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I’ve owned dogs, and I generally like them. I don’t miss the bedtime walks in the sleet, but I’m pretty fond of other peoples’ dogs — particularly if they aren’t in my house.

I’ve noticed that different dogs greet me in different ways:

  • Aggressive: “Hey, what are you doing around here! Get the heck away from my yard or I’ll chew you to pieces.” I ignore these dogs and walk on by. If they want me to leave, I’m happy to oblige. This teaches them that yelling at strangers works, but that’s not my problem.
  • Curious but cautious: “You’re new around here, aren’t you? Why are you walking past my yard?” I usually toss out a friendly “Hi, doggy” but I don’t linger.
  • Friendly, and well-trained: “Wow, a new friend! I’ll wait politely for permission, but I’d really like to sniff you. I’ll sit here and wag my tail until you say it’s okay.” I happily give permission.
  • Friendly, but not well-trained: “Lick your face, lick your face! Please lick mine! If I knock you over, we can roll on the grass together! Oh, boy!” I don’t like having my face licked, and I’m not interested in rolling around on the ground with somebody else’s dog. I try to be friendly while fending off the most egregious behavior.
  • Philosophically troubled: These don’t say anything at all. They come up to you and sit down, wearing a morose and worried expression. They look into your eyes pleadingly, desperately hoping for some explanation, some bit of wisdom, some small insight that will help them make sense of the human condition to which they find themselves inextricably linked. They need to know their place in the world. Are they inadequate people? If they had hands, would they also have deeper thoughts? Were people once dogs? Do dogs become people when they die?

That last group that puts me very ill at ease. I feel an obligation to answer their unspoken questions, to help them feel less worried and more at peace with the fabric of life in which we are all enmeshed. I always feel totally inadequate.

What do I know of such things? I am reasonably intelligent and erudite, so I know that I have no answers that don’t contain yet other questions. Dogs know faith, of course, but could I help them define a religion for themselves? Should I, if I could? Would religion comfort them, or rather torment them with the idea that there is something more powerful than humans, something that humans themselves stand in awe of?

What about philosophy? Should I duck the question of religion and explain existence in secular terms? How much could a dog understand of such an abstraction? Would my most eloquent and sincere efforts be enough? Could I do it calmly, with humor, the way the Dalai Lama bears the burden of sharing his enlightenment with those of us who have less? or would I lose patience and chase my supplicant away?

Maybe I should try to suppress the dog’s painful striving, preach that the limits of life are just that, the limits; that there is no use in attempting to push beyond them; that as long as there is security, companionship, and a degree of comfort there is nothing else to seek.

If we humans came to know some greater beings, with subtler minds and more profound thoughts, how would we greet them? Would we try to drive them away? Would we be curious, but cautious? Would we wait politely but confidently, hoping to be invited into a conversation? Would we fawn on them, and beg them for their table scraps? Or would we plead for guidance, some sort of greater knowledge that would answer our questions about the universe and our place in it?

What would they, what could they, tell us? Would they teach us? Would they share their greater knowledge with us, helping us to rise to a higher level of understanding? Or would they tell us that the limits of life are just that, the limits; that there is no use in attempting to push beyond them; that as long as there is security, companionship, and a degree of comfort there is nothing else to seek.

Would they lie to us?