You Love What You Love


I used to hate dogs. I thought they were disgusting, poop-eating, smelly, loud-barking, cat-killing, needy, table-begging, annoying, farting, drooling, shin-licking, … evil maladroits capable of hypnotizing the entire human species with a mere tail wag. I could go on and on about what I hated but I suppose it’s better not to dig up old resentments.

About six months ago my sweet girlfriend said she missed her dog a whole bunch and wanted him to come live with us. A sixty-five pound, twelve-year old Lab mix, named Bear, in a two-bedroom apartment, on the third floor. I can’t say I was thrilled with the idea.

I was willing to give up some comfort so she could be happy but before I go making myself sound great, I’ll be honest. I knew that somehow our happiness together depended on how this was going to work out. She’s a good person. She only asked that I give it a shot and nothing more. She’s a real keeper.

A simple try on my part wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to fully accept, not just tolerate Bear. I mean, a life of having to constantly tolerate a dog I don’t like sounds like some kind of karmic punishment. I’d have to actually change and it’d take a minor miracle because I honestly, could not, stand, dogs.

I’ve hacked my life before. I’ve learned how to keep from getting stuck in my ways. I’ve learned that it’s possible to change the most engrained mentalities and behaviors. I learned it from some very kind and patient people.

Let me take a little philosophical detour here. I have come to believe we humans are driven mostly by primal instincts for survival and self-protection. Those are good instincts. They’re so strong, though, that they carry us away sometimes.  We build identities and reputations the same way we build houses to live in. They make us feel safe and give us a patch of land to stand on in the social world. Identities like, say, being “Sam, the dog hater,” can trap a person. They can make a much needed change nearly impossible. I think the secret to keeping a youthful heart is holding your identities loosely, placing very little value in self-importance, and even less value in other people’s approval.

Well, nowadays I love Bear. I call him “my good man.” He’s too old to call “boy.” I even find myself drawn to other people’s dogs. I have a genuine appreciation, even an affection, for dogs. I’ve hacked my life again. It turns out I’m pretty hackable. I have a system for it. It doesn’t always work but when it does it’s magical.

You see, when I knew Bear was on his way, I decided to become willing to love him. I didn’t decide to actually love him, just to be open to it. That smells a lot like a psychological trick, I know, but I promise you it’s not. Unwillingness stems from that primal fear of change and it’s usually the problem. Some people seem to have all kinds of self-control, able to will themselves to change by invoking some Herculean inner strength. Not me. All I have is that I’m willing to try.

When I first saw Bear, shit got real. I realized I wasn’t honestly willing to like him. I did at least want to want to like him. So I guess I was just willing to become willing. Hey, that’s good enough for a start. I’ll take it.

If personal change is anything to me, it is deeply and very personally spiritual. I learned a key element of change from very kind, patient people from all sorts of spiritual persuasions, and atheists too. I asked for help from whom many of my friends call the Universe and others call God which is a wide-ranging name. It doesn’t require any brand loyalty, just blunt honesty and a simple request that, for me, sounded like this: “I want to want to like Bear, and that’s all I got. I need this, not just for me, but for Jess too. Please, I need a little help here.” That’s it. The plainer the better. It’s a humbling act and maybe that’s the main ingredient. It’ll either work or it won’t but you won’t know till you try.

After that I started doing things dog owners should do. I took personal responsibility. I watched The Dog Whisperer with Jess and talked about it with her. I practiced what I learned. Dogs need plenty of exercise so I bought a kick-scooter so Bear could run fast and I could have fun too. A healthy relationship with a dog is built almost entirely on walking together and you leading the pack. That’s just the way it works and there aren’t any shortcuts. It takes real time to walk with Bear so I made it fun for me by getting a Fitbit and setting personal goals.

The key, I learned, was to turn things that felt like a sacrifice into things that were good for me too.

Crazy things started to happen. Bear stopped pulling on the leash. He started listening to me. He’d stick with me around the apartment. He waited at the door for me until I got home from work. I could see that he loved me in his doggy ways. I was getting more exercise, feeling better and more confident, walking with my head a little higher and feeling relaxed. I was changing for the better. I realized then that if there was a purpose to this whole thing, it wasn’t much about me loving Bear, it was about me being a better human.

And that’s the magic, the change you ask for is not the change you usually get. It’s the byproduct of the change you really needed.

Bear still tries to eat poop, he pants a lot, he slobbers on the carpet when he eats his treats, and he farts in his sleep while we watch TV. It just doesn’t matter to me any more. I love the guy. I love his hopefulness. When he wants to go out for a walk he comes up to me with his tail already wagging at the thought of how fun it’s going to be. I absolutely love that dog now. I absolutely love my life more because he’s in it.

Bear also taught me a profound truth. It’s something I’ve heard in different ways before but didn’t own until now:

You love what you love.

In other words, you end up feeling love for what you love on purpose by doing all the things. And when love feels like it’s fading, then love it, love him, love her, on purpose all the more. I can’t think of a single thing I love that didn’t cost me time, effort, and money I didn’t want to spend sometimes. I don’t have any loves that didn’t take some stick-with-it-ness.

And maybe that’s Love’s wisdom, that she requires much of us not because we’re poor in love to give, but rich in self-protection. Love seems pretty jealous of our selfishness. “It’s either me or her – you can’t have both,” she says, and through tough measures, she heals us.

Through willingness, asking for help, and trying, Bear has healed deep parts of me I didn’t know needed healing. He’s my good man.