A Dog Was Rescued.

I recently read a heartwarming story on NPR of a dog named Mia, who ran away after a car accident and was lost for a month before finally being found by neighbors who had set up a remote camera to take pictures of the place the accident had happened.  The camera showed that the dog was returning twice a day to the spot, looking for her owners, but was gone by the time the neighbors arrived to pick her up.

Eventually Mia was found and reunited with her family.  The NPR story showed a sweet picture of Mia licking her happy owner’s face.  It was a compelling story with a happy ending—and yet as I read the story, I felt a twinge of sadness.  How strange! Why should I be sad, and what was I sad about? This was one of those human interest stories that seemed to hold nothing but happiness—for the dog, for the dog’s owners, and for the neighbors who went above and beyond to help find the dog. I love dogs, so seeing the devotion of the dog to keep returning to the last place it saw its owners, and the dedication of the many people who contributed to the happy ending, should have filled me with happiness.

It did, but there was this backdrop of sadness creeping in too.  In reflecting on the complexity of my feelings, I think I was responding to the fact that, especially in the last two or three years, such simple examples of devotion and kindness have become all too rare.  People fly into a rage because someone parked too close to them in a parking lot, Asian-Americans are attacked by strangers for no other reason than that they are perceived in some deranged way as responsible for Covid, people pull a gun when they are simply asked to put on a mask—the list goes on.  Dogs are simpler creatures; they love us simply because we love and take care of them.  Dogs jump up joyously when it is time for their walk, they watch all day at the window for their owners to return (we had a dog like that, over time his nose stained the window).  Why can’t we humans be more like that? Is it my nostalgic illusion that we used to be more so, or is it just a trick of selective memory to imagine that it once was so?

Let’s be honest: in our natural environment, human beings are top predators—which means that in the right circumstances we have the physical equipment and mental circuitry to kill.  We human are capable of great things, but in the right circumstances—such as whenever we feel threatened, or in a war—we can become stone cold killers.  History tells us this, and we may be entering another period of history where our murderous tendencies are being provoked.  I would like to say it is mostly men—with their preponderance of testosterone—who are most evolved to kill, but stories abound these days of women becoming violent too. 

All of this does make me sad, and perhaps it is just sentimentality that makes me think that the hearts of dogs as beloved pets hew to a more loving mode of being.  I remember the slogan that emerged out of the Vietnam anti-war protests of the sixties, in which I participated: Make love, not war.  I don’t know who coined the phrase; in its compelling naivete it has a counterculture ring.  It was more than a galvanizing slogan; we anti-war protestors had real clout.  Authorities of that time took note. I have read that it recently came out that President Johnson secretly gave the order to his attorney general not to arrest the thousands of draft resisters who were challenging the war.  “Look, leave them alone,” Johnson said.  “If we throw all these college kids into jail it will ruin us.” 

“Make love, not war”: in today’s world this slogan sounds anachronistic, a relic of a bygone age.  “Flower power”—that was another slogan.  At one memorable demonstration at the Pentagon (where some leaders said they planned to levitate the building through chanting) demonstrators put flowers in the barrels of the National Guardsmens’ guns.   

I don’t think that would happen today.  These days demonstrators come to Washington bringing not flowers, but guns.  Such is the world that we live in now.  As I write, it is day 9 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Everyone is inspired by the idealistic spirit of the Ukrainians, but more sober-minded military analysts are saying that, idealism aside, the brute power of the Russian army in the long run may prevail. The phrase that describes that kind of force is “hard power.” Everyone is talking about hard power now.  

Is hard power the new normal for our age, and is the soft power of a dog’s devotion, or of “make love, not war,” relics of a wistful, long distant past?

I think that’s why the story of the dog’s rescue made me sad.  Intuitively, I sensed that the simple joy of the dog’s rescue may not be an emotion well suited for our times.  I hope I’m wrong.