We have an old dog who is probably not going to live the rest of the summer. She has been a wonderful companion for the past 13 years and it saddens the family to think she will soon be gone. She struggles to get up, has difficulty standing by her food and water bowls, and most days just wants to sleep in her bed. She’s blind, can’t really hear much, and while she shows no signs of pain, you can tell the everyday things in life are getting tougher for her to endure.
If any of you have had a dog long enough to experience the full range of its life, you understand the process I’m describing. You’ve experienced the puppy stage, the vibrant “adult” stage and as time marched on, the later declining years. What makes a dog’s life so interesting is you experience all these developmental stages in a short amount of time. With our family members, it’s impossible to see the full life span. We either fall between generations never seeing our parents’ youthful years or our children’s aging years. With our siblings and peers, we go through the stages with them so we are unconscious of the key points these stages present because like them, we are too close to the experience. We can see the stages of life come and go in a comprehensive way when raising and caring for a family dog. Sure, they are significantly different than human stages, but they still can teach us a thing of two. Watching our dogs grow old can be quite a life lesson and teaches us how to live life in a fuller way. Here are some thoughts on how the life of an old Boston Terrier has enlightened me over the years.
First, we need to keep track of time. If we consider the statistics provided by the Center for Disease Control, as of 2014 the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.8 years with women living slightly longer and men slightly less. That means if all goes well and you remain in relatively good health you can probably count on reaching the age of 78, give or take a few years. The most sobering thing you can do is take your current age and subtract it from 78. In my case I subtract 51 from 78 leaving me with about 27 more years to live. I’ve actually lived longer than I ever will again. Why is recognizing your mortality so important for living well? It reminds us how much time is left to create the life we want. It motivates us to think about what we hope to accomplish in the time we have left. Recognizing how much time most likely remains in us leads us to the second principle I’ve learned from watching our family dog grow old.
The second thing my dog has taught me is to savor the moments that make up life. Recognizing you only have so much time left before breathing your last breath is important when it comes to setting goals and performing tasks to reach them. Yet sometimes that gets in the way of savoring and enjoying each day we live. Our dog has always been mindful of the present moment. It might be a treat she was given or a fallen table scrap she recovered. Whatever it was she was doing she savored that moment. Even now, in her very old age, each time she is held she takes that moment in with everything she has. G. K. Chesterton is quoted as saying, “The aim of life is appreciation.” Savoring is that everyday appreciation for the good, the bad, and whatever else comes your way. Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff are the leading experts in this aspect of positive psychology. They describe savoring with terms like relishing, cherishing, treasuring, marveling, and delighting in something. Discover what these things are in your life and do the best to be intentional about savoring them.
The third important characteristic of living well this old Boston Terrier taught me is to be patient with life. Again, noting what little time we have left compels us to rush toward our goals but that keeps us from savoring life, being grateful for what we have, and taking the necessary time to create meaning and purpose out of our life experiences. One thing my dear old dog is able to do is to be patient. She sits for hours and sometimes just enjoys laying in the grass. Even in her crippled state she sits patiently waiting for someone to pick her up to do the simple things like go outside to relieve herself or eat something. Being patient and taking our time allows us to “dwell in the moment” and enjoy, make sense of, learn from, and appreciate life as it comes.
My dear old Boston Terrier has just about lived her life to the end. That said, she really has had a good life. She has indeed, “Lived life well” in a way that I try and teach others, but she has done so in the most basic and simple way, a way we should imitate. In her short but full life, she has taught me to be intentional about living, to savor the moments I have, to take my time and be patient, and in the end, to grow old with dignity. This last point is an important one to learn. Growing old with dignity is something none of us plan to do but all of us must do. My dog has become content on relying on other people and letting them help her with the most basic aspects of living. We do it lovingly for her, because she has always been a loving pleasant dog for us. In the end, what matters most is the people you share your life with. The most profoundly spiritual aspect of living life well is living it with and for others. After all, 78 years goes by quickly, why not fill those years with loving relationships so that when it’s time for you to move on you do so in the loving embrace of people you cared about and who cared for you. That’s the main lesson my old Boston Terrier has taught me. She has taught me to love others and receive love because after all, that is what we were created for.