What is it about Americans that they can connect with pets but not with members of the opposite sex?
On a weekend trip with my family I was amazed to discover an upscale, beautifully decked out store selling healthy, organic food -- for dogs. In a country where 1 out of 3 Americans is overweight or obese, we ourselves may overeat. But not Fluffy. No, we're going to make sure he lives a healthy, nutritious life, even if it costs an arm and a leg.
As someone who has written about all the vagaries of the modern-day singles scene for fifteen years, I thought I had seen it all: the loneliness, the manipulation, the heartache. But then there was the young woman I met recently in a Manhattan office. Seeing that an enormous Great Dane sat next to her desk, I inquired as to why the dog was at work and not at home. Her reply startled me. "My husband and I divorced about six months ago and we share joint custody of the dog. And since she'll be going back to him this weekend, I want to spend as much time with her as possible."
Custody battles over children are so Nineties. Since singles have largely abandoned marriage in favor of living together and replaced having children with having a pet, it makes perfect sense for men and women to battle over who gets to keep the pooch. My Manhattan friends tell me that the joint pet custody thing is quite common and they were surprised I had never encountered it. But I was startled to see that even after a husband and wife's love for each other ends, the love for the canine continues.
Then, of course, there was Hurricane Katrina and the news stories that highlighted the significant number of those who stayed behind in New Orleans, rather than clear out ahead of the monster storm, because they would never abandon their pets. We own a cute little puppy, so I can understand the sentiment and find it hard to imagine abandoning her to danger. Still, the idea of risking one's children's lives for the sake of the family cat might strike some as extreme.
There are two ways to view the modern American obsession with pets. One is that it is a healthy manifestation of affection for all of G-d's creatures. The other is that it is a sign of a lonely generation of men and women, desperate to nurture a creature that gives them the love that is not forthcoming from more traditional sources.
I often ask the most obsessive pet owners why they are so attached to their pets. I usually hear the same response. The pet gives them more love than any person. More than a spouse, a sibling, or even parents. The dog loves you just the way you are. But the boyfriend tells you that your butt looks fat and you should go to the gym. Your husband ogles other women, but the cat never cheats.
Men feel the same way. As my friend Roger explained, "When I come home after a long day's work, my wife is usually on the phone and the kids are watching TV. Almost no one even notices that I walked through the door. But Laraby, my golden retriever, goes nuts. He runs up to me and almost knocks me down. He wags his tail. It's like he's been the waiting the whole day for me. And it makes me feel incredibly special. My wife complains that I watch too much TV. But the dog just cuddles up next to me and let's me be."
Which got me thinking.
What everyone wants in life is to be special. We all fear ordinariness and each of us is born with an innate human desire to establish our uniqueness. But here's the catch. We can never makes ourselves feel special. Someone else has to do it for us. And that's what human love is all about. It's about someone prioritizing you, focusing on you, pampering you -- all because you're special.
But in an age that is as self-absorbed and as narcissistic as ours, we're finding it incredibly difficult to make others feel special. We don't love ourselves enough to love others. So we soak in almost every available morsel of attention that is out there in the ether, leaving almost none for others to enjoy. And that's why we do such a poor job of succeeding in modern relationships. Because narcissism makes it virtually impossible to make someone else feel special. So the person you're with in the relationship ends up feeling ordinary and alone.
Into this breach step our pets of every variety, but especially dogs and cats. They are the last remaining living creatures in our vicinity who generally have no problem showing affection. They wag their tails when you come home, they lick your face, they sleep next to you and keep you warm. They bark if anyone gets near. They guard and protect you. And suddenly, with the pooch's love, you feel special all over again. Forget the fact that in reality they can never really make you feel special because they cannot provide the corroboration of an equal. Less so can they provide the intimate conversation, sound advice, or gentle rebuke of a healthy and purposeful relationship. No matter, in this lonely age we'll take what we can get.
The Talmud said 2,000 years ago that human beings can learn modesty from a cat because the cat always covers its waste. Perhaps the modern variation of this theme would be that we humans can learn love and how to make each other feel special from a pet.
And it's so easy that it boggles the mind that we don't practice it more. It involves three simple steps:
- Always show your spouse/child/friend that you're happy to see them.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's upcoming book is The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger. www.shmuley.com