We got a puppy about a year ago, and she is worth talking about for a couple of reasons during this season of reflection and resolution. First, she is a constant reminder that I cannot, in fact, will things to be true that just aren’t. For instance, I thought adding a puppy would not destroy our lives, give me old lady shingles, and trigger a depressive and exhausting year. I was wrong. Maybe she is not to blame for my year of hellishness, but she certainly did not help things. It is as if our family bus was teetering on the edge of a cliff, and I thought that our new dog would help stabilize said bus. Instead, she ran full throttle and pooped in the front half of the bus so many times that it plummeted to the depths below (I may or may not have some PTSD-like flashbacks of dog poop on my carpet.). My misjudgment stems from the truth that we are dog people, and after grieving the death of our beloved first dog-child, I thought we were ready. I was wrong. (Also helpful is the fact that my husband was adamantly opposed from the beginning. That is a precious little gift that keeps on giving…). The point is that choosing to care for others is difficult and does not always go as planned. In 2018, do it anyway, and perhaps expect the messiness that loving others might require.
The second reason to talk about our dog is that people care a whole lot about gender coding. One of our favorite mini-series (now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write AND one that exists with absolutely no context, given that I can’t name another mini-series) is Lonesome Dove. It is Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in their prime, best friends, poignant, and funny as hell. Their names are Augustus McCray and Woodrow F. Call. Naturally, we wanted to name our next dog Augustus, but my sister beat us to it. And so we have a dog named Woodrow. A she-dog named Woodrow. This name leads me often to refer to her mistakenly with a masculine 3rd person pronoun, and apparently that is a big deal (“This is Woodrow, he enjoys chewing on my couch and is a girl.”). At first I thought the disapproval was a strange manifestation of trans-phobia, but having defended myself for 16 months, I think the angst at my mistaken gendered references comes from a loyalty to dogs. The outrage seems to surface at the intersection of dog fans and gender binary adherents. Their incredulity is credible, their passion sincere, and their assumption of righteousness solid: “Why did you give her a boy name? You have to stop calling her a he!!” My response is consistent: “She’s a dog.”
Apparently our bias about the “right way” knows no bounds, and this should be considered as we reflect on the year behind and resolve for the year ahead. Bias is a product of intersections among and between familial, socioeconomic, racial, gendered, ethnic, religious, geographical, cultural, linguistic and educational normativity. Each of us was raised in a specific set of circumstances, and grew to engage in a specific set of circumstances, both of which help shape our assumptions about the world. Sometimes these norms are codified in a clear way in a family or community setting. Often though, they simply shape our thoughts, expectations and opinions of ourselves and others. The perspective from which I view the world is distinctly shaped by these biases and norms. We all have them and we all do it. I am not arguing against bias, but pleading for us to examine and name our biases in this new year.
Any glance to the right or left confirms that we are surrounded by people distinct from ourselves. This is obvious to all. And yet, we somehow take our own cultural norms, often utterly unexamined, and project them all over every person we encounter. The clear presence of diversity among humanity should temper adherence to our own cultural norms. Perhaps even that is too much to ask, though. Could we at least agree that we each have biases, that these instinctively shape the way we rank and value the actions of others, and that perhaps it is fundamentally unfair (and a vast overreach) for me to project my cultural norms onto you?
Many of us are fabulous at navel gazing in the first month of the year, but we are shockingly ill-equipped to bring a metacognitive gaze to our sense of self possession. That is to say, we cannot hope to truly see or understand the perspective of another if we have not first stopped to think about the way we think. When we discover the origins of what we call “normal”, we become curious about what someone else might call normal. Our postures change from those of accusation and judgment to observation and curiosity. We begin to look for the origins of the norms that produce certain viewpoints or sets of actions, a crucial skill if we hope to appreciate others.
This is not a call to abandon our norms as baseless and without merit. Adherence to cultural norms and traditions can be very important in helping one position oneself as a subject, in identity formation and in the acquisition of agency. I am simply arguing that a modicum of self reflection might reveal that my bias shapes the way I view you, just as your bias shapes the way you see me, and perhaps naming those areas of bias could lead to productive conversations in which we explore our differences in the new year.
In Lonesome Dove, Woodrow and Augustus are set in their ways. They are stubborn bastards who refuse to align their actions with the values of anyone else. And yet, they both understand and respect the places from which the other comes. Augustus is never going to work on purpose, and Woodrow is never going to squander the day away. Their friendship works because they understand the perspective of the other, and this understanding becomes the foundation for establishing value and mutual respect in friendship.
I took Woodrow on a hike last week, and as we were crossing the field to enter the trailhead, she squatted down to poop. Is there anything more humiliating? It is the worst. I stood there, increasingly self-conscience, intentionally trying not to watch and feeling shame if I made eye contact with anyone. Good Lord! What must they think about this atrocious act of...humanity? dogmanity? And then I thought of bias, and was reminded that everybody has one, and nobody wants to admit it. Every dog has to poop. Every person carries assumptions around with her that hinder or expand her ability to care about someone else. And yet, instead of finding camaraderie in the shared experience of exploring and naming our bias, we all stand awkwardly in the park, avoiding connections with others while we pretend like we can’t smell what is right in front of us. If you resolve to notice and explore your bias, you might find that you become a more curious and compassionate friend in 2018.