperament that’s just as unique and idiosyncratic as the DNA from which it was originated. And, as with everything genetic, whatever DNA we receive will always be a matter of luck, chance or happenstance. In other words, what we receive genetically is simply what we receive just as who we are as a consequence of our genetics is simply who we are. It’s very que sera sera or “whatever will be will be.” DNA simply isn’t something that we can control (at least not at this point in time.) There’s little doubt that, at some point in the future, genetic engineering will be a reality. But, for now, the DNA that each of us receives is absolutely arbitrary and random and, as a result, it can often feel very unfair and unfortunate.
That world is so unfair simply drives us humans crazy. We can’t help but be outraged by the injustice of the world: how certain people seem to be cursed while other lucky ducks seem to get it all: the good looks, the above-average intelligence, the phenomenal talent, the easy-going temperament, etc.
Though it’s probably true that everyone’s life is difficult in some measure, it can’t be denied that certain people get saddled with horrifically tragic lives. To further compound things, life will always feel more difficult when a person is born with a difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament. Because temperament controls how we respond to the world, those who are born with a difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament will always have a more difficult time dealing with life than those who are born with an easy temperament. It’s what explains how some people are never happy even when everything in their life seems to be going well. These individuals frequently have a difficult or slow-to-warm-up temperament which predisposes them to having a lot of anxiety and a general dissatisfaction with life. At the other end of the spectrum are those individuals who seem
to be perpetually cheerful and optimistic despite the fact that they’ve had to endure some very tragic circumstances. These people typically have an easy temperament. In reality, our temperament is what dictates whether we’re happy or sad more than that of our actual circumstances.
The same thing is true for dogs: which explains why Chihuahuas (who have difficult temperaments) are typically crabby and irritable even if they’re living in the lap of luxury while a scruffy, half-starved Lab who’s had to scrounge for every scrap he’s ever gotten can be persistently upbeat and friendly as a result of his easy-going temperament.
As children, we’re told that anything’s possible if we simply want it badly enough. Yet, when we grow up, we quickly learn that anything isn’t possible. Instead, what we discover is that the world’s composed of the “haves” and
the “have-nots.” And, if we’ve been born a “have-not,” it
can be almost impossible to ever become a “have.” It’s our introduction into just how unfair the world truly is.
The question then becomes how do we find peace in a world that so unbelievably unfair? To start with (and this will sound incredibly odd initially), we have to learn how to accept that we’re powerless. We simply don’t have the power and control over our lives that we wish we did: we can’t control our families or the socio-economic circumstances into which we’re born; we can’t control our overall appearance or our innate intelligence; we can’t control how we instinctively respond to the world (our temperament); and we can’t control what the world or other people do. Yet, in spite of how little control we have, we still believe that we can be the masters of our destiny.
The most difficult thing for we humans to accept is how much our DNA controls our lives. Due to the fact that we can’t see our DNA, it’s hard for us to appreciate just how powerful it is. In our minds, the influence of DNA can’t compare to our environmental influences: we’ve lived through those! Yet, simply because we can’t see our DNA at work doesn’t mean its impact is any less profound.
And, in light of the fact that what we presently know about genetics is merely the tip of the iceberg, the future of mankind is certain to be packed with irrefutable proof
as to how much DNA truly influences our lives.
The reason it’s so crucial for us to accept that DNA prevents us from being able to change ourselves in any major way is because that realization will completely alter the way we see the world. Once we embrace that we’re powerless, that each of us is unceremoniously plopped down into our lives like so much bird poop falling from the sky, we’ll finally be able to understand how much we all have in common: that, even though we might be extremely different on the outside, we’re all extremely similar on the inside. And, if we ever hope to have any peace in life, it starts with embracing how similar we all are: that we’re all in the same leaky boat called Life; that we’re all struggling to make sense of our lives; that we all long to love and be loved; that we’re all hoping to make a difference in the world.
The Harvard professor, Steven Pinkler, documented in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that human beings have been getting progressively less violent over the centuries. This actually surprised me as I’d simply assumed that human beings were becoming increasingly violent but Pinkler supports his facts with reams and reams of data. He goes on to speculate that this decrease in violence is the result of two specific events in the history of mankind: the advent of manners and the widespread reading of novels. I thought, “What? You’ve got to be kidding!” It made sense that manners would contribute to a decrease in violence but the reading of novels? That completely took me by surprise! But Pinkler explained that, when people started reading novels in mass, it caused them to develop empathy for other people. Novels allowed people to get a taste of what it felt like to be someone else, making us realize for the first time just how similar we are to one another. And, when people feel connected to one another, they consequently behave less violently towards each other.
When we read a novel and an author’s experience of life resonates with our own, we automatically feel less alone.
We all feel lost and alone at times: that we’re merely fallen leaves that are blown ever which way by the wind, that we’re completely powerless to the powers that be. But when we see how similar we are and how we’re all in this together, it makes it much easier for us to accept how life is more a matter of luck, chance and happenstance than it is a matter of will, design and intention. Life’s incredibly random and impersonal (though it can feel quite personal at times!)
And, even though life randomly blesses some of us with a much better life than it does others, all of us face the same challenge in life: how can we best live the life that we’ve been given.
In theory, no one should be more worthy or deserving than anyone else. Yet, we humans constantly try to dictate what’s valuable in life and what’s not, consequently causing some of us to land in the worthy category and others of us to fall into the unworthy category. In truth, life is nothing more than our individual destinies playing themselves out. In that regard, we’re all equally powerless because we can only live our lives as the person that we were born to be.
Embracing our commonality is a vital step on our path to peace because it creates compassion and empathy. And,
if we want to have peace in our lives, we must be able to feel empathy and compassion for both ourselves and others. Without empathy and compassion, our lives become extremely self-centered, where our only concern is how life affects us. Living a self-absorbed life keeps us trapped in a “me versus them” mentality which invariably leaves us feeling isolated and misunderstood.
One of the most awesome traits that humans possess is our ability to open our hearts whenever there’s a tragedy or crisis. In catastrophic situations, we become temporarily blinded to all the differences we normally use to divide and separate ourselves from one another (such as our different ethnicities and religions and our differences in appearance and social standing.) As long as we’re in the middle of a crisis, we see only what we have in common. Yet, when the crisis is over and a certain amount of time has passed, we tend to revert to our previously divisive way of looking at each other.
That’s where the final piece of the puzzle must into play. Because, not only do we need to embrace our commonality in order to develop empathy and compassion but we also need to find a way to forgive and release, to let go. Luckily, forgiveness is a natural consequence of compassion and empathy because when we authentically connect with another human being, it actually becomes quite easy to forgive and to let whatever stood between us go. Each step on the path to peace naturally leads to the next in the same way that a ball bounces down one stair step and then the next:
1. First, we embrace how powerless we all are due to the completely random and arbitrary nature of genetics and our individual life circumstances.
2. Then, we embrace our commonality, how we’re so similar inside even though we might be extremely different externally.
3. Next, we develop empathy and compassion as a result of all we have in common
4. Finally, we forgive the world, ourselves and others for being who and what we are and we let all the strife and struggle go.
Boom, boom, boom, boom: peace (if only it could be that easy!) Regrettably, making peace with life isn’t easy for us because the world is a cruel and heartless place much of the time. In truth, it’s impossible for us humans to ever completely wrap our minds around the massive amount of suffering that takes place in the world: it’s simply too vast and horrific. Yet, we’re definitely outraged by the unfairness of it all.
If all the suffering in the world could be doled out equally to us all, we wouldn’t nearly be so outraged because, even though the world would still be a place of suffering, at least it would be divided equally between us all. But, of course, that’s not how the world works. Instead, certain people get an unequal share of the world’s suffering. But, if we ever hope to be at peace with the inequality of the world, we must accept the world just as it is. If we’re unable to accept the world just as it is, we’ll simply continue to be frustrated and resentful as we constantly ask ourselves, “Why? Why is this happening to me? Why is life being so unfair to me?” Without the ability to accept the world just as it is, we’ll invariably feel picked on and singled out by the world. But, if we can make peace with the fact that the world’s an unfair place then, when something tragic happens to us (as it always will), then we’ll be able to console ourselves with the knowledge that heartbreak happens to everyone: it’s simply our time to suffer.
We must all do what we can to mentally prepare ourselves for the suffering that will one day come our way. Suffering is an inescapable fact of life and, though there’s no way for us to escape pain when it comes our turn to suffer, we can at least find a measure of peace in the fact that we’re not being singled out and our treatment by the world isn’t personal: we all are fated to suffer at some point.
It’s important to remember that simply because we choose to accept the world as it is doesn’t mean that we need to give up on trying to make it a better place! All humans dream about making a difference in the world and that’s a very good thing. We simply can’t allow ourselves to get caught up in overly unrealistic hopes for change in this world, because, if we do, we’ll only be setting ourselves up for disappointment since certain things in this world aren’t ever going to change. It’s the dilemma we face in the serenity prayer: how to know what we can change and what we can’t.
Dreams are a huge part of what it means to be a human being and there’s no way that we can ever keep ourselves from dreaming. Dreams have a way of creeping into our consciousness whether we like it or not. And, since dreams by definition have no limits or boundaries, it’s unavoidable that a certain percentage of our dreams will be farfetched and unrealistic (just think of American Idol and how every single contestant believes that they’re going to win even when they don’t any talent at all.) Since humans don’t have any choice but to dream, the best way that we can be realistic with respect to our dreams is to stay mindful of
just how little power we have in this world. We can dream all we want about changing the world but that doesn’t necessarily mean that change is going to happen.
The problem with dreams is that once we have a dream, we can’t help but long for it. That’s why so many of us spend our entire lives dreaming about how perfect things will be when something finally changes and our dreams have a chance to come true. Because our dreams always revolve around change and our hopes for the future, it inevitably means that we’re not happy with our current state of affairs.
Dreaming is flipside of acceptance and peace. If we’re dreaming (longing for something we don’t have), we’re not in a state of acceptance and we’re certainly not at peace. Peace is only possible when we’re able to truly accept our present circumstances just as they are. Dreams tend to negate our peace of mind because at the heart of any dream is the hope that we’ll be able to transform our current unsatisfactory situation into something that’s much more satisfying.
It’s extremely hard for humans to be at peace with how little we can change. What’s interesting is that, even though we can’t accept our own inability to change, we have no problem accepting that dogs can’t change. We easily accept that dogs have the temperament they have due to their particular breed or mix of breeds. That’s why you never see a dog owner complaining that he can’t get his Doberman to behave like a Poodle! No one in their right mind would ever expect that Doberman could be transformed into a Poodle! Yet, when it comes to the far-retched expectations we have for our own personal change, those expectations are often no less preposterous than expecting a Doberman to change into a Poodle!
We humans have always struggled with being able to accept ourselves for who we are. It’s the reason why we enjoy dogs so much more than we do each other! Dogs always accept us unconditionally and we do the same for them. And, because we never expect dogs to change, we’re simply able to enjoy them for who and what they are. And,
if a problem should come up with our dog, we’re more than happy to do whatever it takes to accommodate our dog
so that we can resolve the problem. Now, how simple and straightforward is that?
If only we could do that with ourselves and with each other! Instead, the first thing we do whenever we have a problem with ourselves (or someone else) is to demand change. No thought is ever given to simply trying to accept each other’s behavior and to make the best of it! We categorically reject all ideas of acceptance because we simply want things to be the way we want them to be, not the way that they are! Humans cling to the belief that change is possible. And, when the change we want isn’t immediately forthcoming, we resort to accusing ourselves (and others) of not really trying that hard to change in the first place.
Why doesn’t it ever occur to us that the reason it’s so hard for us to change is because we can’t change? It’s as if we take pleasure in judging and condemning ourselves for our inability to change! Think of how unreasonable and cruel that is: to chastise ourselves (and others) simply for being the person we were born to be. It’s no different than blaming a Doberman for not being a Poodle.
The truth is very few of us ever get to know what it’s like to truly be accepted (and valued) for just the person that we are. We don’t accept other people, other people don’t accept us and we certainly don’t accept ourselves. We seem determined to nitpick ourselves (and others) to death on a daily basis! We’ve convinced ourselves that each of us has at least one bad habit or behavior that could be changed so that we could become a better person. Changing ourselves for the better might as well be our human motto and, as such, it serves as our justification for being able to demand change from ourselves and from others. And yet, as all of us have experienced countless times in our efforts to change, it’s basically impossible for any of us to ever change that much. And, if we do manage to change at all, it’s not by much. If only we could accept ourselves (and others) in the same way that we accept dogs: just as we are.
As we struggle to find peace and acceptance in our lives, we shouldn’t feel that we’re becoming a defeatist or some kind of quitter simply because we’re trying to opt for acceptance. In fact, the opposite is true! When we accept the world and ourselves as we are, what we discover is that we’re not giving up, we’re letting go and moving on. And, because we’re moving on to a life of acceptance, we can finally start living our lives based on what’s so rather than on what we wish could be so.
When we can’t find a way accept the world and ourselves just as we are, our lives get put on hold. Instead of simply accepting life and dealing with it as it is, we go round and round in our own private hamster wheel as we continually long for what we don’t while we wait and wait for something or someone to finally change.
I know that in the past, I must have promised myself at least a million times that I’d finally go dancing or that I’d finally start dating again (or do one of a thousand other things that I wouldn’t permit myself to do) once I was able to finally lose weight. There were also countless times when I’d swore that I was finally going to leave one of my bad-tempered boyfriends if he treated badly one more time. But, (surprise, surprise), there always seemed to be one more time and then one more time because I was apparently powerless to stop myself from hoping that someday something would change and I’d finally be able to start living the life that I’d always dreamed of.
Because we’re human and dreaming is simply what we do, it’s never going to be easy for us to completely tame our hopes and dreams. Whenever a dream sparks a tiny flame in our hearts, hope follows in quick pursuit, pouring fuel all over the fire. In no time at all we’re consumed, preoccupied with plans and schemes that will make our dream a reality. And, just like that, we become trapped in the land of “if only:” if only I could be thin I’d be happy, if only I could win American Idol I’d be happy, if only I could be rich, smart or in love I’d be happy. Once a dream has whispered sweet nothings in our ear, our life as we know it becomes more and more unsatisfactory because we no longer want the life we have, we want the dream!
Dreams are all about survival and control. As living beings, we’re instinctively preoccupied with survival even
if it’s not something that we’re consciously aware of most of the time. The need to be in control springs from our need to survive because, if we can control our surroundings and the people in our lives, then we should have a much greater chance at being able to survive. Survival is key for all living beings because if we hope to accomplish anything in our lives (such as producing offspring, etc.), we must first survive.
This need to survive explains why we so frequently dream of being rich and powerful. Because, if we’re rich
and powerful, we’ll have access to every single thing that we could ever need to make sure that we’re safe, that we survive.
Dreams are also prompted by the pain in our lives. It’s simply a fact that humans are incredibly pain averse: even the slightest amount of pain gets us to dreaming about how to make it stop. Sadly, the quest to avoid pain can sometimes work to our detriment. I’ve repeatedly encountered one example of this in my career as a veterinarian. It concerns certain people who’ve been particularly devastated by the loss of a pet. These individuals have been so traumatized by the loss of their pet that they’ve decided that they never want to get another pet. Understandably, it’s extremely sad to lose a beloved pet but it’s tragic to think that someone would willingly forgo one of the greatest joys that any of us can ever experience (the love of a pet) simply to avoid the pain of losing that pet. That’s being too pain averse and it’s why it’s so important to make peace with the fact that pain
is a normal part of life. If we live our lives overly preoccupied with the avoidance of pain, we’re going miss out on a whole lot of experiences and a whole lot of love.
Even though we all loathe pain, what’s curious is that we should have such a hard time extricating ourselves from painful situations. It seems that even if we’re completely miserable and all we do is dream about how to escape our miserable circumstances, we still seem to have a horrible time breaking free. It appears that we’re so afraid of the unknown that we often decide that it’s safer to stay with what we know than it is to risk what we don’t know. Unfortunately, though, if we ever to have any hope of having a full and satisfying life, we must do more than survive, we need to thrive. And, in the quest to thrive, there are going to be times when we must break down our boundaries in order to leave our comfort zone and risk the unknown.
This is where dreams can actually help us. A dream can serve as such a powerful motivator in our lives that they’ll taunt and torment us until we finally get off our butts and give the unknown a try. In one respect, our dreams are the best chance we have at being able to live a full and satisfying life. Yet, they definitely come at a cost. The price we pay for having dreams is that they’ll always cause us to be relatively unhappy with the life that we currently have. Dreams make us long for what we don’t have and, as a consequence, they make us discontented with what we do have. Dreams are extremely important in our lives but they’re going to magnify our feelings of dissatisfaction.
It seems the best that we can hope for is some kind of shaky balance between the restless longings of our dreams and the somewhat boring complacency we experience whenever we’re temporarily at peace with our lives as they are.
What’s important to remember, though, is no matter whether we’re caught up in the throes of a dream or we’re momentarily at peace with our lives as they are, we’re still only capable of being the unique individual that we were born to be. Circumstances don’t define us as nearly as much as our genetics and temperament do. None of us has any choice but to live out our lives as the person that we were born to be. Que sera sera. Woof!