I recently mentioned to my wife, Ty, that our new dog Max is kind of like Buddhist meditation on legs. When I said it, I was thinking about how I’m drawn into the present moment when he plunks his big black head on my lap. My usually racing mind stills itself, and for a little while I’m existing in the Now, just experiencing the presence of this furry Other. Worries and preoccupations fade away, and I get some inkling of what Buddhists mean when they talk about “mindfulness.”
But a couple of weeks ago, Max helped to give us all a different lesson, an “ethico-religious” lesson about responding to change and loss. With the help of Max and some good friends, we were all reminded of how minor tragedies can be transformed into something lovely and delightful.
You see, Max decided to turn Izzie’s home-made baby-doll, Baby, into a chew toy. He gnawed off her hair and punched some holes into the fabric on the side of her head.
This wasn’t wholly surprising, given Max’s penchant for chewing on things. It took us awhile to figure out that he wasn’t limiting himself to what we’d inadvertently left lying around on the floor. He was actually lifting the lid of Izzie’s toy box to extract what he wanted from inside. Since joining our family, Max has helped himself in this way to a number of toys. But chomping on Baby was more serious than some of his other offenses. To understand its full significance, a bit of history is required.
A couple of years ago, when Izzie was still a few months shy of her first birthday, we spent a weekend with friends at a rented cabin in an Arkansas forest. It was a wonderful occasion in which we had the chance to connect with old friends, walk in the woods, eat good food, and watch our children play together.
One of our friends, Leslie, brought everything that was needed to make cloth baby dolls. While my wife and a few others struggled to create baby dolls, Leslie made several, including one for Izzie. The result was Baby. It was the first doll Izzie ever became attached to, and it remains her favorite—although it was temporarily dethroned by a plastic Tinkerbell.
Incidentally, Max also chewed enthusiastically on Tinkerbell a few days after going to town on Baby’s scalp. We considered attaching a hook in place of Tink’s gnawed-off hand, but decided instead to buy surreptitiously a replacement. We didn’t want Izzie to start thinking of Max as The Favorite Doll Killer.
But Baby couldn’t be replaced so easily. It isn’t hard to imagine the sentimental value that all of us attached to this little doll made of brown cloth and black yarn. And it’s not hard to imagine how we felt when we came home to learn that Baby, of all Izzie’s toys, had become the target of Max’s separation-anxiety-induced destructiveness.
It would’ve been easy to turn on the poor dog in outrage, or to see the doll’s destruction as the severing of a thread linking us to Izzie’s infancy. We might have looked at this little girl who was growing up so fast, who was no longer even a toddler anymore. We might have noted how quickly it was all going by, vanishing into a past that could never be reclaimed. And we might have attached all those feelings to this object of sentimental memory, now wet with dog slobber.
And I suppose, for a little while, we did all of those things. But then my wife picked up the phone, and she called her friend Leslie, Baby's creator.
Leslie promptly offered to try to stitch up the puncture wounds and make Baby a new head of hair. But the offer wasn’t really about restoring what was lost. It was about embarking on a new journey. And a journey is precisely what it became—a journey in which all of us participated, if only vicariously.
It began with a trip to the post office. Ty took Izzie with her, and together they sent Baby off to “the doll hospital.” And by a coincidence of timing, Baby arrived at Leslie’s just as she and her family were about to leave town for spring break. And so Baby went along.
And that’s when the photos started to arrive. At first it was a bald-headed Baby, unrepaired and ready for a trip to New Orleans. Then it was Baby in front Graceland. At some point Baby got a new head of hair, longer than it had been before. And so, by the time we received the pictures of Baby in Mississippi and Louisiana, she was a new doll. In some of the pictures she began sporting new outfits that Leslie had made for her.
There were pictures of Baby posing with Leslie or her daughter--or, in one case, with another doll.
And then at last we got the message that Baby was on her way home. On the day that she arrived, Izzie squealed with delight. We opened the box and took out a baby doll who was now sporting pig tails (her old hair had been short) and a new pair of flannel jammies. Izzie joyously swept the doll into her embrace while Ty read the “discharge papers,” which instructed us on follow-up care to ensure a full recovery (the most significant instruction being to keep Baby away from the dog).
In many ways, Baby’s journey isn’t very important, especially in a world where there are children who go to bed without food. But it is a story which carries with it some lessons that are less than trivial. One of those lessons is this: Had Max not chewed off Baby’s hair, Baby would never have been shipped off to Leslie. The gestures of friendship that followed wouldn’t have happened. And Baby’s wonderful journey, photographed for our delight, wouldn’t now be a part of our lives.
This is not to say that the destruction of a sentimental toy isn’t bad. What it means is that through creativity and humor and love, people were able to make this bad thing into part of a bigger story. Baby’s unfortunate encounter with Max became an integral part of something good, something that gave meaning to what might in a different context have been nothing but an unfortunate loss.
It matters what we do with the events that occur to us. The stories we jointly weave around those events can turn a minor tragedy into one episode in a lovely tale of friendship. But the stories we weave can also turn a minor tragedy into the start of something far worse, a deeper tragedy defined by hostility and regret. The latter is more likely when we cling to the past and won’t move on, when we won’t accept the finitude of things and refuse to journey into the unknown future.
Change is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. We cannot freeze things in place. Dolls will be destroyed. Relationships will end. Friends and loved ones will die. These realities are among the pieces from which we build a life. And the choices we make about what kind of life we’ll build do not just affect our own story. We also impact other lives and life stories, just as they do our own.
We don’t tell the story all by ourselves. We can’t control its course. We can only make choices about what we’ll do with the pieces that fall before us, and then wait to see what falls before us next. The challenge is to focus on building the best life we can out of the pieces that tumble into our path, and to help others do the same.
As soon as we say, “I need to acquire these pieces or the story is ruined,” we’re in trouble. That’s when we resent the pieces that tumble in our path rather than doing the best that we can with them. As soon as we say, “All these pieces need to stay in place or the story’s ruined,” we’re in trouble. Some losses are horrible, and it may well be that part of building a good life is treasuring those pieces that are most precious and preserving them from loss as best we can. But we can’t control the story. Loss is inevitable. And when loss happens, even bitter loss, we have to decide what to do, what story to build around that loss…and then strive to build the best story we can.
It’s easier to do that, and do it well, when the loss is relatively minor, when it’s a doll that’s been chomped on by a dog. But it’s by doing it well in such cases, when the loss is small, that we develop the habits of character that will carry us through the more brutal losses, the times when we confront in all its dark terror the finitude of this life.
All of this can be said without any reference to God or the transcendent. I suspect that secular humanists and die-hard naturalists will agree with the wisdom of striving in this life to make the best of what comes without trying to control what comes, to achieve that balance between accountability for ourselves and acceptance of what is beyond our control—in short, the wisdom embodied in Reinhold Niebuhr’s extraordinary Serenity Prayer, which has been embraced by twelve step programs around the world.
But it’s hard, this task of taking responsibility for how we engage with the world while letting go of the outcome. Nobody does it perfectly, especially in the hard times, no matter how much we practice when the stakes are less high. When the finitude of this life slaps us in the face, and we confront in an unfettered way own limits and the limits of everyone and everything we hold dear, it is easy for some of us to allow a pretense of indifference to replace acceptance, and for recklessness to replace responsibility. For others, it is easy for angry defiance to reign, inspiring a futile effort to take control of the world, to defeat the inescapable boundaries of our existence.
And so, it may be that what we most need to practice when the stakes are less high, what we most need to learn from hapless dogs and shredded toys, is how not to be afraid of finitude. And one antidote to this fear, perhaps the only true antidote, is what Friedrich Schleiermacher called “the intuition of the Infinite in the finite”—that is, the sense that beyond our limits, instead of finding Barth’s dark and terrible “Das Nichtige,” the Nothingness, we will find instead a boundless Yes.
To trust this sense, despite the impossibility of proving that it is veridical, is the essence of religious faith as I understand it. It is to decide to live in the hope that this boundless Yes we sense in fleeting whispers is not an illusion, not a mere projection of our desires.
Sometimes our capacity for such faith is strengthened by the smaller but important yeses that come from our friends, perhaps in a series of photographs. Or in an affable dog who, despite a penchant for chewing up toys, can lift you out of yourself with the weight of his head on your lap. Or in a doll that is suddenly sporting a new pair of pig tails.