My dog passed away recently. For my partner and me, it was devastating. We’d poured so much love and attention on Friday for more than 15 years. Even though it was clear for months his end was nearing, we felt a tremendous loss when he finally left us. It was like there was a hole in our lives: not just a hole in our daily routines of walking and feeding and caring for him, but a hole in our hearts, where we’d held our love for him. Where was that love now that he was gone?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. That love doesn’t just disappear. Of course, it’s tied to our memories, but it’s also an energy that we have available to us, at times buried more or less deeply, and can choose to draw upon more often.
Dogs are easy to love, of course, even if they’re difficult, as Friday was (he bit; I have scars). We project all sorts of ideas and assumptions onto these unwitting creatures, and then fall in love with them. People generally are more resistant to our projections. (If dogs could speak, and complain, and make their own choices, they might not be as easily lovable.)
Since love comes from a feeling of understanding, empathy and connection, projected or not, then we have the ability to love many more beings in our lives than our pets.
In the 1990s, psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron famously developed the 36 questions they declared would lead people to fall in love. The idea was that if two people ask one another a list of increasingly personal questions, they will develop enough understanding and empathy for one another, and will feel sufficiently seen and understood, that intimacy and love develop naturally.
Outside a clinical setting we can’t often ask all those questions of other people, but just like we make assumptions about what our pets are thinking or feeling, and therefore empathize and imagine they understand us, we can choose to make assumptions about other beings that allow us to empathize and even feel love for them, too. Or, as often happens, we can choose, consciously or not, to assume the worst about someone, and thereby develop animosity toward them. If we pay attention, it can be amazing how often we’re making those negative assumptions, and the angst it causes us.
We can choose to do the opposite. Buddhists long ago created a loving-kindness meditation practice designed to bring up feelings of love by deliberately directing our wishes of well-being to others. Psychologists have studied its impact and find that such meditations, or the simple practice of reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, actually has positive physical effects on our bodies, similar to those created by feelings of love. That love doesn’t have to be everlasting. It can be a fleeting feeling – what Barbara Fredrickson, a research psychologist at the University of North Carolina describes as “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being,” much like you might share with your pet, or someone else’s pet, or a close friend, or even, sometimes, a stranger. That feeling, writes Fredrickson, in her illuminating book Love 2.0, is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”
We can do that at any time. We don’t have to be meditating, making lists or engaging in formal practices. It’s a choice we have in every moment.
When I was in Maine last summer with my dog Friday, shortly before he passed, I heard the Rolling Stones singing Gimme Shelter on a local radio show. It got stuck in my head, as old pop songs do, so I decided to look up the words, since I had never really been able to understand them. I realized it’s a powerful anti-war song, and concludes with the reminder that we always have a choice between war and love.
Here are the full lyrics, and here’s the chorus:
War, children It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away War, children It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away
Until the last refrain, which becomes:
I tell you love, sister It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away It's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away It's just a kiss away, (kiss away kiss away)
I still miss Friday terribly, and those feelings of love (and also sadness) well up in my heart whenever I look at his pictures. But it’s helpful to know that those feelings don’t disappear with his mortal life. I feel a bit of them every time my neighbor’s dog Molly comes bounding up our stoop and lets me pet her. And I try to consciously conjure them, through loving-kindness meditations or just conscious choice, when I go running in the park and encounter people who I might otherwise ignore, fear or even just find annoying. (It takes less effort, of course, with cute babies and puppies.)
The point is not that that we shouldn’t feel loss, but that we can also draw on and transform and direct the love we have felt, and always have capacity to feel, in many directions. That love can give us shelter. We have a choice.