Forgiveness lessons from a dog

Forgiveness lessons from a dog

The other day I was getting ready to take my dog Jazzy for a walk. Now, this isn’t a daily routine although I know that it’s best for a dog to have one. It’s just that I don’t have a lot of open spaces I can easily take him to, so I take him maybe three or four times a week for a short walk around the neighborhood and he loves it.

On this particular day the poor guy was so excited he kept getting in the way of me and my shoe-laces, and I shouted at him with such force that he sunk down, tail between his legs and slunk away.

Of course, I immediately felt bad, but as I got up and proceeded down the stairs, there he was, eyes bright, tail wagging, tongue hanging out.

My dog had completely let go of what happened like it never occurred. He seemed to instinctively know that it was my momentary irritation at something he did, and not any lasting problem with him—the jovial Jazzy. “Wow,” I said out loud. “Can you teach me how to forgive like that Jazzy?”

How does he do it

How great it would be to easily forgive the insulting remark, the accusation, the discourtesy, the verbal attack, and move on.

But it’s not, is it?

We often self-flagellate, or form a grievance and seek to even the score, but here was my dog showing me that it’s possible to forgive and move on.

How was he doing it?

I think the trick Jazzy demonstrated was he doesn’t attach hurtful meaning to anything that I do. Indeed, he doesn’t attach meaning to anything—he’s a dog—and with no meaning, words or actions can’t have any lasting hurtful impact.

After all, you can’t be hurt by what anyone says to you unless you give what they say a hurtful meaning. For example, I can yell at you, and insult you as loudly as I want, but if I do it in Chinese and you don’t speak Chinese, you’re more likely to wonder what’s up with me, than be hurt by anything I say.

Wounding self-beliefs

The reason we often can’t stop thinking about the meanings we give to things that happen to us is because these meanings poke at a self-belief that wounds us, a belief we may have had about ourselves since we were small e.g. I’m ugly, not smart, not worthy, can’t get it right etc., etc.

Dogs simply don’t have beliefs

Jazzy is able to let things go, or remain unaffected because dogs can’t language the way we do, they don’t give meanings that reinforce beliefs. They associate things (like bells with food) but that’s not the same. Dogs don’t have any ongoing conversations in their heads that reinforce negative beliefs about themselves or other people. Jazzy doesn’t walk around thinking that he’s a bad doggie and he’ll never be on America’s Got Talent.

Jazzy doesn’t walk around thinking that he’s a bad doggie and he’ll never be on America’s Got Talent.

There is no negative self-talk convincing him that he’s anything but who he is: love, play, and devotion. If the walk doesn’t happen today, it may happen tomorrow and if not, that’s OK. He loves me the same. My shouts bounce off him because for him, I am speaking Chinese.

He loves me the same. My shouts bounce off him because for him, I am speaking Chinese.

No need to forgive

At first, I thought Jazzy was teaching me something about forgiveness, but as I wrote this I realize that dog’s don’t forgive because they don’t take offense in the first place (John 8:1-11). Jazzy knew I was upset and he just took evasive action.

He waited for my unexpected thundershower behavior to pass, and as I came down the stairs he could see the blue sky in my new attitude. I was looking at him, smiling, even telling him I was sorry. I’m sure he couldn’t understand, but he didn’t need to.

Dogs don’t create meaning, all they can do is be themselves and be with us. Nothing in the past or future can spoil the present for a dog, and that’s an example we can all follow.

What we can learn

You don’t have to make everything mean something. Nothing that happens to you has any one true meaning, or any meaning at all—not getting fired, promoted or robbed. We are the ones giving meaning to the things that happen to us, so why not choose meanings that lift us up, rather than ones that bring us down, or separate us from each other.

Making negative meanings is a bad habit, like smoking or drinking. We don’t so much find hurtful, hateful meanings lurking under the things that happen to us as we put them there to support wounding beliefs. These beliefs feel true because we’ve associated them with our identity, like Pavlov’s dogs associated food with the sound of a bell.

Dogs can show you that you don’t have to. You choose to believe what you believe and you choose to give the meanings that you give. You can choose different beliefs, and you don’t have to give everything a meaning.

It may take a while to get to the Zen-Master-dog stage of not making everything mean something or letting those hurtful, hateful meanings go when you do, but you might get there faster by paying attention to your dog and start learning from him how to not take anything personally. That way there’s nothing to forgive.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.