I’m in a doctor’s office waiting room. Across from me is an older man reading The Gift of Peace. Not being able to see the entire front cover of the book, I mistakenly think it is one of the Dalai Lama’s books. He had written The Book of Joy and The Art of Happiness, he certainly could have written a book entitled The Gift of Peace. I later learn The Gift of Peace was authored by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the one-time religious leader of the Chicago Archdiocese.
I find myself strangely disappointed.
My own personal prejudices and my own personal spirituality had tainted my observation. My first thought was that the man reading the book—gray haired, appearing sullen and tired—was finding something uniquely enlightening in the words of the Dalai Lama. I thought, here’s a man who doesn’t look like the “Buddhist type”—whatever that is supposed to mean—reading the teachings of a world-renowned spiritual leader admired by so many.
Then, I realize it is Bernardin’s book.
I catch myself.
What is wrong with you? What should it matter to you where this reader gets his peace, his solace, his inspiration for living? It matters only because of my own hang-ups. I have had many issues with the Catholic church from the time I was attending religious education classes as sn elementary school child. Too many to go into here. But those are my hang-ups, not his.
I’m angry at myself. And disappointed again. This time in me.
So, what does this have to do with the dangers of walking your dog?
The age of the people in this waiting room skews largely to those in their 60s and 70s. And much of the available waiting room literature is geared to that group. Inside one health magazine are articles about older Americans and sleep, advice on how to avoid a heart attack, and on the final pages is an article with this headline: The Risk Report: The Little Known Danger of Owning a Dog.
This blog and my forthcoming book focuses not on the dangers of owning a dog, but rather the beauties of the relationship between man and beast. The article takes a different focus, citing new research from the Journal of the American Medical Association that warns of the dangers of fractured bones in older adults who own dogs, injuries linked to dog walking. Statistics from 2004 show nearly 1,700 adults ages 65 and older went to the emergency room for broken bones related to walking their dogs. In 2017, that number jumped to 4,500. Why? Dogs are tugging on leashes and pulling over their owners, sending them to the pavement. Broken bones are the result. But. And this is a big but. One orthopedic surgeon quoted in the study says the cause of this uptick is likely a positive thing. We are all living longer, and intuitively we all know the benefits of animal companionship. With this link, pet ownership in older adults, a growing population, has increased exponentially in the effort to live a healthier lifestyle. The doctor says the dog owners of a certain age are getting out to walk and likely adding other healthy habits to their lives—eating better, and in many cases, taking care of their mental health, too, like finding something bigger than them to believe in. In other words, believing in a greater power—whatever that might be. A God or a god. Nature. Or maybe simply everyday acts of kindness. This aspect of mental health is not about religion, necessarily, but instead about understanding. It reminds me of what novelist Percival Everett wrote in his book Wounded: “It’s okay to love something bigger than yourself without fearing it. Anything worth loving is bigger than we are anyway.”
Bigger than we are, indeed.
The old man with the book in the doctor’s office—he is only loving something bigger than him, finding peace in the words of a religious man, trying—if I might speculate—to live a better life, maybe a healthier one, one of spiritual commitment or renewal. And like all those old dog walkers out in the neighborhoods and parks who are finding themselves being yanked along by their enormous Great Danes and their energetic Labradors—dog walkers risking their hips and ankles—that man with the book is also venturing out and taking a chance on what might make him a better person, a healthier one, and offer him a fuller life. Life might tug him to the ground one day and it might break his spirit, but like the dog is to the walker, this man’s spirituality just might keep him going, make him happier, and offer him a good life in his later years.
All of us take chances when we try to find something bigger than ourselves, something deeper, whether that be through God, or a god, or the Dalai Lama, or a walk in the woods with our best friend.
Walks with Sam: A Man, a Dog, and a Season of Awakening John Hunt Publishing, Fall, 2020.