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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Exploring the Limits of our Relationships


I always like to push myself. Learn something new, think about a topic in a different way and maybe go under the table to the dark corners where no one ventures because .... it's dark? Unknown? Scary? Uncomfortable? All of the above?

Yes, I believe in pushing myself to see all that I can be aware of, know all that I can, and find the gestalt meaning in things. So, I’ve been thinking about how we treat our pets lately, compared to how we treat our fellow human beings. And I didn’t want to go there. But I forced myself, anyway.

I just finished reading In the Garden of the Beasts by Eric Larson, a non-fiction account of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd’s assignment in Nazi Germany. Larson reports that Dodd, in his diary, noted how much Germans love animals—particularly horses and dogs. A law prohibiting cruelty to animals kept the animals “happy and fat” while we know they largely chose not to see the Nazi regime’s atrocious treatment of their fellow human beings. I also learned from this book just how much the rest of the world turned away from the reality of Hitler, not wishing to acknowledge his true motive of killing all the Jews, and instead always hoping for the best. He ends one chapter with a vision of Berlin’s pampered horses running with flames on their manes and tails when the Russians attacked. A horrific image that stands among those more common to the era—the Concentration Camps and their victims—to underscore the dangers of imbalance: not looking and taking action.

So what does this have to do with how we treat animals? I believe that we Americans are not too different from the Germans—we love our animals and treat them well for the most part. Thankfully, we have a free society without a fascist dictator who controls our actions and oppresses us. But we do tend to look the other way a lot. Are we taking for granted our freedoms? Do we lavish too much attention on our animals that instead could go toward our fellow human beings? Would it hurt to treat our fellow human beings with as much love and deference as we do our pets?

I once told my son, “It’s okay to spoil our pets, but it’s not okay to spoil our children.” Now, I believe it’s not okay to spoil our pets, either. They can get the better of our natures. I know, from personal experience, that they will take advantage. It’s up to us, with the big brains (supposedly), to provide the balance in the relationship.

According to Larson, Dodd wasn’t liked very much in the State Department, (or in the Nazi regime) even though he was proven to be correct in all of his warnings. He was a history professor who executed his duties as Ambassador by giving speeches about past examples of extreme behavior resulting in disastrous outcomes, in a diplomatic move to get Hitler to change his ways. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Larson notes that Dodd’s critics in the U.S., who favored using more appeasement, wouldn’t have been successful, either. The easier route for Dodd would have been to conform to the expectations, but he didn’t do that. Perhaps he understood that the only way to control Hitler was to take him out, but he knew that wasn’t his role. In the face of this, it would be easy to use appeasement. But he chose to act in the best way he knew how, in conformation with his values.

This is a wildly extreme example from history, I realize, but it gets you thinking. Do I want to take the easy route with my relationships, or do the hard work necessary that most reflects my values? This should be true with my pets as well as my human relationships. I hope I am brave enough to always choose the latter. Next time I will talk about what this means:  how do I treat my pets so that it conforms to my values? How do you treat your pets that conforms with your values?

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