Two weeks ago, our family adopted two Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies. And as I have plunged once again into a variation of new mama-hood, I find myself reflecting on the nurturing and care-taking instincts of our species, especially as it extends to members of other species.
When we brought these two adorable pups home, they were trembling and shaking, terrified to leave the only safe place they had ever known. My husband and I offered reassurance in the only way we could: we cuddled our new bundles of joy, we spoke to them in soft, soothing tones, and we moved as slowly and unthreateningly as possible. Our new charges had no idea who we were or what we were saying, but our bodies and voices conveyed to them that they were safe.
We couldn’t very easily stand over them and professorially inform them that we had already raised one Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who ultimately became an AKC Champion and stud dog. We didn’t lecture them about the multiple advanced degrees and certifications we held, and when we tried to at least reassure them that we were licensed teachers (and one of us was a mindfulness teacher!), they were quite unimpressed.
Obviously, they didn’t need our words; they needed our voices. They didn’t need our brains; they needed our bodies. They needed our calm presence to provide them with warmth, safety, and soothing touch.
They needed softness and quiet. They needed stable others to hold and love them.
That’s what our human little ones usually need, too.
I thought of how often I tend to respond to my children’s distress with talk and words and brain stuff. Unlike the puppies, they speak English, after all! My daughter hits some fourth-grade friend drama, and I respond with a soliloquy about the difficulties of female friendship as I reminisce about old acquaintances now forgot and times of auld lang syne.
Which is really the last thing my daughter needs in that moment. She doesn’t need my stories — she needs me to hold space so she can tell me hers. She needs a big warm hug, a comfy spot on the couch, and a human who is present and available. She’s really just a puppy, with the same mammalian need for emotional connection to a member of her pack.
As mammals, we all first and foremost need a felt sense of safety– not just knowing we are safe, but feeling that we are safe. These two nervous but adorable pups are reminding me of that every day.
Which brings me to another point: no matter how much trouble this pair gets into (chewed shoes, muddy paw prints, potty accidents), all they need to do is look at me with those big soft eyes and all is forgiven. There’s no malice in those sweet faces, just innocent puppy curiosity. I can respond to their misbehavior by offering more appropriate objects for canine mouths to chew, but chewing them out doesn’t help.
I suppose dogs can be intentionally malicious at times. But isn’t it much more likely that they bite because they are scared, gnaw on shoes because their teeth hurt, and pee on the carpet because we don’t pay attention to their subtle cues?
Humans also intentionally hurt other members of their pack from time to time. But might they, like puppies, inflict pain on others not out of deep malice, but because they are scared, hurt, or ignored?
What if we took the same warmth and love and presence and forgiveness that comes so easily from us when we’re with a puppy, and extended it to members of our own species?
What if we…
… gave lots and lots of hugs and kisses and snuggles to our loved ones every day? *licking optional
… remembered that most creatures’ barks are bigger than their bites?
… responded with kind presence and warmth and attention to someone in need, instead of immediately trying to “solve” their problems?
… paid more attention to how our posture and voice and facial expressions and movements send messages of safety or threat to those around us?
… assumed that someone’s hurtful actions were not intentional?
… made time in our day to engage in fun and completely unproductive PLAY with others?
… said “I love you” many, many, MANY times a day? *licking optional
… paused and considered the deep and legitimate human and/or mammalian need that may have possibly motivated someone’s behavior, rather than assuming the worst?
… talked a whole lot less, and listened and cuddled a whole lot more?
… saw everyone, including ourselves, as the embodiment of love itself?
… breathed deeply, listened carefully to our thoughts, and cultivated an awareness of our emotions so we could be safe for others… and ourselves?
… loved freely and fiercely and openly?
What if we nurtured other human beings the way we nurture our puppies?
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