No Ordinary Life

Finding the courage to be

Sailor's Timeless Wisdom

Our four pawed gal teaches us about living life with gusto and happiness.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.”

• Martin Buber

At 108 human years, our grand dog, Sailor Anderson, has been in better physical shape. She is mostly blind, totally deaf, and constantly has to convince her hind legs that they still work. Last night we found her staring at a wall, looking lost. But in her 14 Portuguese water dog years of life, she has been an unfailing source of constant cheer. Blessed with a full body of silky white hair with irresistibly cute random patches of black, she is a delight to behold and pure pleasure to touch. Give her just the teensiest liver treat, and her tail still wags so hard that her back end shimmies.

For the last six summers, Sailor has visited us often at our cottage, which we refer to as “Sailor’s summer camp.” She knows exactly how to enjoy her vacation. She alternates between sunning herself on our deck, staring vacantly at the sparkling sunlit bay, and hanging out at the kitchen in hopes of dropped food morsels. On beach outings she heads straight for the ocean, snarfing up all the smelly beach treats she can grab on the way, then runs full tilt at water’s edge. Wet, sandy and happy, she has to be dragged back to the car.

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But Sailor is very old. Many owners would have “put her out of her misery,” since her senses and mobility are so impaired. Cadi and Scott, our adult kids who own Sailor, have observed that she seems quite content to live each day with many joyful moments. And many of us humans could benefit from Sailor’s take on life. She demonstrates the secret to happiness for us all.

For Sailor, each waking moment involves pleasure seeking. She seeks pats, sunny spots, food of all varieties, her “pack” of dogs and family, bowls of fresh water, a place to relieve herself, and soft bedding for deep and lengthy sleep. In her waking hours, she throws herself into a dedicated quest to acquire moment after moment of pleasure. Last night sautéing salmon lured her from the softly plump kidney-shaped bed she stole from our dog, Whitby, to the kitchen where I was cooking dinner. Planting herself stubbornly between my knees, she managed to shadow my moves as I went from counter to fridge to stove to ready dinner. Nose poised from the smell of the salmon, she then planted herself at our table, waiting her turn for fallen morsels and post-dinner pats, as though she were certain that cuddles and leftovers are the goal of a life well lived. And perhaps they are.

If Sailor could read the philosophy of positive existentialism or a review of happiness research, she would know how finely tuned her instincts are. Philosophers of meaning, like Martin Buber and Albert Camus, direct us to manage daily anxiety in order to carve out meaning and well being despite inevitable threats to our health and financial security. Whether you have two naked legs, or four fuzzy ones, whether physically fit or disabled, for many of us, moments of pure joy come from great food, blissful slumber, and the colors of sunset. In the equivalent of her 108th human year, Sailor models for us Camus’ wisdom: “In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

We now have research on what creates a sense of well being in humans. We know that the state of being called happiness comes to us each day if we create multiple moments of the feeling that life is good. The best news of all is that happiness does not depend on wealth or perfect health, but defies the disabilities created by old age and physical limitations. Well being is actually a state of mind reached through the courage to create multiple pockets of pleasure in each of our waking days.

Sailor, with a wag of your tail and your continued search for the perfect treat, thanks to you for inspiring us humans to face up to our own limitations. We have lots to learn from pups like you.

To consider: How can I create my life such that each day provides me with a minimum of 25 moments where I feel content and happy? Do I deserve this much happiness? What might I need to change in my life as I know it, in order to create happy days?

Judith Coche, Ph.D., A.B.P.P. is an author, psychotherapist, and founder of The Coche Center.

 
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