Thursday, January 19, 2017

Limits of Personality

Judith's dog, Buddy, is a ten-year-old shih-tzu, sometimes strong willed but usually easy to get along with. He's playful and gregarious--out with us on walks in the neighborhood, he continually scans for people and other dogs with whom to socialize. He greets visitors enthusiastically, and if they don't pay enough attention to him he will go into the bedroom, get one of his toys from a box there, and bring it out to the guest, insisting that the person play tug-o-war with him. 

This breed has a pug-like face with short nose and prominent eyes, although his long hair tends to obscure his features somewhat. Judith keeps him clipped much shorter than the show dogs one sees that are almost hidden under a blanket of hair. Weighing only about twelve pounds, Buddy is usually described as "cute."

About a year ago, he encountered something sharp that punctured his eye. We didn't know what it was or exactly when it happened, only discovering his condition after the fact. The vet tried unsuccessfully to save the eye, and now he gets around well enough, seemingly accommodating to his disability. When he wants something from one of his humans, he looks at them pleadingly with his one eye. 

Looking at him--as we so often do when we encounter a person similarly afflicted--it's difficult to ignore his different appearance. We're accustomed to seeing "normal" faces on people and animals. Buddy looks at us with his one good eye just as he did (we think) with two eyes. Although we're getting used to the fact of his appearance after a year, sometimes it's unnerving to meet his gaze and wonder what it's like inside his mind, peering at the world through one eye. I sometimes close one eye to get a sense of his view of reality. Still, looking at him is sometimes a bit like looking at the eye of Hal, that computer in the movie "2001", cringing in the face of a being that is outside of my familiar world. It's almost like apprehending another reality, an alien universe. 

I get a similar sensation when our cat Shawna meets my gaze, which she does on occasion. We stare into each other's eyes for long moments, and it's usually I who averts my gaze first. I cannot get inside her mind in those moments, much as I try--as I seem to when meeting the gaze of a person. We social creatures depend upon our sense of familiarity with others of our kind to guess what their intentions are. We all have what philosophers call a "theory of mind" to tell us what someone else is thinking based upon our own experiences. 

The theory doesn't help much when we encounter a different species. Regardless, we often try to look into the minds of our dogs, in particular, confident that they feel the same things we do--or vice versa. We are all "dog whisperers" with our pets. 

Until something changes. Suddenly, one-eyed Buddy doesn't seem so familiar when he stares at me through his single "portal of the soul." He becomes a mysterious creature, even in ordinary situations such as when he is standing by his water bowl staring up at me. I know (I think) what he wants, and dutifully add water to the bowl. But there's a part of me that's aware of the chasm between us. My "theory of mind" is almost blind in those moments. 

I've met strange dogs sometimes that have unnerved me when they stare at me. Even sometimes when their tail is wagging. I'm not sure of their intentions. The better part of prudence in such cases is to be careful. I know Buddy well enough from our ten years together to be confident that (1) he will not attack me suddenly, and (2) if he did I could handle him. 

When he had two eyes, we had more in common. Now, although his behavior has not changed noticeably, I'm more aware of the reality that he does not see me exactly as I see him.


"What are you thinking?" I ask.
Her eyes go soft, her forehead is smooth, her mouth is relaxed. "Don't you know?" she says.
We both smile.

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