So there we were, intimately facing what is inevitable for each of us, death. And suffering -- the suffering of birth, aging, disease, the loss of all things and persons we hold dear, and then death. In my last blog, I described how Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, found unbearable this cycle of birth and death, and how he discovered an "end" to suffering through a realization of "The Four Noble Truths" and "The Eightfold Path." This is Buddhism's understanding of the human potential to experience "an end to suffering."
And what do the Christians propose? Or, more particularly, what did Jesus say? I was mulling over that question soon after Sheba's death when a friend told me about his loss of a pet. My friend told me how he greatly empathized with us because he had been through that experience himself and could not believe the depth of the pain. In fact, he said, "I believe I have grieved more deeply over my pet's death than the death of my mother and father"! A number of people have told me something of the same thing -- how they find it hard to admit that the grief over losing a precious pet aches so deeply. As my friend and I pondered that experience, he paused and said very thoughtfully, "Actually, that love my cat showed me might have been the closest I have ever come to experiencing unconditional love."
His statement surprised me. My friend is not a person who appears to be in touch with his feelings in general. He does not appear to be curious about his inner world, or if so, he is either reticent to talk about it or does not have the words to express what he may think and feel deeply. But there it came out -- with his cat he experienced unconditional love, a bond between them that seemed not to be limited by conditions.
"Unconditional love," I pondered. That probably does capture the bond my wife and I shared with Sheba. Even when I could sometimes feel irritated with her and speak more sharply than usual, she would return in a forgiving manner to curl up comforting me. Sure, I thought, this is all about her thinking about her next meal; this is all about eating and sleeping and doing it all again the next day! But I knew better.
Yes, we can anthropomorphize; we can project our human cognitions, motives, and emotions upon our pets. But to reduce our understanding of the bond between human beings and pets as a relationship of co-dependent survival behaviors is to rob the attachment bond of a transcendent meaning that enriches our existence. And now we can take a step even further, thanks to the increasing research in animals' behavior and brains. Now we can define and describe empathy in many species; now we can trace the human compassionate instinct through an evolutionary process that moves "from the bottom up," informing our consciousness of an instinct we may call compassion or empathy that is not only within a species but also between species.
This "attachment bond" may carry many names. Among human beings we call it love. And within the Christian community, the name of that love is agape. It is almost common knowledge today to refer to our Greek heritage that has helped us distinguish between the different forms of love including: philautia (self-love), pragma (a practical bond of attachment that may describe some long marriages), storge (tenderness and affection such as parents feel toward children), philia (a bond between friends), eros (a drive toward union with that which is desired), and agape (unconditional love that "wills the good of another," as described by Thomas Aquinas). Furthermore, C.S.Lewis offered us the keen insight in his book, The Four Loves, that "the highest good does not stand without the lowest." I take this to mean that agape does not assume some sanctimonious perch separate from the other forms of love but rather enfolds them in an embrace of a wholistic consciousness. This is what compels agape toward an unconditional regard for all sentient beings.
And this is the compelling theme in the New Testament. God is defined as agape (1 John 4:8 and 4:16). Also, drawing upon his Hebraic heritage as described in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19, Jesus describes the Great Commandment in this way: "Love (agape) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love (agape) your neighbor as yourself." Then, just before his death, Jesus gave his disciples what he called "a new commandment" -- "that you love (agape) one another. Just as I have loved (agape) you, you also are to love (agape) one another."
This is the essence of Christianity. Its gift to the world is a witness to the meaning of love that is unconditional, whose name is agape, whose motivating force nudges humanity on toward what Teilhard de Chardin calls the Omega Point, an evolutionary destiny of life in which the conscious and unconscious meet to provide humankind with a deep morality that guides us beyond the Freudian super-ego toward the laws of life itself and the God within. (C.G.Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 9ii, paragraph 190ff).
Of course, Christianity's demonstration of agape down through the centuries has been compromised by humanity's failure to protect the little ones, by a wretched abuse of power that has destroyed habitats, by a tendency to side with dictators who use power to dominate others, by a prejudice against women who are equated with the source of so-called "original sin" based upon a misinterpretation of Eve's role in the creation myth, and by an anthropomorphic hubris that demeans other creatures in our beloved animal kingdom. Yes, all of that is true, and all of that -- and more -- debases the principle of agape. It is enough to drive each of us who have been baptized within that tradition to hang our heads in shame.
How ironical it is then that we see in the eyes of our pets a forgiving unconditional love. True, it may not be what we fully mean by agape. Our pets, our dogs, cats, birds, and other creatures do not have the same brain structure we have. And we must not be naive in overlooking their instincts for survival, instincts of territoriality and mating, hunger and hunting, aggression and fear of aggression. These are our instincts as well, although played out in what we may rationalize as a more civilized manner. Still the force of unconditional love in these creatures drives us toward an introspection by which we are made more deeply human.
Here at this point in my writing, two synchronicities occurred which I would like to share with you. The first synchronicity is the irritating peck on the wooden structure of my house by the downy woodpecker looking for a suitable home. Typically, the downy woodpecker establishes a nest in trees of which we have plenty around our house, so many we have not provided a substitute nest -- yet.
And so, when the woodpecker comes along, checking out my house, I find I also have to contend with another uninvited guest -- my most Elmer Fudd-like self who marches outside to do battle with the petite downy woodpecker. The bird seems to find this charade of competition over a choice of homes to be amusing. I rush outside, it flies up in a tree and patiently waits for me to go back inside so that we can repeat this maneuver several times, amidst threats and pecks and slamming doors and flapping wings. I know -- we are planning to buy a house -- for the woodpecker -- this next week.
Now, the second synchronicity. Taking a break from my writing, over breakfast this morning and my weekly read of The New York Times' Book Review, I was surprised to see on the front page a review of Dr. Frans De Wall's latest book, Mama's Last Hug. Dr. De Wall is a Dutch-born primatologist whose research and writing have opened doors in my mind to the reality of emotions in animals. The reviewer, Sy Montgomery, describes one passage in de Wall's book when two old friends met after some time had passed:
The two old friends hadn't seen each other lately. Now one of them
was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and
drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first
she didn't seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there,
her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin.
She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor's hand and stroked
his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck
and pulled him closer.
In this moving real-life scene, the "friend" who is visiting is the Dutch biologist, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, and he is visiting his old friend, Mama, a chimpanzee.
I think the last moments with Sheba were much the same. And these shared moments are happening now all around the globe. It may not be agape but it is a bond of love that crosses the bridge of our separateness, a bond in which our suffering, regardless of our religion or politics, is eclipsed by a greater reality.