Hiking a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains many years ago, I rounded a blind curve and surprised an older couple and their shepherd-mix dog.
The dog lunged toward me and his front paws left the ground. He snarled and barked, ferociously flashing two v-shaped serrated ridges of teeth and hurtling me back about 40 years to Bobby Darin’s jazzy hit Mack the Knife:
Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And he shows them, pearly white . . .
One of the distressed owners tightened his grip on the straining leash. He alternately spoke in a soothing voice to his dog and apologized profusely to me for their rescued dog’s behavior. As the blood returned to my face I assured the couple that no apology was necessary.
The couple and their dog continued on their way while I went mine. As quickly as my fear and defenses reared up, they receded. All was well. I silently wished the couple and their dog a long and happy life together.
Twenty years passed before I perceived the difference in how I react to animal and human behavior - particularly “bad” behavior. If the neighbor’s Tabby hissed when I brushed too close or a blue jay dive-bombed from a tree to strafe my bald pate with her talons, I was quick to forgive. The cat was getting on in years and was only comfortable with his human. The bird was just trying to protect her nest. In any case, my reservoir of understanding ran deep.
Not so with humans. When that bristly clerk shot sarcasm my way, my hackles raised and I demanded to see the store manager. If an overworked doctor got curt to my questions about my medical care, I silently dismissed him as an uncaring oaf. There were no reserves for such transgressions in my spiritual bank account.
I could reason this discrepancy in my “forgiveness allowance” by saying that animals “can’t help it” while humans “should know better.” We humans have the “superior” reasoning ability and the capacity for nuanced responses.
What I had not considered much was the immense weight of these human “benefits” on our individual and collective psyches as we try to navigate this thing called life. Being human is not easy, especially in today’s one-step removed world of social media and rampant privacy breaches that could lead to surrendered identities. Every day we struggle to define and maintain personal - and global - boundaries. Some struggle more than others.
I am not espousing a pass for humans who systematically abuse and oppress others. I do not suggest forgiveness for those who derive pleasure from cruelty. Nor am I saying that noxious or unprofessional conduct should go un-confronted. What I am asking myself is to suspend judgement and extend the same charity of heart I afford animals to those humans who, for whatever reason, are having a bad day and wearing it on their sleeve.
I’ll never know the full story behind the eyes of a stranger who sideswipes me in the course of life. What I’m getting in that moment is that raw, unfiltered reaction to trigger events experienced under the weight of humanness. I just happened to be standing next to them when the levy broke. And I could very well be the one dishing out the bad tidings next time.
Any day now, I’ll have the opportunity to slough off a personal transgression with an understanding heart. One that the animals gently coaxed forth from my dark, fearful place.