The gift the animals give us
About 160 years ago, Henry David Thoreau, one of this country’s greatest philosopher writers, traveled alone to an isolated part of rural Massachusetts. With his own hands, he built a small cabin on the banks of Walden Pond, a small body of water surrounded by trees, and he lived there for just over two years. He spent his time subsisting on whatever he could find, enjoying the peace of nature and reflecting on the civilized life he had left behind.
Thoreau later wrote that most men are slaves to their work and become resigned to the condition. He concluded that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” and that they “go to their graves with the song still in them.”
Pessimistic? Maybe. Realistic? Probably. True? Well, if so, quite sad.
These reflections struck chords of recognition in me when I first read Walden a while ago. I had struggled with the sense that “the mass of men” (and, of course, this includes the opposite sex) spend the early years of their lives dreaming dreams of achievement to come – be it through influence, wealth or the pleasures of family – only to have those visions dashed as their real lives unfold. Disappointment creeps over them. Satisfaction is fleeting. Families flounder. Eventually, resignation follows. Thoreau called it “confirmed desperation.” Their song remains in them, never to be sung.
Why? I don’t think I have an answer to that, but I have found a solution to my own anxiety over it. My solution resides in the animals.
There is a profound fulfillment that lies in the company of animals. Their redeeming qualities have often been described: the unqualified loyalty your favorite dog shows in greeting you on your return home. The tranquility your cat, curled contentedly in your lap, brings to a quiet evening. The entertaining antics of a pet bird. The exhilaration of feeling perfect harmony with a companion horse.
The pleasures are many and easily felt. The absence of judgment, acceptance of us simply as we are, desire to be with us in spite of whatever we are feeling or whatever is preoccupying us … qualities yearned for yet so seldom encountered in our fellow humans.
(Let’s not kid ourselves, or be unrealistic, or embrace Pollyanna in our view of our pets. They can be annoying, demanding and make messes! But none of this compromises the intense loyalty and devotion they give us.)
I have found that rescuing disadvantaged animals grants a deeper fulfillment and dispels Thoreau’s “quiet desperation.” The rewards do not satisfy dreams of fame or fortune. They do not enhance family life. They do not give us what we thought we wanted.
No, the rewards that come from helping animals – the rewards provided us when we give them care and healing, when we save their lives – transcend those hopes. They heal us.
There is no better antidote to the ailment Thoreau identified as that suffered by the “mass of men.”
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