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Learning Forgiveness from a Dog

Last night at three o'clock in the morning my dog Freckles bit me. He is a small dog, about twenty-five pounds, short and very round. He had made his way up to my pillow and when I moved I accidentally rolled over him. He bit me hard on the arm and then made his way off the bed and downstairs. The bite hurt. He broke the skin a little bit and today I have a good size bruise where he got me.


After he bit me I felt bad, like I must have hurt him. I went downstairs to check on him and he seemed just fine. He was chipper and ready for a midnight snack. I went back upstairs and tried to get a little more sleep before my 6 am alarm. When I did get up and go to the living room to meditate a few hours later, Freckles joined me. He snuggled his fat back right up to my leg on the floor and sat with me for forty-five minutes.


I thought it strange that he was so comfortable cuddling up with me after inflicting a flesh wound just three hours earlier. But he was oblivious, happy to be sitting there with me, snoring away. In the moment right after Freckles bit me I was mad at him. I was coursing with adrenaline but the anger lasted just as long as it took for my heart rate to slow down. My forgiveness was immediate and complete.


If I get mad at my partner or my sister or my mother, I want them to know that I am mad. I can't let it go until I feel they've learned a lesson, that they understand the impact of their actions. I expect a little bit of remorse, maybe some penance.


I want them to be a little stand-off-ish, tentative to approach me. This will signify that they understand the errors of their ways. But with Freckles I didn't have that anger. I became almost immediately concerned about him. What had made him bite me? Was it his arthritic hips or did I bend his tail the wrong way?


And then, just hours later, Freckles approached me as if nothing had happened. He wasn't shy or unsure about smooshing up for some love this morning. He had no memory of what had happened. His memory was of the unconditionality of our relationship. The bite a few hours earlier was a vague and distant occurrence. Odds are that Freckles didn't remember it at all. He was ready to move on and get more love.


Humans make each other's lives so much harder by holding onto memories. I have a friend whose partner keeps track of times when she is hurt by her in a journal. It's like the holy grail of hurt and it's a sure way to stay mad and distant. We hold onto our memories of being hurt because we want to protect ourselves from being hurt in the future. But gripping tight to the hurt just prolongs the hurt while forgiving lets the love in.


What if we thought a little more deeply about what might have motivated a snapping voice, a thoughtless response, or an inpatient honk on the horn from our partner or parent, or sibling? What if we looked at the times when we are mad or hurt from a different angle? Like I looked at Freckles after he bit me when I thought, "What kind of pain is this sweet dog experiencing that would make him bite me?"


What if I made space for my partner Nancy to snap at me because maybe she had a shitty day and then I just forgave her as quickly as I forgave Freckles?


And what if we weren't afraid to approach the ones we love after we've angered them? What if we invited forgiveness sooner, more immediately so that the memory of the hurt moved into the past instead of occupying real-time emotional energy? It would be so great to bound up to Nancy after hurting her feelings and giving her a great big hug, not from a place of "please forgive me" but from a place of unconditional love.


Dogs are different from humans. Their ability to conceptualize emotions and intellect is much less evolved, but they have something to teach us. The unconditional and uncomplicated love that exists between me and Freckles reminds me that this can exist with me and the other intimate relationships in my life as well. I have to be willing to forgive when I am hurt and to lean in to love when I've been unkind.


It only seems hard to do this because I've become habituated to driving such a complex superhighway of emotions with the ones I love. It sounds nice though, to simplify things. People I love get mad, they get hurt, they bite. But they still love me. What a wonderful world it would be if, instead of lingering, evolving into a different more complicated story, forgiveness came right after the bite. What if I cut out all the drama in between the hurt and the endpoint of forgiveness?


I imagine how much lighter I would feel if I could operate from a place of trusting that even when I act out, piss off people I love, misbehave, or show my worst self, I am still loved. Freckles is that way. He bit me but that didn't change his love for me or his expectation that I would still love him. And I forgave Freckles within just a few minutes. The end result was that we were both free to settle back into the pure experience of unconditional love. If only humans could do that with each other.

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