Friday, August 24, 2012

The Potential Dog Poisoning Misanthrope of Cambridge

Some time ago Maggie the therapy dog and I were taking an afternoon walk through Cambridge. An elderly man, perhaps 80, was walking around in house slippers with black polyester socks on that were pulled up past the hem of his bathrobe. He shuffled down the sidewalk with a plastic bag in hand. The sight of him made me want to cross the street and get away. I felt uncomfortable at the sight of his decaying and disheveled appearance. I also wondered if he was naked under that bathrobe. I wasn't mentally prepared for a flasher.

I couldn't get away fast enough. He asked if he could give Maggie a treat. Hand coming out of his plastic shopping bag, he produced a large sized Milk-Bone. Maggie sat down, tail wagging and eyes making excited contact with the elderly gentleman. Maggie loves treats.

I had just read an article about dogs being poisoned by treats left out on a sidewalk. I was a worried pet-parent. What if he was a crazy deranged dog poisoning misanthrope? I said no thank you, tugged Maggie a bit, and kept on walking. Just as I was starting to feel smug in my self-empowered confident "no" skills I saw the man's face. 

He said to me "Really? It's just a bone." His face, formerly lit up by Maggie's excited eye contact, fell back into a decaying sadness.

My smug pride was tempered by sadness. Not by my actions, mind you, but by a world in which we have to worry about people poisoning dogs.

I ran into the man again just yesterday. He saw us and came shuffling down the sidewalk. While he didn't appear to remember us, I remembered him. He was wearing the same tattered robe. The same style of black polyester socks. The same house slippers. I was again caught off guard by the potential dog poisoning misanthrope of Cambridge.

Again he asked if he could give Maggie a Milk-Bone. I remembered the stories of dogs dead from poisoned treats. I also remembered how his face fell into a lonely distant sadness when I declined his treat the last time. 

Maggie and he locked into an eager gaze and time seemed to stop for a moment. 

A loving dog wagging her tail, an elderly decaying man brandishing a potentially poisoned Milk-Bone, and an anxious psychologist. For a moment I saw everything clearly. My own irrational fears about things that haven't happened. The ugly world we live in were acts of violence happen. My lack of control over those random acts of violence. My own revulsion at the sight of the decaying lonely man who reminded me of my own process of decay.

Perhaps at that very moment a Buddha, living on a dust mote, passed in front of my eyes. There was a moment of enlightenment (don't worry, it'll quickly pass). The thought occurred to me that I have an infinite number of choices that I can make in that moment. Some lead to more happiness, others lead to more misery.  

Great, dust mote Buddha. Give me the right choice. Time can't stand still for much longer.

Buddha of course didn't have a single damned answer for me. He blew away and time started moving again. Both Maggie and the decaying man looked at me. 

He asked "Can I?" 

Maggie gave me an expectant hungry look. The tip of her tail thumped on the sidewalk.

"She's sometimes a little anxious when strangers put their hands near her," I said. "This is very kind of you. Perhaps you can give it to me, and I can give it to her?"

I wanted to make a choice that lead to more happiness and less misery for all involved. Buddha still wasn't helping me out. Now I had a potentially poisoned Milk-Bone in my hand. Would I somehow instantly drop dead? This isn't what I had in mind with the less misery  more happiness thing.

I turned the Milk-Bone over in my hand looking at it. The decaying man said, "Well I've got to go. I just came out to wait for the mailman and saw you two. I wanted to say hi." With that he turned around and shuffled away from me. The potential poison dispenser was slipped into my pocket and we discreetly walked away from the elderly gentleman who was smiling and whistling.

It all worked out.

Thank you, Buddha of the dust mote, for giving me that moment to see clearly that I could choose more happiness or more misery. The first time I met the decaying man I brought violence into the world. I hurt him while trying to protect Maggie. Yesterday I made a different choice. 

I hope you come to see you have that choice too.

Update 8/26/2012

This blog post received some interesting interactions on Twitter. I thought I'd post a three of them here.

I'm not particularly proud of the fact that my first reactions when encountering this elderly gentleman was fear and revulsion. However, this is my true reaction and I think when engaged in self-reflection being truthful is important. We all have parts of ourselves we don't like. I'm reminded today that when any of us engage in public self-reflection of our own shadow-selves we also provide a mirror for other people to see the reflections of their own shadow.

I'm curious if you all find this to be true. When you watch me--or someone else--look at their shadow do you see parts of yourself that are difficult to see? Do you look away? Do you push back and try to denigrate the person who is reflecting? What do you think?