Old dogs can always learn new tricks – and should

Photo by Saffu on Unsplash

A short story about a cat, not a dog.

When we rescued Freddy, a beautiful grey cat who later turned out to be a Russian blue, he had been hanging around in the lobby of an apartment building for weeks. He would walk a few steps and then lie down. Apparently, to at least the tenants I spoke to, there was nothing abnormal about a cat behaving like that, or being so skinny that his ribs seemed glued together.

The moment I saw him, I grabbed him and took him to the vet, who marveled Freddy was still alive. Blood tests were a disaster. And on top of it, he also tested positive for feline leukemia. I was advised to put him down, as there would be likely be no chance for recovery.

I refused. And following a holistic approach over a few months, nursed Freddy back to health. Within a year, he tested negative for leukemia as well.

But this is not about Freddy’s recovery or life.

This is about understanding how much of who we are and what we do is learned and nurtured. A matter of habit and practice.

Because I heard so many times others saying that I was such an animal lover by nature, therefore willing to at least try and help, while other people are not animal lovers, and therefore don’t prioritize animals.

Seriously? You have to be a cat lady to have compassion for a creature in distress? You have to adore kids to notice a child suffering and intervene? You have to be Tarzan to be mindful and respectful of nature? Or a “natural domestic” to make sure that your family has something to eat and your home is not a trash dump?

We hear remarks about others all the time: this one is so patient, that one so accommodating, the other so selfish, hardworking, lazy, loving and so on. And yes, we all have our personalities and inclinations, our predispositions to certain ways of thinking and behaving, just as our genetics do influence certain vulnerabilities or strengths in terms of our health.

But patience, tolerance, generosity, willingness to love, compassion and such are all learned and practiced. And if we didn’t learn and get to practice while growing up, then in adulthood, especially given the privilege many have as far as access to information and resources to learn and grow, it’s difficult to excuse the persistence of ignorance, and what becomes a deliberate refusal to simply be a better person – for lack of another term.

And yes, social and cultural contexts play a huge role too. But it seems to me that too many people, and all too often, excuse unhealthy – or at least very limiting – thinking and behavior patterns with “that’s just how I am” or “that’s how I was raised”.

That’s not to say we don’t all make mistakes left and right. Or that every human should have the same lifestyle, love the same activities, foods, or stand on the same political side.

But, just as we educate our eyes and ears to at least appreciate, if not fully enjoy or choose various types of art and music, educating “the heart” works the same way. In less poetic terms, we educate and thereby increase our compassion, our generosity, our patience, our willingness to adjust and accommodate the needs of others, and even our capacity to give and receive love.

Going back to the rescued cat I started with, the point is not that every tenant in that building should have been like me, immediately jumping to rescue and adopt an animal. But everyone who noticed an animal in such a state of distress should have felt a level of compassion and done something to help.

In terms of human interactions and relationships of all kinds, of course we’re not going to get along with everyone, please everyone, or live in some paradise of continuous harmony. There’s always conflict and challenge, even in the most fortunate of contexts.

But if all people do is stick to who they think they are, to habits, preferences and behaviors as if set in stone, nobody evolves or learns or ultimately benefits. If we don’t cultivate within ourselves those good things that perhaps we’re not so used to having or expressing, we wither.

Old dogs can always learn new tricks. And should.

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