Wordless Presence: On Dog-Whispering and Human-Whispering

“Boy with dog,” Boris Kustodiev

I know a dog named Foxy. She was rescued – probably from abuse. So she’s scared of everyone she doesn’t know. She also sheds all over the damn place.

Human beings love their pets in utterly extravagant ways. It’s proof of how much we want to love, of how capable we are of love: that we take animals and treat them like part of the family. It can get weird quickly, like most of our loves do, and we forget the way animals speak to us mostly through the language of their physical presence – not with secret thoughts or intentions. Certainly not with words. We forget the way we mostly speak that way, too. We express ourselves in the wordless speech that is our bodies.

Back to Foxy.

When I walked through the door to see my friends, she came barreling into the kitchen with a loud bark and rushed over to keep on barking. She shoved herself in front of her owner, defensive, all lean wolf-dog and fluffy white hair. I was handed some treats to give her if she quieted down for me. She did, albeit reluctantly.

I’m not an expert on dogs, but I’m an expert on fear. And I saw that Foxy feels afraid. I understand that. Being hurt by someone else has a way of writing itself all over your skin. Like somehow fear has stitched itself in invisible letters all across your whole body, and nothing that touches you doesn’t remind you how it felt to feel that way. It is a feeling, really, more than it is a thought. A kind of electric hurt wired through every inch of skin. It hums and expands and throbs on contact.

Maybe that’s how Foxy feels. I imagined that it was. It felt important to imagine that in someone else, even a dog. The way she’d jolt and jump then calm herself down, wary and weary: I envied how obvious she was about it. I thought maybe I should pick up barking. Then people would know when I felt upset, because I certainly don’t know how to say it when I am.

I do resent, sometimes, when people need me to spell out how I’m feeling. At my most irritated, I picture some kind of dim lecture hall and a projector, and I need to have a PowerPoint prepared. A chart of emotions and their compelling reasons, all neatly lined up next to each other. As if that’s how any of that worked.

The Church doesn’t have a chart. You know. For what to feel and when. She has lots of things, but not that. And I’m glad.

I patiently set myself to convincing Foxy that she should let me pet her. She’d wander by and I’d conscientiously give her a little soothing touch, let her be on her way. It’s not like I could say, “Hey, I won’t hurt you.” I could only show her, and it’s not the kind of showing that happens all at once. It builds itself through small actions and patience. The crackle of physical fear can’t be overpowered by affection so much as slowly soothed. Loved in broken pieces.

Foxy slowly let me touch her more and more. We all like feeling safe; we all like returning to that place.

You’re not supposed to stare a dog straight in the eyes. This is a challenge in their language, animal to animal. I knew this and still stared right at Foxy, indifferent over whether she’d take up my challenge or not. I don’t really recommend that. I just didn’t care if she bit my face. “Whatever,” I thought, “I’ve had worse.” That was the stubborn shape of the writing on my own skin showing itself a little bit. I’m always rather determined to prove I won’t flinch, that nothing can make me flinch. As if I could somehow in some final way reveal the terrible chasm of hurt that leaves me so cut through with fear that everything else seems inconsequential. As if not crying could summarize how I cry myself to sleep at night.

Eventually, the exhausted dog laid down and let me pet her belly. This is submission in their language, animal to animal. I almost cried, a little jealous and deeply amazed that she could do this, and I touched her with soft reverence. Still she watched me, the strange creature who refused to hurt her and refused to look away. She was waiting, I imagined, for my betrayal. “Oh, Foxy,” I whispered, “what happened to you?”

Not that she could say. Not any more than I can, really.

There’s not a Sacrament that doesn’t involve touch, you know. Not a single one. Even if it is only the gentle touch of words on ears. Because, mostly, we express ourselves through the wordless speech that is our bodies. The host on hands and tongues; the soft feel of oil smoothed over foreheads; palms and fingers and rings.

The slow and patient touch of God.


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