My dog is afraid of the dark. He has no reason to be afraid. He is a lean, healthy, six-year-old Chocolate Lab. He is well-fed, and at least since he came to live with us four years ago, he has not suffered any trauma greater than his occasional bath. And he can be fierce when he wants to be. The squirrels in the back yard, for instance, get away from him as quickly as their little legs carry them. I suppose their perspective might be a little skewed; we often get him worked up when we see a squirrel on the bird feeder. “Otis, there’s a SQUIRREL on the bird feeder!” we announce excitedly. Then one of us goes over to the back door, and he comes eagerly, waiting, with a clear look of the enormity of his responsibility in that moment. There is a crisis among the sunflower seeds in the back yard, and it is his responsibility to take care of the problem. “I’m on it,” he says, tail erect, muscles tense, anticipating his release. One of us slowly, gently opens the back door so that we don’t scare the uninvited fluffy-tailed guests prematurely. As soon as the door is open just enough, the dog rushes with every bit of his 80 pounds of muscle and bone flexed. One of these days, the squirrel will stumble, or it will just be a little too slow in its leap from the ground to the top of the privacy fence, and Otis will catch it. Not one of us has any idea what he will do when that happens. Especially not Otis.
Usually, I like to take our dog on a walk in the cool early evening dusk, but we had some extra things to do tonight, so we didn’t get home until late. So, I took him out after our little boy went to bed, and it was dark. You would think I had asked him to go hunting for grizzly bears in an unfamiliar mountain wilderness. He came eagerly as soon as he heard the leash, and he walked outdoors with his usual confidence. But then, he started to fall back a bit. Instead of staying a couple of paces in front of me, as he usually does, he got directly behind me. I felt the leash pull a bit as I walked. Every time we heard a sound, he lifted his head, held his tail in its most alert position, bristled the hairs on his back, and slowed down a bit. I kept us on the streets of our neighborhood where we would get the most coverage of street lights and porch lights. But it didn’t work; he was still afraid.
I want to look like all of those other proud dog owners. I want my dog to eagerly lead the way, not so far out that he would strain at the leash, but certainly not slinking a step behind. I want everyone to admire the picture we paint as we walk down the street, even after dark: a healthy, fit, family man with his healthy, fit, family dog, going for an evening stroll together. We could be the picture of good living: suburban Americana at its idealistic best. Instead, it looks to my neighbors like I am the cruel parent forcing my pup to go out for a walk: “I know you’re miserable, kid, but it’s good for you. It builds character.” He carries himself like he will jump out of his skin if the slightest breeze comes along. In fact, if I hear firecrackers or thunder in the distance, I know it’s all over. He has been known to actually start quivering and lie down in the road, practically begging me to carry him home. It’s humiliating.
So what do I do with this fearful dog? For a while tonight, I spoke to him impatiently. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” I cajoled as I pulled the leash a little bit to try to persuade him to at least walk beside me rather than trailing behind. All of that nagging and pulling only made me feel more foolish, and it didn’t convince him to walk like I wanted him to. I thought about giving up and going home, but I refused to turn around because I know that the exercise is good for both of us. I wasn’t going to let his fear hold me back; at the same time, it didn’t help either of us when I let his fear make me angry and impatient. If we were going to make it through our walk, I had to at least acknowledge his fear and try to understand it.
Then, as we continued our walk, my thoughts remained on his fear for a few minutes. His fear is irrational to me, but it is a strong motivator for him. And I realized that there are a lot of people like that in the world around us. A lot of people are most strongly motivated by fear. Some people are afraid of crime. Some people are afraid of the government. Some people are afraid of the black folks or the white folks or the Asian folks or the Hispanic folks or of some other population that doesn’t look or talk or behave like “normal” people do. Some people are afraid of a homosexual agenda. Some people are afraid of big corporations, and some people are afraid of activists. Many people are afraid of terrorists. Everyone is afraid that the idiot the other party is running as their candidate will win the election and then take our country down a rat hole with their ill-conceived, bleeding-heart, or self-serving policies.
So what do we do with these fears? Sometimes I want to scold other people for their fears. I want to call the people who hold certain fears crazy, or to label them as racists, or to point out their ignorance, or to try to push them out of my community, or to dismiss them as dumb, or to find another way to belittle or ignore them. Usually, scolding people for their fears is not terribly effective. Our culture has tried that for the last generation or two, and our ability to develop sound policies to solve our problems, or even to simply have civil public discourse, has suffered for it. We start to look as foolish as I undoubtedly look when I am dragging my dog down the street, tugging and pulling and cajoling the frightened beast behind me to just walk already.
If I am going to walk with people, I have to acknowledge their fears. If we are going to make any progress together, I have to try to understand what makes them quiver. It won’t do any good to scold them, and I can’t just tug harder to force them to come along. I don’t need to let others’ fears hold me back; at the same time, it doesn’t help me or the other when I let myself act out of anger or impatience.
My dog and I made it through our full walk tonight. We both got enough exercise, and we never did encounter any danger. And what is more, I don’t think any of the neighbors saw me as foolish as I just let Otis fall a step behind me. In fact, I think they might have understood. He’s simply afraid of the dark.