Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about an incident that happened a few years ago when my daughter was still a toddler. We were walking to the little, fenced playground behind my cul-de-sac when I saw a largish dog in the distance. There was nothing particularly threatening about him. In fact, he had the appearance of being quite happy as he meandered along the edge of the marshy preserve that surrounds one side of the playground. However, because he was unleashed and alone, my immediate reaction was to cross with my young daughter to the other side of the street to avoid him.
You see, I was taught to be afraid of stray dogs. Actually, I was taught to be afraid of all dogs. Hadn’t I spent my earliest years being warned to avoid the Doberman Pinschers who lived a couple of houses behind mine? Hadn’t my cousin’s pet dog bitten him between the eyes when we were children, almost costing him his eyesight? Hadn’t my high school French teacher given us an emotional account of how her friend had been mauled to death by pit bulls while walking in her own neighborhood?
Such horror stories have always loomed large in my attitude toward dogs, especially since I’ve had so little personal experience with them. I grew up in a virtually pet-free home. Not only did my mother hold a deep antipathy toward animals of all kinds, but I proved to be dramatically allergic to pet fur. Just touching a cat would produce hives all the way up my arm. So, not only did I never have a pet dog (or cat), I was discouraged from playing with them at other people’s houses. As a result, I’ve always felt uncomfortable around pets.
It should be unsurprising, then, that on this particular day as my daughter and I continued toward the playground I kept a careful eye on the unattended dog. I didn’t have to watch long, though. The dog disappeared into the preserve well before we came up parallel to him, and I didn’t see him again.
Once the dog was out of sight, I didn’t think any more about him….at least not until a couple of days later when I noticed some signs posted along the main road. I first saw them as I drove to pick my kids up from school. On the return trip home, I looked a little closer and realized that someone was desperately trying to locate a dog that sounded a lot like the one I had seen earlier in the week. I looped back and pulled onto a side street where I could read the sign more carefully. With my kids listening in from the back seat, I called the contact number intending to tell the owner when and where I’d seen his dog.
My phone call was too late. An anguished male voice answered the phone. He was clearly in the first throes of grief. Barely containing his sobs, he gave me a choppy and rambling account of his afternoon and how he had learned that his dog had been fatally hit by a car. While my strapped-in children began to lose patience with waiting and were starting to get rowdy, I listened to this man eulogize his lost dog. Finally the call ended and, feeling pretty shocked, I explained to my children why I had spent such a long time talking to this stranger.
That day I experienced a major paradigm shift. I had been so intent on protecting my daughter from the “stray dog” that it never once occurred to me that this might be someone’s much-loved pet, lost and in need of being returned. We were the ones in potential danger, not him. If I had thought about it at all, I probably would have assumed that the dog would eventually make his way safely back home and that I really need not concern myself. Whatever the case, he certainly wasn’t my responsibility. He was a foreign being that had no place in my emotional world.
The intense grief of the man on the phone shattered this perspective. Did I bear any guilt in this man’s loss? Could I have helped? Even if I didn’t feel capable of apprehending the dog myself, isn’t there someone I could have called to report his unattended presence in my neighborhood? Would such a call have made a difference? Could they have located him before the worst happened?
I can guarantee that I will never look at a wandering dog in the same way again.
The more I think about this incident, the more I realize how often I respond to people in the same way that I reacted to this lost dog. Aren’t I more likely to stop and help a suburban mother in distress than the scantily clad, heavily made-up girl standing on the busy street corner? I see myself in the one and immediately identify with her situation, while the other seems foreign and somehow frightening, so I cross the street or look the other way and fail to recognize her need.
But what happens when that girl suddenly reminds me of my niece, or my sister, or my best friend’s daughter? Does that change my response?
The longer I’m involved in ministry and the more kinds of people I encounter, the more I realize how important (even necessary) such paradigm shifts are to in order for us to step out of our safe zones and help someone who we perceive to be a threat. As I read the personal narratives of those who befriend the homeless, rescue the sex slave, adopt the orphan, assist the ex-felon, take in the refugee, I am always struck by those “aha” moments when the narrator first recognizes the personal, individual humanity of those living under these labels and feels compelled to help.
Without a doubt, the perceived threat is sometimes very real, but so is the human suffering connected to it. I don’t want my ignorance or indifference or fear to lead me to be an accessory to someone else’s misery. I pray that God will give me eyes to see need, courage to step out, and wisdom to light the path.