Saturday 12 February 2011

Boy and dog: an anecdote

My three-year-old son, Jamie, has a unique and fascinating relationship with our six-month-old Labrador puppy. Theirs is a deep personal sympathy, a spiritual affinity, a genuine meeting of minds. As far as I have been able to tell, they regard each other not as members of two different species but as peers and colleagues, intellectual equals, comrades in all of life's hilarity, mischief, and sadness.

Jamie has developed a number of independent theological and philosophical theories about his relationship to Kola. Though some of his conclusions might sound extravagant, he is completely in earnest, and I have never had any serious grounds to contest his claims. On various occasions he has put forward all of the following theses:

(1) That he himself was a dog in an earlier life, before becoming a human;
(2) That Kola was a human in an earlier life, before becoming a dog;
(3) That the two of them are twins (I take it he means spiritual twins, since their physical resemblances are not much to speak of, unless you count personal hygiene);
(4) That he is in fact secretly the dog, while Kola is secretly the human. The fact that each plays out the alternative role (Jamie speaking and using cutlery, Kola wagging a tail and chewing up the trampoline) is all just theatrics, an elaborate daily vaudeville for their own secret amusement.

Today there was a striking example of their curious spiritual affinity. Overcome by a sudden profound sadness, Jamie threw himself on the bed and exclaimed: “Kola doesn’t like me anymore.”

“Of course he likes you,” I said.

“No,” he insisted, “I saw from his mouth that he doesn’t like me.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said, “you know Kola loves you.”

But my poor troubled boy was resolute: “I saw from the writing on his tongue that he doesn’t like me anymore.”

I'm pretty sure – and I record it here for posterity – that Jamie is the first person in the history of the world to use this evocative metaphor of the writing on a dog's tongue. We speak of a person wearing his heart on his sleeve: in the same way, is not the heart of the dog rendered legibly on that eloquent pink papyrus, the slobbery scroll of the tongue?

The story did, however, have a happy ending. Twenty minutes later I asked Jamie about it again, and he shrugged the whole thing off: “Oh,” he said, “don't worry, Kola loves me. Sometimes he hates me for a second, then he loves me again.”


Sam Freney said...

If you haven't already, you should watch Dean Spanley immediately. Perhaps with Jamie.

Anonymous said...

Seek professional help for your son.


tortoise said...

Anonymous is right. The world needs Jamie to have a full-time amanuensis.

byron said...

Assuming you're carnivorous, how can you make such personal, sympathetic observations in a dog and be okay with eating a cow? I work at an animal sanctuary for rescued farm animals, and I can attest that the type of beautiful relationship you're witnessing between your child and his dog exists in exactly the same way between humans and goats, cows, pigs, sheep, etc. Of course, I have theological reasons why Christians should not exploit animals (and practical reasons why no one should), but when people acknowledge such mental capacity in animals, it really baffles me to learn that they still eat them. Hopefully you don't.

besideourselves said...

As a functional vegetarian who has actually rescued more cows than I can count, I feel somewhat qualified to make the bold claim that a cow will never come between a boy and his dog.

Disclaimer: yes, me and my dog are tight.

Ben Myers said...

We haven't decided yet whether we're going to eat Kola. I guess we'll wait and see how plump he gets.

byron said...

besideourselves - While I'm closest to my dog, too, some of my friends are bovine fanatics, and on behalf of them, I beg to differ.

Ben - Facepalm... Part of the reason, albeit not a large part, I'm not a believer anymore is because of most Christians' insensitive and close-minded attitude toward animals. I encourage you to do some research on factory farming and the dairy industry, and to simply meditate on the fact that animals are sentient beings who experience both pains and pleasures. If love and kindness are such core and intimate virtues to all branches of Christian theology, what excuse is there to not manifest them in your relationships with animals? Furthermore, shouldn't you want to do so? Shouldn't you want love to pervade every aspect of your life?

Not trying to be hostile, so I apologize if it seems that way. Just trying to stimulate your mind a bit.

roger flyer said...

I think Jamie is a Pentecostal toddler. Kola was obviously speaking in tongues to Jamie.

Ben Myers said...

Hey Byron — sorry, jokes aside I pretty much agree with you, and these days I only eat meat probably a few times a year. (To call my wife a vegetarian would be a monumental understatement, so Kola should be safe from her molars as well.)

If you're interested, I wrote a paper last year that explored this topic, using a passage in Karl Barth about the relation between humans and horses — happy to email you a copy if you're interested.

And a while back I actually drafted a post on a "theology of animals" (which also discusses the point you've raised about eating animals), but I decided to hold off posting it until I've read David Clough's forthcoming systematic theology of animals (which looks like it will be terrific).

byron said...

Very interested about that Barth paper! If you don't mind, I'd love to read it. You can send it to

Also, haven't heard of Clough's theology of animals. I'm now very interested in that, too. Thanks for the heads up.

Thank you for a sincere response. I really appreciate. Sorry again if I came off rather harsh.

kim fabricius said...

I guess it's a duh, Byron, that you know Richard Bauckham's latest book Bible and Ecology (2010) (maybe you even ghosted it for him?) My cat Betsy and I have been reading it together. She's really enjoying it. Mind, she was quite sceptical about the Isaianic image of the leopard lying down with the kid, and my attempt to explain to her what "eschatological" means was not entirely successful, but she immediately grasped Bauckham's point that Isaiah 11:6-9 is not so much about shalom between animals as "the reconciliation of the human world with wild nature". Betsy also agrees with Bauckham that Adam's naming the animals is not about control -"As if!" she mewed - but about recognition and relationship - "Tickle my tummy!" she purred. She is not a vegetarian, I'm afraid, but she does only eat animals that eat vegetables.

besideourselves said...

Hi Byron,

*removing tongue from cheek*

If you want to know any more about the travesty that is the industrial dairy farming complex, I'm your inside man. Until very recently managing these operations kept the wolf from our door. Even using best organic practice and so on it is a pretty soul destroying occupation.

Ergo, I perhaps have more sympathy than you think for any person whose loyalties lie closest to our liquid-eyed and contemplative bovine brethren.

I on the other hand tend to find myself most at home in the company of dogs (and their close relations, boys), and dare I say - goats. I'm not sure how well that reflects on my personality but there it is...


Anonymous said...

Lovely post.
I wonder if anonymous is serious in his/her advice?

e demonstrate an intuitive sense of our children's relationship to animals by the pictures and images we put in their cradles and rooms, and of the contents of their early stories.

Animals of one kind or another. Not bulldozers or diesel engines. Maybe Thomas the Tank-Engine is an exception.

Children have a much more magical relationship to the natural world. As such they have forms and kinds of consciousness which we dreadfully sane adults dismiss. And which via our "education" effectively stomp on. Reality thus becomes that of the hard edged "realism" as depicted in photographs. The world reduced to a collection of separate objects with no suggestion of any kind of collective felt or psychic relationship.

Paul Shephard via The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game pointed out that children have a genetically programmed need to engage in down-and-dirty relationships with animals and the natural world. Lived relationships which are a necessary part of our intrinsic psycho-biological growth process, and thus of our sanity altogether.

This down-and-dirty activity is also essential for the development of our immune systems re providing protection against germs and bacteria etc.

Ben Myers said...

John, you're spot on about the dirty aspect. Just observe the way my son lets the dog "clean" his face for him after dinner...

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