Thursday, August 18, 2011

... and walk humbly with your dog.

Meet Gracie.  She is my newest teacher.

She is an older dog that lives at my mother's house in Fort Worth, Texas.  This year she had a stroke.  You cannot tell from this picture but now she is rather lopsided.  Her head tilts markedly to her left.  Her left legs are weaker than her right legs, and so she takes a somewhat circular route where ever she goes. 

Gracie has learned to get around pretty well, considering the obstacles she now faces.  For instance, she leans her weak side against the kitchen cabinets and furniture.  She seems to use some of these objects to help guide her to where she wants to go.

During my recent visit to my mother's house, Gracie was on my mind a lot.  As I watched her move about, as I admired her perseverance and her adaptability, I thought of her situation as an apt analogy for the experience of being human.

Gracie must concentrate to take simple steps.  She must be patient not only with her slow pace but also with her unsure ability to head in the right direction.  If only humans would learn to be so mindful of each step -- literally and figuratively -- that we take.

Although most humans are not as visibly impaired as that old dog, they are not as agile and capable as they assume themselves to be.  Too often we veer off our intended paths and wind up, like Gracie, somewhere we did not desire.  Too often we move too quickly.  Too often we are confident in abilities we do not possess -- or that we should possess more carefully and with greater appreciation.

The word we would use for Gracie, and for humans in a similar predicament, is "disabled."  It is true that her stroke has impaired her physical and mental abilities, but as I watched her move around the house and in the yard I kept thinking that being a human can be seen as a kind of disability.  Even if we have not suffered a stroke, we all move through the world with imperfect bodies and minds.

Walt Whitman
My time with Gracie raised issues that I contend with each semester that I teach the sophomore-level American literature survey at my university.

On the one hand, we read "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman.  In it, Uncle Walt tries to inspire his readers by the miracle of their bodies and their souls.  He tells his reader, "You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and every moment of your life."  In other words, you must become accustomed to the miraculous nature of life and of yourself.  In the introduction to the book that contains this great poem, Leaves of Grass, he writes that if the reader follows his instructions, "Your very flesh shall be a great poem."  He wants you to believe that you possess great abilities.

Stephen Crane
But on the other hand, in class we also read Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat."  In this famous story, a group of men are in a lifeboat after a ship wreck.  They need to get to shore, but they must approach it at the right place and in the right conditions or risk being drowned.  They do not know where along the coast they are located, for instance, nor what currents lie between themselves and the shore.  Their ability to act effectively is seriously impaired by their inability to accurately perceive and understand their surroundings.  Crane does not seem to share Whitman's optimism.

Yet, I think they are both right.  Humans are miraculous.  And humans are seriously impaired.  Our humanity should be the source of great inspiration and great humility.

Gracie has adapted to her loss of balance and control by leaning against the kitchen cabinets.  Is this much different from the man who has been hurt too often by others and has learned to keep up his defenses, to trust few people and let few people get close to him?  Is this that much different from the woman who has received little support and love from others and so has learned to not trust herself or value herself?  Is that much different from the man who is mean and aggressive because he assumes everyone is out to treat him that way too?

I realize that you may not agree with me at first.  After all, Gracie's adaptations seem admirable, but aren't my  human examples unfortunate rather than praiseworthy?

I am not so sure.  Our emotional defenses in many ways are good friends to us.  That is one reason we cling to them: They have helped us.  Gracie's system works.  That fortress around a human heart has kept out some injuries and pain.  That lack of confidence has reduced the risks taken and therefore has reduced the number of failures.  Aggression has many times dominated others and kept them at bay.

Defenses are types of adaptation, are they not?  This is not to say our defenses always serve our best interests in the long run.  This is not to say these adaptations are the only options.  This is not to say that we never outgrow our adaptations.  But this is an attempt to better understand them and to be more patient with them.

My thoughts bring to mind  a quote you may see from time to time: "Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."  Although there is confusion about who said this or the exact wording of the quote, watching Gracie reminded me of the truth of its sentiment.

When I come across these adaptations or defenses in others I try to keep in mind that, like Gracie, these people are trying to make their way through the world with impaired abilities to accurately perceive or navigate their paths.

When I come across these things in myself, I try to be mindful of my own impairments and my own adaptations.  I keep Gracie in mind, and I look at my own adaptations with compassion.  I want to be like Gracie and to keep moving and learning and adapting.

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P.S. -- My title is taken from one of my father's favorite Bible verses.  Micah 6:8 -- "What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."


  1. What a thoughtful post. Especially thought provoking for me was the last part in which you describe our defenses as not necessarily a bad thing. It reminded me of a wonderful talk I saw at the TEDxKC event last year by Brene Brown on vulnerability. I don't remember many of the details, but the essence of what she says is we can't afford to put up walls or hard protective shells or we miss out on living life. Now I'm going to have to go back and watch it again. It is here:

  2. Beautiful. That's the Bible verse I quoted often when I taught in church to remind people to stay balanced. Gracie seems like a great teacher.


  3. What a thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I like this more and more with every re-read.