Saturday, February 6, 2010
Living with Virtue: A Tribute to Mr. Higgins
“For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”
-- William Blake
We named him Mr. Higgins, but we just called him Higgins. He was half English shepherd, half Border collie and half Belgian shepherd, which, if you add all that up you will see that he was a dog and a half. More than anyone else, he taught me to "be here now," although I do not think he originated that phrase.
Grand is the best single word to describe him. In his prime, he was 90 pounds, looking like a longhaired black and tan German shepherd. He had the confident and precise gait of a Tennessee walker as he patrolled the perimeter of our back yard anytime he suspected something unusual or amiss. He was something of a changeling. Higgins could become very small in the presence of a toddler at play as he delighted at getting down at the child's level. He could become extremely large whenever an unknown meter reader approached the house, with hair rising above his haunches, a booming voice, and a mouthful of teeth that looked as though they could engulf a Halloween pumpkin.
I heard Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, say that to be born a human being meant that one had been extremely virtuous in a former life. I like what that concept says about human existence: that humanity begins in virtue. I also like what it says about reverence for all of life. Mr. Higgins showed me by example the virtue of being. He was loyal, grateful, inquisitive, loving and defending. He enjoyed work, loved to play, and he was happy to be wherever he happened to be.
On one occasion, I saw Higgins do something I have never seen in a dog before or since. We had acquired a little terrier puppy for my daughter. Higgins, of course, was delighted with the company and took very seriously the task of showing the little tike all the ways of life as a dog. One thing Higgins particularly enjoyed, aside from his squeaky toys, was a good bone to chew. We always had two or three of those beef bones from the pet store scattered about the yard. On this one particular day, Higgins was lying in the yard gnawing his bone while the little terrier was in his face making it known that she would love to chew on a bone. Instead of snarling or snapping, Higgins stopped his chewing, raised his head and looked about. He got up from his spot, walked over to another part of the yard and retrieved one of his other bones. He then took the bone back to his spot, dropped it in front of the puppy, and lay back down as they both proceeded to enjoy a bone chewing session together.
We are influenced by whomever we live with, whether that one be human, canine, equine, feline, fish, fowl, or rodent. Mr. Higgins certainly affected my own existence for the better. Any life that we let into our circle of being expands our awareness and broadens our experience. Mr. Higgins helped me to live in the present moment. He taught me something about delight and devotion. He exemplified trust and companionship. He also taught me something about aging and dying.
By the time he was 12 years old, he was slowing down, but still exuberant. Cataracts dimmed his sight, and he also became hard of hearing. He had always been an inside/outside dog, but we began keeping him in more, letting him sleep in the kitchen every night, and always bringing him in during very hot or cold weather. During his last year, he struggled with arthritis and frequent incontinence. One day a friend, who was obviously not an animal person, asked me how long I was going to keep a dog that pooped in the house. My reply to her was that Higgins continued to be a valued companion. I told her that I intended to treat him with the same regard that I hoped someone would give to me when I am old and incontinent.
For 14 years, Mr. Higgins lived his dog nature with virtue. My life was made richer and more down-to-earth by his presence. If the Buddhists are right, I might meet him again in his human nature one day. If not, it was certainly enough that our life forms made contact and learned from one another for 14 years.