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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Animals and Selfhood

 Singer and Dakota await to be fed on a recent night...

One of my favorite novelists, Barbara Kingsolver, says that good writing involves “relaxing into who you really are.” We humans have to learn how to be who we really are by relaxing. We can’t just be ourselves all the time? Since when? Where’s the research? This is so not true with animals.

Singer is naturally who she is all the time. She doesn’t need to relax. She knows she loves to look out onto her backyard and monitor all the wildlife, whether they’re scurrying in the grass, in the bushes, among the tree branches or flying across the sky. She can spend hours, sitting straight up and attentive, watching her domain from the deck like a powerful landowner. She knows she owns this land. She knows who she is. How do I know this? Last weekend, as I brought in a strange, coiled object to her yard, she showed me just how audacious I had been. While I dragged it right in front of Singer, she pranced around it, barking and yipping, and play growling. She thought this large “snake” was invading her territory. I stopped dragging the hose and called her to me, then offered the nozzle for her to smell. She usually takes her cues from me, who she understands is the “empress” to her “landowner” status, and decided to accept the new object in her yard. Singer: “I guess that thing can share my yard…but I have my eye on it!”

She knows what frightens her and is not shy about showing it. Last night, thunder and lightening scared her, so she stepped up on my side of the bed to paw me awake. Petting her didn’t calm her down. She then hopped up on the bed and settled between us, our bodies putting pressure on both sides of her to help her feel calm. She breathed short, quick huffs until the storm died down. When do we as children learn to cover our fear of thunderstorms, or nightmares, or whatever fear we might have? When do we “outgrow” those fears? Do we ever? Or do we learn to cover them up and forget we once were afraid of loud noises? Neuroscientists might tell us that we learn to “habituate” to fearful stimuli. But I also wonder how quickly we learn to cover up those fears and erase them from that image of who we think we are. Our selves are constantly changing. Dogs and cats don’t do this, although they may habituate to fearful stimuli, I’m told.

My yoga teacher urges us all to confront our fears. She believes in self-knowledge and that certain yoga postures will help us deal with our fears. She encourages us to think about how we affect others around us with our thoughts and communications. All very new-age kinds of ideas. But this also goes to the issue of finding out and expressing who we “really are”. A complicated process for us humans, and not just children—even adults.

I just have to think of Singer or Dakota, relax a little, and pop, suddenly myself is there, right before me. It may waver a bit, like a mirage. The tender side of me is there to recognize my pets in the early morning storms while their frightened bodies quiver beside our legs. Dakota found a safe little cove in the curve of Jeff’s bent legs and snuggled in, while Singer huddled between us, her head right next to mine on the pillow. There’s no pretense to fear. She didn’t care that she was breathing shallowly right in my face. She just knew she felt safe there with us, and that was all she needed to know.

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