Walking with Nira, her harness jingling, I think sometimes about Abraham Lincoln and his love for dogs. LIncoln was a loner who, essentially, had to teach himself how to be among people–the kind of person who’s a self-trained extrovert but who really does best when alone. Dogs are good for people like Lincoln. In a very real sense, where introverts are concerned, all dogs are guide dogs. But what makes the bond between a solitary person and a dog? I think it comes from steadfastness, a brand of loyalty that isn’t circumstantial. What loners fear is the perfidy of mankind. A dog allays this sense that the world is deceitful. In Lincoln’s case he learned trust from a dog named “Honey”. In his book The Pawprints of History Stanley Coren writes of Lincoln’s near death experience in childhood:
The eleven-year-old Lincoln still had a child’s thirst for exploration, and he would often return to the caves to engage in “adventures and quests.” Honey would accompany him on these journeys. One afternoon Lincoln thought that he heard water flowing in one of the caves, and he remembered a story where a great treasure was hidden in a cave on the shore of an underground river. This excited the young boy, and he recklessly began to climb down toward where he thought the water was flowing. Suddenly he lost his footing and slipped on some damp rocks, rolling downward quite a long way. His torch went out, and he was badly bruised and completely disoriented in the total darkness of the cave. Meanwhile, many feet above him, Honey began to bark frantically. Lincoln desperately tried to orient himself toward the noise of the dog, but it was difficult, since sounds tended to bounce around in the cave. In addition, as he groped around in the dark, he could not find any path or obvious handholds that might provide a way up the steep incline.
Above him, Honey was becoming more excited. Her barking was turning into a broken howl, and she was now rushing out of the mouth of the cave and then returning to the edge of the abyss where she had seen her master fall. This cave was well off the beaten track, but a seldom-used wagon trail passed around a hundred yards from the opening. The person who could someday save the United States from dissolution and would free the blacks from their slavery, however, was lying in pain and confusion in a deep hole in the ground, and his only contact was a loving dog who was loudly sounding the alarm. In one of those fortunate chance occurrences, a farmer and his two sons were passing by. They heard the panicky barks of the dog, and the farmer sent both boys with their rifles to see if perhaps a dog had cornered a bear nearby. When they got to the cave, the boys tentatively entered it. One tried to calm the frantic dog, asking, “What have you got cornered in there, girl?”
A faint voice came up from the dark hole and said, “I ain’t cornered, I’m stuck!”
It took the better part of an hour, and the assistance of ropes and the farmer’s mule, to pull Abraham Lincoln out of his potentially lethal trap, thus allowing the history of America to proceed as we know it. When Sarah later learned what had happened to Abraham, she was upset and frightened. She made him promise not to explore the caves again, and then said, “You owe that dog an obligation. The Indians say that if someone saves your life you are responsible for them for the rest of their life. You saved her life once, and she has returned the favor to you. Now both of you are bound together in a sacred commitment.”
The sacred commitment that Lincoln’s stepmother described is interesting because it implies a lifelong daily engagement. Not all our moments call for extraordinary heroism. In fact one may argue such moments happen only rarely. But a sacramental commitment is rooted in faith and what one may well call gentle optimism. Its a way of life. We love stories about heroic dogs but often forget that the significance of such stories is reflected inside us. In the midst of trauma human beings discover over and over how a dog can sustain us. Where invisible disabilities are concerned dogs can help us stay in the world in emotional terms–witness the extraordinary role dogs are now playing by helping wounded veterans who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So I think about Lincoln who we now believe endured bi-polar depression. I think of how dogs helped him navigate the world. Dogs enter us and live in our psyches. Together we will believe in things; good things; the future.
And we will go places.