In nearly three decades of marriage we have shared life with a number of animals (besides our children). There was “Bro” the hamster, fondly remembered for his…well, come to think of it, I don’t really remember much about him. When he passed on from this world, my sons held a funeral for him, including a stirring harmonica solo of “Amazing Grace.” For many years we kept an aquarium full of cichlids (cousins of piranhas, but smaller and with less teeth). I am not sure what happened to them, but I think algae was involved. We briefly owned a cat that I named after one of my favorite theologians, “Jurgen,” which sounds a lot better than Jurgen’s last name, “Moltmann.” She was a stray and unfortunately brought in stray parasites that were not welcomed in our home.
We have had three dogs. The first one was a sweet beagle named “Molly.” She was not long for this world, so I will not go into it for this article. “Samson” was our beloved yellow lab for 12 years. When he died our hearts were so broken we could not think of having another dog for another 7 years. Finally, this past summer, we saw a little pup at a rescue shelter and our hearts were moved. “Annie” has been part of the family ever since.
Taking Annie out for walks can be a frustrating undertaking if what you want to do is actually walk. The walks are more like high speed sprints, interspersed with languid pauses so she can smell – I mean thoroughly smell – whatever is on the ground, in the air, along the sidewalk, etc.. Tugging at the leash; calling her away; bribing her with treats; will not sway this canine daughter from her task of deep thinking through her nose.
A dog experiences the world primarily through smell. Sure, many have great hearing and some breeds have remarkable eyesight, but it is with the nose where the action is. According to NOVA, a dog “possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us. And the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.” If our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, so claims the article, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized pools worth.
I am learning…oh so haltingly…to appreciate the world through my dog’s nose. I know that very image is a silly one, but think about (or to stay on point, smell on it). We tend to view others through our own exclusive perspective. That means we bring our experiences, our biases, our knowledge, and our culture to bear on our understanding. As such, we we do not understand and therefore we are at risk of reacting fearfully and uncharitably. But there is always more to the story; more to see, hear, and, yes, smell.
Thinking through my dog’s nose is a reminder to me the importance of seeking an understanding of another; to sit in their space; to see through their experiences; and by doing so enlarge my own. The word compassion literally means to have passion with another; to join in their world which will make your own world richer.
The great stories of Jesus are full of such examples. He met the woman at the well; he walked alongside lepers and beggars; he stood in the pool of a man born blind; he held the hand of a daughter and gave her her life back. Maybe the real miracle is that Jesus – God Incarnate – chose to share space with others and share in life together.
It is interesting that you do not read of Jesus demanding others to meet him where he was. Even when he invited the men to put down their nets and follow him, he first met them at the shores where they were plying their trade. Afterwards, they all crashed a party at a sinner’s home.
Seeing the world through my dog’s nose can be an invitation to experience every encounter with another as an opportunity for a holy meeting – so I don’t want to be blind to that!
Smell you later,